The conflagration between art and desire is at the heart of Hollingurst's latest sprawling novel. Beginning in Oxford during the Second World War and ending on the cusp of the new millennium, our appreciation of his work comes from the difference, the excessive discerning of distinctions between periods. There's no need to be either gay or fervently sexual to recognize that no one else quite captures the immediacy of discovering the wild thrills in Oxford College in the summer of 1940, where a writer's club is gathering. The group is composed of the painter Peter Coyle; Evert Dax, the son of notable author A.V. Dax; and Freddie Green, the oldest of the group by a year. The writers are young and sexually vociferous but also careful about participating in anything seen as having a hint of "deviancy."
It is Evert who first spies David Sparsholt, gleaming through the study window as he lifts and lowers a pair of hand-weights. Like some sort of glorious "Roman gladiator," David is gaining a reputation in the college as the "new man" who usually gets what he wants. As he sits at the rower's table giving off a sense of military indifference, Evert fantasizes about David's half-naked body. The "unwholesome collusion" of these two men with different tastes is wrapped up in the notion of male beauty. Peter wants to draw David in the nude, "this great hunk of a boy." ("It's his physique of course, that was more remarkable."), while Evert doles out a loan to Sparsholt that he thinks is "made for love." Reflecting his hunger and a taste of danger, David decides to reciprocate physically. A fighter pilot of idiotic and daring brilliance, David comes toward Evert with the whisky bottle in his hand and with barely "concealed satisfaction."
Hollinghurst assembles the pieces of David's past to form a rich and coherent design that ricochets into the life of his son, Johnny. On a yachting holiday in Cornwall, the path to sex and romance is full of twists and turns. Johnny is unsettled by the lurking mischief between David and local politician Clifford Haxby. Even in 1966, same-sex love can be risky. David's indiscretion sets the stage for a special privilege, a "momentary overflow of physical feeling" and a clear signal where his romantic interests lie.
The descriptions of the gay sex are coolly rendered, providing a fitting contrast to the more intellectual aspects of the book. Despite this complex layering, Hollinghurst shows the awareness, the sexual awakening that allows Johnny (and David) to become more fully conscious and alive. In London, Johnny works for art dealer Cyril Hendy. Here he meets (now middle-aged) Freddie and Evert. Their presence in Johnny's life only deepens the mystery behind David's "affair." Reflecting on the puzzle of his father's very public disgrace, Johnny continues to build a reputation as an accomplished portrait artist. He eventually stumbles across Peter Coyle's original chalk drawing of naked David with his bodybuilder's chest and ridged stomach, artfully cut off at the knee and the neck. The sketch becomes a powerful symbol of Johnny's freewheeling 1970s' London existence.
A dream-like canvas, the novel is filled with insights and knowledge of the explicit side of English gay life. Hollinghurst moves us through Johnny's various affairs, from sexy Ivan ("his soft pale face and brilliant, dark eyes,") and self-involved Michael to his friendship with lesbians Una and Francesca, the two becoming pivotal as they race Johnny towards his first gay club. Refusing to discuss or acknowledge the "Sparsholt affair," Johnny walks toward his own fate: "for him too, it was going on and on." Juxtaposing the differing generational choices of father and son, Hollinghurst's story unfolds in small dramatic acts, a sort of experimental play spoken in fragments and murmurs reflecting Johnny's wry view of the world.
In the final chapters, Johnny's life comes together with unanticipated synchronicity. Crammed into a claustrophobic underground nightclub, steaming, sweat-coated, and filled with muscled, tattooed men half his age, Johnny stands at the edge of the dance floor, lurking under the strain of his 60-year-old loneliness. Hollinghurst never veers into the trap of easy stereotypes but instead skewers them with biting humor and precision. Johnny's perception of himself and his role in the world, as well as his relationship to his father, is salvaged by his appreciation and pursuit of beauty, both in men and in all things that surround him.