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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Address Book by Neil Bartlett review – reflections on gay London life | Fiction

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Neil Bartlett is a gay writer’s gay writer. Also a theatre director and playwright, he is much admired for novels that conjure a sexy, illusory London, including the Costa-shortlisted Skin Lane. In his 1990 debut Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, a heady romance centred around an east London bar in the 1980s, the fear of bloody bashings is as palpable as the frissons of lust. In one passage, sybaritic men from prior centuries join in the party like fabulous ghosts. This transhistorical stagecraft is a queer strategy for grappling with a secret and censored past: to Bartlett, there can be no gay ancestry without fabulation.

In the tender and curious Address Book, domestic spaces inform life experiences, which become subject to the whims of memory. Seven discrete chapters, each titled with an address in or near London, are delivered, monologue-like, by seven different narrators. The book opens during the Covid pandemic. Andrew, a doctor, is packing to move when he comes across a phone number that prompts a recollection of being a desirous teenager, and the suntanned man who gave him a blowjob that made him burst into song. The orgasm isn’t the only epiphany. In his memory, the man smiles unguardedly at the boy, who’d previously only known cruising to be accompanied by scowls. Having exchanged names, the boy realises: “None of the other men I’ve met has ever made me admit that the boy doing the staring and the boy with my name are the same person.”

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The mature Andrew reckons: “We all have places that we need to revisit … to remind ourselves how the hell we got from there to here.” Through Bartlett, the habitats of others reveal how we’ve arrived not only as individuals, but socially. Historical contrast and continuum become most explicit over two chapters set in the same top floor flat on the Clerkenwell Road. In the earlier scenario, set in 1891, a teacher divulges his feverish plan to photograph a local Italian lad in the pose of a military saint. Bartlett’s prose – flamboyant, as if moustached, and dotted with asides (“Well; the imagination has its own dark chemistry, does it not?”) – is well suited to the Victorian period. He depicts the undulating streets of “il Quartiere” as bustling with immigrant piano makers, ice-cream makers and mosaic cutters. Young labourers strut like peacocks, their secrets hidden in plain sight. The teacher qualifies his tale: “I speak not for living ears; I speak to those who will come after me.”

In 1987, the flat’s tenant is an acid-tongued Heaven habitué. He probably knows nothing of his predecessor, but has inherited social stigma and shame, now not just about sin, but Aids. As he struggles to sleep, passing ambulances cast colour across his ceiling; he flippantly imagines a light show over a dancefloor. He has recently purchased an expensive double mattress to spite a priggish Tottenham Court Road saleswoman, a kind of Margaret Thatcher of the mattress department. Contending with her disapproval – and possibly his own delusion – he’s one of many gay men dehumanised by panic and persecution at the hands of both authorities and vigilantes. In the shop, homophobia is a pernicious banality amid oppressively heteronormative bedroom displays.

In the closing chapter, a man who has lost his husband comes undone in their sea-facing Worthing maisonette. He now resides with a misbehaving, mocking silence. The widower confides: “When your husband dies, there’s no safety anywhere. Not on the street; not in the sun, not anywhere.” These stories debunk the axiom “safe as houses”, revealing the domestic sphere to be as precarious as anywhere else. But Bartlett keeps wonder alive in his characters and spaces, so that while the dwellings can’t guarantee total refuge, they continually provide revelation.

Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out is published by Granta. Address Book by Neil Bartlett is published by Inkandescent (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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