There’s a lot happening in the structure of this novel that demands a little attention first. The novel has a dual narrator, two childhood friends who had a passing to more than passing attraction through adolescence, followed by a long absence in each others lives after college. Now both in their early 30s, Oscar finds himself growing a little weary of the gay dating scene in Washington DC while Sebastian leads a somewhat simpler life as a private school teacher in the Virginia suburbs. Sebastian sees Oscar at a wedding (in which we are treated to straight guests openly excited to be at their first real life gay wedding) but it’s less clear initially if Oscar sees Sebastian. In this opening scene, we get some flashbacks to round out our in media res. Later, we find Oscar waiting at a dead Dupont bar for a (not!) Grindr date. As he’s realizing he’s been stood up, he is messaged by someone nearby who is watching him wait at the bar. This ends up being Sean Stokes, a longtime, established novelist and memoirist, in his 60s, who’s known as a kind of l’enfant terribles cum elder statesman in gay literature (I could be wrong, but I felt there’s some Dale Peck, but also a lot of Edmund White here). They talk, they exchange numbers, and they become friends.
So the rest of the novel this new friendship for Oscar, looking back through the 70s, 80s, and 90s through his friendship with Sean, while also reading all his books, while also contemplating his life now and his friendship with Sebastian. For Sebastian, the novel is an exploration of his role as a teacher and mentor to a young group of LGTBQ kids at his school, while also trying to figure out his own relationship with, well, relationships.
Sometimes the book feels a little too constructed, meaning the architecture is often visible — chapters are named cryptically at first, but apparent later from the titles of Sean Stokes books, in a neat way. But those architecture lines are visible, so too is the careful and earnest characterization of the two main characters, and especially Sean Stokes. There’s also a lacuna character whose presence is defined well by his physical absence throughout the book. This is a debut novel, but one written by someone in their mid-to-late (sorry Zak Salih!) 30s, and that level of maturity is apparent in the text.