Jane Hamilton’s intricately structured and poignantly rendered novel, The Short History of a Prince, is many things: an AIDS novel that never mentions the word AIDS; a portrait of adolescent sexual awakening and gay closeting; an examination of how the death of a young man affects those closest to him; a consideration of the importance of place and of family history, and of how art can offer an escape from painful experience and help order life; even, finally, a meditation on Proustian involuntary memory, where a sensory detail may evoke an entire day. The story alternates between the early 1970’s—when its protagionist, Walter McCloud, is fifteen—and the mid- 1990’s. By interweaving actions that occur nearly two and a half decades apart, and by giving each of the novel’s twelve chapters the heading of one of the months of the year (beginning with August, 1972, and ending with July, 1996), the author indicates how the present interpenetrates, and is a process of reaching an accommodation with, the past. The passage of time, however, contributes to a refashioning of the past: Memory, in negotiating between fact and invention, becomes an exercise in pentimento, in revising and repainting.
Hamilton frames her novel with two family gatherings. Near the start, Walter and his family travel from northern Illinois to the maternal home in Wisconsin to celebrate his Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Ted’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary; near the end, family and friends gather at the same Lake Margaret property less than a year later for a service in memory of Walter’s brother, Daniel, who missed the earlier party because of the first symptoms of the Hodgkin’s disease that would quickly kill him. Over the next twenty or so years, Walter attends college—supported in part by money from a malpractice suit over Daniel’s first surgery and subsequent treatment; moves to New York, where he sells Lilliputian replicas to furnish elaborate dollhouses and where he witnesses political struggle and sees many friends sicken and die; and ultimately returns as a high-school English teacher to a small Midwestern town, where he can only win grudging acceptance by remaining as invisible as possible.
Although Daniel’s illness, during which Walter worried over whether his brother’s “spit had the sickness in it . . . the unidentified disease or plague,” seems a clear foreshadowing of early fears about the transmission of AIDS, Hamilton remains reserved, even circumspect, in her handling of matters sexual; only one of Walter’s mature relationships, one night with a poet whom he meets during a concert at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, is described in any detail. In sharp contrast to such important contemporary novelists as David Leavitt, Edmund White, and Alan Hollinghurst, whose candid and sometimes florid descriptions of gay sex occasionally threaten to overtake their narratives, Hamilton chooses neither to center on—since they are not the totality of life—nor to aestheticize—since they are not to be valorized over other expressions of sexuality—these experiences. Instead, she works much more in the subgenre of the modern American novel of manners, with its lighter side intact, in the tradition of a John Cheever or an Ann Tyler.
The presiding deity, so to speak, over the novel’s earlier time period is the McClouds’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Gamble; the presiding deity over the novel’s later time period is Joyce McCloud’s older sister, Sue Rawson. Mrs. Gamble is generally an overbearing busybody, A devotee of casting horoscopes and so variously looked upon as a seer or sorceress, she so insinuates herself into the lives of the McClouds that the teenage Walter finally takes vengeance by pelting the roof of her carport with paint-filled balloons. Yet an older Walter wonders whether her martinet-like ways were not intended after all to protect and safeguard the neighborhood children. Aunt Sue Rawson, who introduced Walter to the ballet at age nine and thus helped him discover meaning in music, is, at the same time, not above manipulating others for her own ends, as an ogre or evil queen might do. However, she guarantees that control of the lake house will pass to Walter, who is most like her and who will maintain family traditions, and she thus proves as much a providential angel. Thus the line separating the wicked witch from the fairy godmother is blurred, even obscured. In a morally ambiguous world, what Walter finds truly miraculous is that “riches” might be unearthed in something “that inside and out” appears to be “empty,” as well as in something that everyone knows to be full.
With terminal illness and a death in the family still regarded as a taboo subject, Mr. and Mrs. McCloud retreat into silence, trying to maintain normality for Walter by excluding him from worry. When he does, finally, need to confront what is happening, a mean-spirited quality surfaces. He experiences a complex mixture of anger that Daniel is deserting the family, resentment over what will be his added responsibility as the surviving son, and irritation that Daniel is taking friends and attention away from him. He achieves a kind of separate peace when he rouses his barely conscious brother to enjoy a vision of Susan, who visits the hospital room for one last time gaudily dressed for the senior prom: By sharing Susan with Daniel, Walter wins her as a friend for life. Although Walter senses that emanations from the...
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