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London's toxic temptations,
This review is from: London Triptych (Paperback)
The stories of three gay men 100 years apart are interwoven in this highly original debut novel. In the 1890s East End lad Jack Rose is taken on as an apprentice rent-boy by Alfred Taylor, the gay 'madam' whose evidence will help send Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol. In the 1950s, with homosexuality still against the law, inhibited artist Colin develops a consuming passion for Gregory, the rent-boy who poses for him. In the 1990s David becomes infatuated with a fellow rent-boy who puts him on a road that leads, like Oscar's, to prison. Jonathan Kemp allows these three stories small overlaps.
Each of the three tells his tale in the first person. The author gives them distinctive voices for their different times and differing moral climates. Cockney Jack's is initially the most enthralling narrative, casting a fresh perspective on the tragedy of Oscar Wilde's fall from the pinnacle. At his first encounter with the great man and his protege "Lord Muck", Jack finds that Oscar is "nothing but a fruity old sodomite" and Bosie "as rough as a navvy's ball sack beneath that hoity-toity exterior". Jack becomes fond of his new patron who showers him with gifts and free suppers, for which Jack happily 'sings' - but he doesn't hesitate to betray him in court.
100 years separate Jack from David, but they are cut from the same cloth: lascivious, hedonistic, venal. Colin is the exact opposite: introverted, self-loathing, desperately alone and lonely. The thread that runs through these three stories is London - with its tawdry temptations, its toxic allure.
Jonathan Kemp's first contribution to the canon of gay literature is as vivid and full of promise as Alan Hollinghurst's THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY (1988) or Jake Arnott's THE LONG FIRM (1999). Hollinghurst's subsequent novels have become a triumph of style over substance, and Arnott hasn't quite lived up to expectation. Let's hope that Jonathan Kemp goes from strength to strength. English fiction has yet to produce a gay writer with the power - and the staying-power - of James Baldwin or Gore Vidal.
[Reviewer is the author of THE DROPOUT]