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Efficient grace to the end

DIARY OF A LOST BOY

By Harry Kondoleon

Knopf, $20

Reviewed by Adam Begley

"Funny how gaunt you can get." As delivered deadpan by Hector Diaz, the dying, HIV-positive narrator of Harry Kondoleon's novel, Diary of a Lost Boy, the line teases a wry smile. AIDS humor is about getting a laugh out of the relentlessly grim, and it works two ways: Undermine light fun with a touch of death and decay, or toss out a wrenching truth with a vaudeville wink: "Funny how gaunt you can get."

Hector is prepared to meet his maker. He knows what he'll say _ the standard complaint about "an unjust and monster-filled world" _ and he knows that God will deliver a mocking reply: "It's supposed to be that way." Hector's answer to that is: "Oh, God, why could you not have had a more sophisticated sense of humor and made everything happy?" A New Yorker up and down every inch of his gaunt frame, Hector is alive to the many levels of irony that separate God's vulgar and mirthless laughter at the misery he oversees from the kind of snickering with which the Devil would greet a world where everything is happy.

So long as he is alive, his love of irony intact, Hector needs distraction. Enter Susan and Bill Ded, rich New Yorkers only slightly less sophisticated _ because slightly less clever _ than Hector himself. The Deds' marriage is disintegrating at about the same pace as Hector's health, and because Hector brought Bill and Susan together (and also helped them find their apartment _ in Manhattan, the ultimate mark of friendship), he feels a proprietary interest. He's also aware that a man dying of AIDS offers at best limited possibilities for plot development, whereas a couple on the rocks is melodrama itself, the premise of every soap opera.

Bill and Susan provide the light fun. Bill takes Hector along to the Philandering Husbands Support Group. Hector sits there, listening as dopey hetero sex-fiends trade war stories and try to ignore the intrusion of this doomed person, this baleful reminder of the rewards of promiscuity.

Bill and Susan are the living _ flashy Manhattan society with all its endearing absurdity. Hector wants the fun to last, he wants life to be the same as it always was. He also wants it to crash and burn. He wants to shore up his friends' marriage, and he wants it to founder. He accompanies Susan on a blind date with a handsome, suave Puerto Rican, then watches the subsequent sex. He finds the "body-slapping sound .

.

. unpleasantly evocative of the past."

Hector, understandably, craves detachment.

Insofar as he is successful in pursuit of this goal, the novel suffers. Susan, who starts out as a sharp and funny character, drifts out of focus, and Bill, as Hector admits from the beginning, isn't particularly interesting. When Hector stops caring one way or another about their marriage, so does the reader.

The principals of the plot fade from view; the laughs start to peter out (Hector never grows so detached that his wit abandons him, but the jabs, after awhile, are more painful than funny); the inevitable end looms large and clear _ what's to keep us reading? Pity might pull us along if Hector weren't so adamant about refusing it: "Isn't it obvious that I'm completely ill-equipped to accept any pity? An incorrect dose of pity would kill me on the spot."

Of the three reasons to keep on reading, two are literary. Kondoleon writes with efficient grace, a telegraphic style that mimics the elliptical chatter of educated sophisticates. "Is zest the grated skin of a citrus fruit? I think so. Has made itself present of late, this zest." He drops words, refuses to pause for a punchline: "I am afraid these scrappy bits are going by in the wind very fast." The pace never slows, and yet the style evolves. Traces of the poetic creep in. Hector, who found it funny to be gaunt, describes his body at the end: "A branch from a burnt tree."

Kondoleon manages, improbably, to turn this too-clever narrator into a tragic figure. Hector can announce, on the edge of pathos, "When my feelings are hurt even a little, I always have the sensation of falling down stairs." Irony is the great antidote to pathos, and Hector hurries on to describe a black slapstick scene of himself, his legs toothpicks, falling down a few steps at a chic Hamptons' party. Hector faces death, flinches rarely, and only for comic effect.

The third reason to keep on reading is extra-literary and very possibly has no place in a book review. But I can't banish it from my head and so here it is: Kondoleon himself is ill with AIDS. I'm certain you could read Diary of a Lost Boy in ignorance of this fact and still appreciate the novel's virtues. I knew _ and as I read, I found myself, against all the rules of reading I learned in school, combining author and narrator. The effect was very powerful.

The biographical squib on the jacket of the novel doesn't mention Kondoleon's illness. It says that he is an Obie Award-winning playwright, and a poet; that he attended Hamilton College and Yale; that he "lives in New York City."

Adam Begley writes a monthly book column for Mirabella. He lives in Delavan, Wis.

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