Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style by Paul Rudnick

Wherever gay men in the late 20th century could safely convene in New York City, they had things to discuss: character actors losing Tonys, Newport mansions collecting dust, WASP scions tempting fate. The arc of these topics bends toward injustice, and they are plotted carefully in Farrell Covington and the Limits of Style, a comic novel that overflows with bons mots and bad turns.

Paul Rudnick’s is a byline you have seen (in The New Yorker’s humor pages, on Twitter, in the credits of funny movies), and he echoes the argot of long ago, when many a gay man flexed his command of longer ago. That was a survivor’s currency: amid the hateful threats, a sophisticate’s wit gained him entry to the exclusive properties of protective sponsors. Once inside, all you had to do was explain the provenance of this marble doodad and that unrecognized masterpiece, while watching your step. To some, it was a living.

Into this rarefied world waltzes Nate Reminger, having crossed the Hudson from Piscataway. If Love Story were gay and set in New Haven, we would have something like the early chapters of this book, when Nate finds Farrell and it’s a lucky break for each of them. Sample pickup line, from Farrell: “None of your facial features belong together, it’s as if they were ordered from separate catalogs.” Yet still—and this might be his crucial flaw—Nate is enthralled. He half explains: “In New Jersey, beauty is a matter of not leaving food on your chin.”

Each finds the other exotic, and they explore every possibility, under the noses of sneering house staff. Once, after sex, seeing how they look in a mirrored ceiling, Farrell declares, “We are making the world’s first gothic revival gay porn movie.” In stomps Farrell’s father, a Wichita industrialist, to scold his son and banish his “acquaintance.” Every hero needs an obstacle, and the melodramatic dad is the meanest of many. Still, the lovers’ connection lasts, and the reconnections persist, with difficulty.

If Love Story were gay and set in New Haven, we would have something like the early chapters of this book.

As only Rudnick could manage, the two men keep it light through the darkness. Slagging his own family, Farrell suggests that “not one of them has ever read a book that isn’t set during the Civil War, or seen a film that isn’t a western, a biblical epic, or the heart-tugging saga of a devoted hound.” This is what his devoted freeloader Nate calls “some sparkling carnival of adjectives and curlicued assessments, which would transform his sorrow and protect him.” Nate remains the neurotic scorekeeper, announcing he’s a playwright as if to mark his place in the theatrics. Dialogue he can do. And when he switches from stage to screen, he proves the maxim: in N.Y.C. you learn, but in L.A. you earn.

Anyone who remembers the 80s might also remember this same Poor Little Rich Boy predicament—Steven Carrington, on Dynasty. But Farrell is sharper and shinier than Fallon’s sad brother. When Farrell finds Nate in Hollywood, midway through the novel, heads turn, and Farrell proves he is more than just “the guy with the eyelashes.”

And if you are reading about gay men in that era, you can guess that golden boys will get purple lesions. The suspense is not whether someone will die, but how will the novel, which uses jokes and romance to ward off hatred and shame, treat AIDS? Rudnick acquaints the reader just enough with dance floors and dungeons where the disease snuck in, never staying too long at the party. He gently reminds us: unholy acts happened in sacred spaces.

A few years ago, Andrew Sean Greer earned the Pulitzer for his “bad romance” Less—also a comic quest spanning many decades and continents. Rudnick follows with “more”—more bite, more burn, more satire, more sass. Between these two wordy boy wonders, Nate and Farrell, very little is left unsaid. It’s Rudnick’s brave way forward, and he reminds any reader how we’ve only just begun to depict gays hugging and hurting, alternately. Rudnick has long been one of New York’s most puckish wits, but now he shows how wisdom can back it up.

Ned Martel is a writer and producer in Hollywood. He was a journalist for 25 years