Old School Ties

By Laura Argiri
Random House-478 pp. $23


ARGUABLY the best novel ever written about gay male love is by a woman, Mary Renault. Admirers of that book, The Charioteer, may experience moments of déjà vu while reading Laura Argiri’s ambitious first novel, The God in Flight. Set mostly at Yale in 1880-81, it recounts the relationship between a brilliant young art professor, Doriskos Klionaros, and an equally brilliant undergraduate, Simion Satterwhite. Like the English soldier and orderly who find a romance at a military hospital in Renault’s 1959 work, Argiri’s lowborn protagonists are culturally refined virgins who discuss Plato’s Phaedrus and Mozart while trying to imagine a life together beyond their temporary institutional tie.

Like Renault, Argiri gives her gay characters backgrounds that suggest now-discredited notions of how boys “become” homosexual. Simion’s dad is an abusive Appalachian preacher who publishes vicious tracts about carnal sin; Doriskos’s adoptive father is a remote British peer. Tall, gentle, stunning and eremitic, Doriskos spends his twenties dreaming of an imaginary blond Ganymede — who, to his astonishment, materializes at the freshman entrance exams in the form of the small, delicate and (his word) “daemonic” Simion.

Argiri capably wrings the requisite suspense out of these men’s tacit wooing. The story grows most original and interesting, however, after they’ve become housemates. This being 1880, one might imagine that the next development would be a police raid. But the initial threat to the lovers conies from within. After Simion beds his friend Andrew, Doriskos strikes Simian, who then starves himself into a near-fatal illness. That illness draws into their lives a physician, Moses Kerseth, and his consort, Helmut, who help heal Simion’s body and soul. In a series of intense confrontations, Simion and Doriskos raze psychological defenses and work through resentments. Argiri’s account of this process reflects keen insight into how much dark and dangerous psychic terrain two complex individuals must traverse to become truly one. “Growing up,” Argiri notes, “is the slow process of learning to tell oneself the truth”; the lesson of Simion’s and Doriskos’s harrowing ordeal is that love involves learning to tell one’s beloved the truth.

Not all of The God in Flight is this powerful, credible and mature. The character of Doriskos’s ubiquitous manservant, Kiril, remains startlingly undeveloped. It’s inexplicable, furthermore, why Simion couples with Andrew so soon after plighting his troth to Doriskos. Nor is Andrew consistent: One minute he’s crazy about Simion, the next he contentedly accepts Simion’s love for Doriskos. This about-face can be explained only by the fact that Andrew is a Good Guy in a book whose cast divides too neatly into good and bad. Among the Bad Guys are Simion’s classmate Peter — who, smitten with Doriskos, plots against Simion a la Wile E. Coyote – and Simion’s father, whose unaccountable malevolence makes Uriah Heep look nuanced. (Both rogues have counterparts in The Charioteer, though Renault’s jealous plotter and detestable cleric are far more real than Argiri’s.)

Invariably, Argiri identifies her Good Guys with paganism, her Bad Guys with Christianity. Meeting Doriskos, Simion pegs him as “a real Greek” whose forebears “looked upon the world while it was young and clean, before the bribe of heaven, the fear of Hell”; Doriskos sees Simion as “something from the times both before and to come after this dreary, cowardly, prating phase of Christian decadence.” Argiri consistently links paganism with love, courage, honesty, beauty, mental balance and passion; Christianity, meanwhile, she equates with hatred, fear, hypocrisy, ugliness, dementia and negativity about sex. In a letter to reviewers, Argiri’s editor cites her explanation that The God in Flight grew out of her astonishment at the contrast between the beauty of a “palatial estate” she visited in Virginia and the “repulsive,” “ugly” fundamentalists and Pentecostalists in a nearby village. The hideous snobbery here belies her putative devotion to beauty and love, which this novel purports to celebrate.

Indeed, for all its sensitivity, The God in Flight — which Argiri, now 32, began writing at 14 — reads occasionally like the work of a smug teenage intellectual who’s decided that religion is dumb and pleasure (physical or aesthetic) the ultimate value. When Simion delivers an ardent speech to Doriskos about how art is worthwhile even if it isn’t “useful,” we’re not supposed to smile at his callow unawareness that he’s spouting clichés but £o admire his sagacity; when Doriskos proclaims that “beauty is the outward reflection of an inward grace” and that Simion is thus “a holy soul,” we’re hearing the sum total of this novel’s thinking on spirituality. As for ethical objections to teacher-student or adult-minor sex, Argiri would appear to consider them utter hooey.

The Charioteer is classical in its esteem for homosexuals who lead civilized, responsible lives in a hostile world. Argiri’s novel exhibits afición for the classical; in its second half, scandal erupts over Doriskos’s nude neoclassical sculpture of himself and Simion, “The God in Flight.” But Argiri’s notion of gays — and artists — is essentially not classical but romantic. Renault’s classicism inhered in her reverence for timeless moral and aesthetic values and her keen sense of individuals’ obligations to society, the polis; Argiri’s romanticism inheres in her emphasis on the self and its immediate gratifications and in particular on the supposed prerogatives of individuals whom she perceives as belonging to an elite of beauty, brains and artistry.

Certainly she lacks a classically rigorous sense of period. If Renault strove in her historical fiction to render ancient Greek outlooks faithfully, Argiri’s characters often sound like contemporary Americans. Simion spouts MTV-era colloquialisms and decries “Christian fundamentalism,” a concept which didn’t exist before World War I. Most astonishing of all, every last one of Argiri’s Good Guys (including Peter’s mother, to whom he has a textbook Freudian attachment) has a 1990s understanding of sexual orientation. “Know your own nature, accept it, and let no one and nothing alienate you from it,” Simion’s boyhood tutor advises. In 1880? No way.

In the end, The God in Flight (which, like The Charioteer, closes with an equine image) is a strange hybrid — part exhilaratingly serious novel about art and love, part anachronism-ridden potboiler with cartoon villains and B-movie plot twists. One hopes that Argiri will overcome the prejudices and excesses that mar this otherwise impressive debut.