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Book Review   |    
Plays Well With Others
Frances R. Frankenburg, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 1999; doi:
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by Allan Gurganus; New York City, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 337 pages, $25

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Allan Gurganus' first novel was Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, a best-seller based in the fictional small town of Falls, North Carolina. In Gurganus' present book, Plays Well With Others, the narrator, Hartley Mims, Jr., moves from Falls to New York City in the 1980s.

Hartley, an aspiring writer, becomes friendly with Robert Gustafson, who is a composer, and Angie Byrnes, an artist. The three are hardworking and excited about their talent, their potential, and New York. Then Robert becomes very sick with AIDS. Hartley spends much of his time caring for Robert and other ill friends. He himself stays well and eventually moves back to North Carolina.

Gurganus describes well the tension between creativity and caretaking. Which is more important—looking after a dying friend or writing a short story? Perhaps one of the lessons of this book is that for some people caregiving is a way of mastering intimacy and nurturing one's own talents. As illustrated by one of Hartley's heroes, Walt Whitman, there may be no need to choose between nursing or writing.

The relationship between the three young artists is the most important of the book, and Hartley's discovery of a sexual encounter between Angie and Robert is a major event. At first Hartley feels betrayed and humiliated but then, somehow, he accepts that the man and woman closest to him have a relationship that excludes him. Robert is beautiful (we are told this often), endlessly kind, and supremely talented. He is an alcoholic—but, disappointingly, this aspect of his character is not developed in any depth. As a result, he is more picturesque than believable.

On the other hand, Gurganus draws an exuberant portrait of New York. The crowds, noise, danger, and constant possibility of meeting celebrities and even becoming famous oneself are described vividly. They make New York seem a natural habitat for the young, lonely, scared, and ambitious artist.

Who should read Plays Well With Others? Anyone concerned about the impact of AIDS or other infectious diseases on a community would find this book compelling, as would those with an interest in the interactions between creativity and helping the ill. Readers who delighted in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All will find this novel quite different, though perhaps not as enjoyable.

Dr. Frankenburg is a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, and associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine.

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