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The Toronto You Are Leaving

By Gordon Stewart Anderson

Untroubled Heart,

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352 pages, $24.95

There ought to be a headline: "Author's mom rescues 'extraordinary' novel from slush pile." Three years after his death in 1991, from AIDS-related illness, Gordon Stewart Anderson's mother found the manuscript of his first book languishing with a small press, and resubmitted it to a handful of larger publishers. Not surprisingly, none bit; there could be no authorized final draft. B. Marlene Anderson was not deterred. In a labour of love and literary discernment, she has edited and self-published her son's story of gay Toronto as the heady 1970s yield to the mortal '80s.

As gems go, The Toronto You are Leaving is a rough cut, but it remains an extraordinary work of cultural record and human perception, right through some 300 apercu-studded pages to the final, soul-rattling chapter.

Anderson takes charge of his setting and characters with gimlet-eyed authority. Tim is an art student, David a PhD candidate in English literature. The Toronto they inhabit centres initially on the University of Toronto campus, then expands (on foot, by bicycle, in streetcars and cabs) to include neighbourhoods, apartments, bars and restaurants that are palpably '70s.

You can smell the period atmosphere, the unregulated cigarette smoke and taxi exhaust. Tim sees David on the street and senses an affinity. At a second encounter, he gets him talking. Oblivious to how much it shows, David is stuck on the threshold of gay abandon.

Expertly, as if casually, Tim snares him for an impromptu lunch at a Bloor Street café -- from which David flees as the subtext finally becomes spoken. Their next meeting finds David brave enough to invite Tim back to his grad residence, only, mind, for the sake of art -- perhaps something symphonic on the turntable? "Bruckner can be heavy but he's very . . . [Tim scopes a passing student in the ellipsis, Arab, perhaps, or Iranian, with olive skin and enormous eyes]. . . grand. Romantic. Stirring."

In David's cramped, Klee-postered room, they don't even pull Bruckner from his sleeve. Coded arts banter leads to a ambivalent clinch, David spooks badly, and Tim gets a painful cuff across the ear. All of it, even the indignation, reads as a beginning.

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I began to feel embodied, literally, in these characters, with an intensity and grateful pleasure that I've not known reading other masters of the genre. Part of this is my intimacy with gay Toronto, but I think Anderson does, did, have a nascent touch of the master. The lack of a professional edit seems often not to matter. The overwriting works because it never risks sentiment or puffs up to worldliness. The narrator's omniscience is Buddha-like and total, shrewd but unjudging. If there's grandstanding, it's from the characters.

It's wonderful to watch pre-gay David lingering in the vestibule, never decisively joining the party -- and to watch Anderson stretching the suspense, sweetening it with David's (and our) hopes. Even while drinking to excess at his first cocktail bash, the innuendos whizzing past his pink ears, he's still at a distance.

At the end of an elliptical chat on the couch with a tart literary lad -- David mis-hears that Frank O'Hara died on Fire Island after being hit "by a June bug" (rather than a dune buggy) -- he's at last drunk enough to blurt to the argyle-sweatered torso before him, "You know, I'd love to take all those clothes right off."

The lad excuses himself. Then Duncan, Tim's new beau, comes over to confide that David's been turning heads: "the mystery guest." Duncan has the gift of full-throated laughter, a sort of songbook that colours with the social ironies. As he hovers benignly, Glinda-like, over David, he releases "one of his finest laughs: sweet, sovereign, cordial. It was wonderful, David thought. It deserved a Kochel number."

It's clear that David is falling in love, not with Duncan or Tim (not yet) or any one person, but with a world he knows is his, a world already infusing him. He's been intuiting "yes" for weeks, maybe for years, and now his author has made him say it to a prim argyle sweater. You can scent desire through the woolly discomposure.

The sex here is as intimately interior as it is incarnate. For all the passion and feral rut, the play of thrill and wallow, we also feel the blessed abstraction of it, the point (not always achieved) at which lust escapes the gravity of mind and body and enters orbits of the ecstatic.

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This story must tumble back to Earth. Jack, a photographer friend of Tim's entering mid-life, muses aloud as he snaps nude poses of Tim in his studio. "I used to [read]Marcuse and Norman O. Brown and Reich. I was very sixties, or tried to be, and I thought the body was the future . . . my body, yours. . . . Now I know better." He later says to the naked Tim, "You're so sure, so proud. You don't know you're dying."

This is 1974, and Jack is only grousing about the ordinary decline of flesh and expectations. But he becomes the novel's unrelenting, finally eloquent oracle. Winding up the photo shoot, he quotes Wittgenstein in German, "low and fierce," then summarizes in English, and David, watching from the sidelines, wonders that Tim would let "a man so complicated and sad and ponderous any nearer to his delicate skin."

To the reader viewing AIDS from future remove, the coming complications, the sadness, the countless delicate skins corrupted, gather to form an aching vision of loss prefigured.

Anderson has given us a story to approach those of the best urban gay chroniclers. He is firm on the page, gone but not lost, untweaked, hectoring, wise and funny and tragic. He's our serendipitous Edmund White, our Hollinghurst and Holleran, our Leavitt. After decades of proxy life in imported fictions, the tale of pride and plague in Toronto has found a home.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer. His own first novel, Drina Bridge, will be published in September.

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