The Ellsworth American, Ellsworth, ME - Thursday, June 6, 2002

By Alice Wilkinson

"The Innocent" Grows Up

Two settings dominate Robert Taylor's new book, "All We Have Is Now": a repertory theater in Washington, D.C., and a courtroom in Texas. The curtain between these two very different settings is opened abruptly and tragically with the hate-crime murder of Ian McBride's lover, Jimmy Davidson.

As in Taylor's previous book, "The Innocent," set in Vietnam, the protagonist of "All We Have Is Now" is a gay man. But here the protagonist is a fully adult man, successful and self-confident. He is also lonely, having lost a lover to AIDS 12 years earlier, and very leery of any permanent attachments.

Shakespeare's "The Tempest" provides a motif that winds through the novel, beginning with the prologue, "Our Revels Now Are Ended," in which we learn of the death of McBride's earlier lover, Trevor, and something about McBride himself: "After he died, I was sure I'd never be able to love anyone that much again. Never have the strength. Or the courage. I know that sounds dramatic, but . . . why not? I'm a very dramatic man. Dramatic is what I do best."

The voice of the actor is speaking, but not the McBride we come to know and admire throughout the novel. What he does best, it turns out, is love. His love for Jimmy forces him to face himself, to risk physical injury, to overcome fear and to open himself to hurt. By the end of the novel, he is a changed and better man.

The novel's story really begins in the second chapter, "Ariel." Playing Prospero in "The Tempest," McBride first meets Jimmy at a rehearsal, where his Ariel is a "revelation." And Jimmy becomes Ariel for McBride, bringing light and love back into his life.

Reluctant to become involved with the young and beautiful Jimmy, McBride resists his own attraction, fearing the dangers of love: loss, rejection, powerlessness. But ultimately the two become lovers.

McBride's initial resistance resurfaces occasionally in his impatience with his young lover, whose carelessness and untidy habits offend the 50-year-old settled man whose home is furnished with antiques and Aubusson rugs. Still, the relationship flourishes, as does the play, which runs for weeks.

Whatever McBride's fears are, they are not about physical safety; he lives in an accepting environment as an actor in a large city. But he and Jimmy are too happy. Reading about them, in the back of my mind, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And drop it does.

The tone of the novel changes with Jimmy's death. From a romance it becomes a suspenseful courtroom drama, complete with all the things McBride has always avoided: family obligations, intrusive outsiders and, of course, death. He begins to retreat into himself; to become the person he was at the beginning of the novel.

It is no help, and no surprise, that Jimmy's parents, themselves a little younger than McBride, blame him for their son's death: They didn't like the relationship. Although they knew their son was gay, they manage to blame McBride for not allowing Jimmy to "grow out of it." McBride manages to speak at the funeral, despite being shunned by everyone in the Davidson clan except for Jimmy's grandmother, Livie.

When he returns for the trial, he experiences southern hospitality at its worst: His car is burnt, he is attacked. He hears the defense attorney say that Jimmy had invited his own death by flirting with his attackers when he was at the movies. Although there is no substance to the story, it is unsettling, and leaves room to wonder what did happen. It ended with a tire iron, but how did it begin?

It began as many murders do, with opportunity, hatred and poverty of imagination. In contrast to the murderers, and those who sympathize, seeing the murder as a prank that got out of hand, we also meet Livie, and get to know her story.

We get some of the answers in "Caliban," the last chapter in the novel, when McBride speaks to one of Jimmy's murderers. The symbolism is obvious, but, in the structure of the novel, it's apt.

This is a fine novel. Sometimes it's like looking through a window into another life; sometimes it's like looking into a mirror of our own. Buy it. Read it. Give it to your friends.