THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE. By Jane Hamilton . Random House: 348 pp., $23

If you are William and the world won't accept you as William and you have to keep fighting so that it will, then what do you call yourself once it does? The question stirs uneasily within what is conveniently known as gay fiction; it is one that Jane Hamilton--married to an apple grower and mother of two--explores with sympathy and nerve.

Hamilton, author of "The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World," writes hard novels beautifully. In "The Short History of a Prince," she tries to see beyond what, in the first full literary generation, has tended understandably to show itself as a kind of gay exceptionalism.

Her valiant and precarious protagonist, Walter McCloud, graduates from his short history as a gay prince into a long future as a human commoner. His identity is in no way blurred. It simply undergoes the fate of all identities: to be one among those elements that make up our common lot and that bump, bruise and abrade each other to become parts of a whole, that is defined less by what it is than by where it goes. Gay is the route that some of us must take to arrive at being human.

"The Short History of a Prince" places Walter, waif-like, in the bosom of a large and ebullient Midwestern clan that gathers to spend summers and holidays in a rambling Victorian house on a Wisconsin lake. The in-gathering goes back several generations. Its ritual swimming, sailing, meals and the confection of a special lard cake are tribal rites conducted with varying degrees of insistence and skepticism by Walter's two aunts and his mother.

Champagne bottles from decades of celebration are labeled and preserved; so is a wall-sized Pegboard hung with framed family photographs. When it falls over and smashes--one of the three sisters is suspected of having taken a hand, or rather a foot--this may or may not be understood as a whiff of subversion.

Hamilton's novel goes back and forth between the early '70s, when Walter was in his teens, to the mid-'90s. It charts his difficult journey partly in terms of his changing relationship over the years to the summer house and the family that gathers there and partly in terms of the changes in his regular life.

As a teenager, he is a passionate, but no more than competent, ballet student, commuting to class from his Chicago suburb along with two more gifted friends. Mitch, beautiful but lazy, will eventually give up dance; Susan, brilliant and dedicated, will go on to join the New York City Ballet, leave it after the death of George Balanchine, marry and move to Miami to dance with the local company.

Walter, Mitch and Susan form a tight triangle--isosceles, like most such triangles. Mitch and Susan are a couple; Walter, their necessary audience, wit and didactic authority on all things musical and balletic. He half-suppresses, half-conceals his passion for Mitch, allowing himself, for a time, no more than the fantasy of putting on a tutu and dancing as his ballerina partner.

Ripe with artistic intensity and erotic implication, the trio is a tiny hothouse kingdom in the bland Chicago suburbs. Walter, as adolescents can do, converts the role of odd man out into that of little lame prince. The world presses in on such principalities, though, and inevitably there is a breach. Dan, Walter's older brother, is stricken with cancer, and their parents exhaust their time and attention in long hospital vigils. Much worse, Susan falls in love with the sick boy and helps their mother to nurse him.

Walter's triangular realm collapses. Susan has opened its gates to the enemy: the family ties and obligations it was meant to be free of. In the wreckage, Walter and the rejected Mitch begin to have clandestine sex. For Mitch, basically heterosexual, it is simply a brute release; for Walter, it is romantic ecstasy.

Until the night, that is, when his parents come home unexpectedly. While Mitch hides under the bed, Walter's mother sits on top of it to tell him that Dan is about to die. It is the book's pivot: life and death upon the bed; beneath, the remains of a fantasy that cannot withstand them.

"Short History" does not work the pivot all at once. Hamilton is adept at climactic moments, but her true quality lies in weaving them into the long procession of time and human contradictions. Shuttling between past and present, she depicts by increments Walter's growth out of fantasy into reality. There is pain in both.

The fantasy lies not in her protagonist's sexual orientation and desires but in his walling them off from other parts of his nature that are at least as profound, perhaps more so. He is an American of the Midwest; as the years go by, its values tug more and more strongly, and so do his ties with his extensive and turbulently human family.

From stormy adolescent rejection, the book has him take a calmer distance with a move to New York. He lives an untrammeled gay life there until his friends begin to die. But there is something else: After casting about professionally, he finds odd satisfaction working for an artisan who makes elaborately detailed dollhouses for the very rich.

Dollhouses--while a thousand miles to the northwest is the full-sized lakeside exemplar that he has fled and cannot manage to lose. Hamilton wields her symbols with audacity; mostly she wields them with great skill. They are her sheep dogs, sinuously herding along a story whose strength and weakness both lie in the same thing: a radiant didacticism.

Walter escapes from his escape: He returns to the Midwest to take up a job teaching English in a dreary Wisconsin town. He deals with cloddish students, a white-bread community to whom the notion of a gay lifestyle is unimaginable and with no cultural life at all. He accepts loneliness and isolation; all because, however difficult, it is better to teach children than to make dollhouses.

Hamilton portrays his new life with vivid skill. It is a delicately detailed frost-bound picture with one or two signs of a spring--a responsive student, a promising school musical, his discovery of his talent for teaching--that will never be particularly lush. The lakeside family reunions, with their muted turbulence, are drawn well, though they are too long and sometimes fall flat. They are handsomely adorned vehicles without much gasoline.

As the years go by, not only does Walter change, so does his perception of his family. He begins to recognize the individuality in what had seemed an oppressive solidity. The two aunts emerge with splendid particularity, and his mother and a seemingly conventional younger sister turn out to be the most unexpected and engaging characters in the book.

Hamilton's admirable affection for Walter leads her, near the end, to shower him with rewards that it is beyond even an author's power to bestow. Occasionally there seem to be too many sheep dogs nuzzling him toward maturity. Still, it is an admirable maturity, one that accepts the harsh friction and bitter frustration of bringing together the sexual side of himself with the familial and communal. At the end, he retains the hope of finding a lover--out of town for any foreseeable future--and makes plans to stay on over the years.

"It might take a few years but eventually with the staging of the right musical comedy, with the success of a student or two, the people of Otten would begin to see him. In the meantime, they might feel the vibration, the sound of his own quiet voice echoing out into the town, the words he'd been saying since the beginning: I am among you."

Touching words, and they will not convince some. Still, a book's function is not only to convince. Sometimes it is to encourage.

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