HOW MANY DIE

R. D. Skillings, Author . Univ. Press of New England/Hardscrabble $24.95 (318p) ISBN 978-1-58465-065-2

Set in the seaside artists' haven of Provincetown, Mass., this first novel by short story writer Skillings is a heartbreaking tapestry of loss, liberation and frightening death in the AIDS-ravaged early 1980s. When his effeminate behavior becomes too much for his mother, Julian Esmeralda, a plucky teenage artist, moves to P-Town to paint and attempt to make a name for himself. His titillating, controversial first art show raises eyebrows, and while living and working at a local guesthouse, the Madam's Maid, he meets a stream of passersby, mostly vibrant, forthcoming gay men, many dying of a mysterious and swiftly fatal virus called AIDS. As the lean story line moves briskly through cyclic New England seasons, the series of random, fleeting introductions affords few breakout moments, but among the more memorable encounters is one with Gustave of San Francisco, who recounts the rise and fall of his passionate, whirlwind relationship with Will, a Presbyterian minister. Julian is a formidable protagonist, and singlehandedly anchors Skillings's featherweight plot, bearing witness to the tragedy of the senseless deaths of the many "spectral pairs of slowly moving men." An unending series of hospital visits, funerals and ash scatterings finally take their toll on Julian's bizarre artwork and on his life (and on the novel's readers, too). Skillings's careful erudition can make for stilted reading at times, the writing less affecting than in his short stories. But his elegiac style suits this bleak and sobering commemoration of a period of gay history that many choose to forget, and many others can't help remembering. (May)

Reviewed on: 05/14/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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