Bailey’s elegiac ode to a past both literally and figuratively gay takes the form of an ailing novelist who lies in his hospital bed conjuring visions of family ghosts and those of the literary characters that most touched him. Start to finish, these are the musings of Harry Chapman, one-time actor, now a novelist, stuck in a London hospital ward amid pleasant nurses to whom he recites sonnets. But the medicated Harry is also in the throes of a busy delirium, which produces the attention of his acerbic mother, his long-gone father, his doting aunt, and any number of former lovers and friends.
Bailey, like Philip Roth, is at the stage of his writing life where nostalgia makes a fist and demands some kind of airing out. Harry Chapman, “never at a loss for connections between literature and life,” gladly seizes Bailey’s septuagenarian occasion. Enter Melville’s Bartleby, Dickens’ Pip, Virginia Woolf, Prince Myshkin, Malcolm Lowry, Xerxes, and Puss the cat, each with presence to spare, and each formally invited to enrich what Harry otherwise calls man’s “progress from nothingness into nothingness.”
At times they do. Bailey’s more delightful asides — Babar’s elephant Queen Céleste dancing with Fred Astaire — are joyously whimsical, befitting the long-gone literary eclecticism Harry rues. Hospital, for Harry, is a way back to the good life’s antique riches, emotional and sexual: “… there were phantoms, demons, sarcastic tormentors in his midst, but at this moment, for this moment, he was as contented as any old survivor could possibly hope to be.” Bailey’s purpose and Harry’s meaning are at one: to hold twilight at bay until the last waltz is done.