NEAR THE END Of Sweetheart (HarperCollins, 207 pages, $19.95 cloth), the late Peter McGehee's last novel, there is a darkly comic moment in which a man in full drag costume lies dead in a theatre dressing-room. For the characters standing around his body, he represents just the latest in a long line of friends and colleagues who have died of AIDS. The director is stunned and, in typical McGehee fashion, blurts out, "I have built the entire finale around his entrance. You could wheel him out, Lance. We could just say he's resting. Set the donation bucket in his lap -." In this fictional world, nothing is so serious that you can't at least get a good chuckle out of it.
McGehee, whose too short career was built on comic, semi-autobiographical fiction, remains true to his roots with Sweetheart. His favourite protagonist, Zero MacNoo - a gay writer from Arkansas living in Toronto's Church and Wellesley area - is again central to the plot that, when it strays from its rambling, gossipy, and at times contrived dialogue, is told in a deadly sarcastic first person.
Zero's own seropositive diagnosis keeps the idea of AIDS always in focus in a story that, despite the prevalence of cremation urns, grave markers, and deathbeds, is less about how we die than how we can choose to live fully with, or in defiance of, what we are given; an ultimately positive and realistic view that is upheld as much by Zero's manic Arkansas family as it is by his artistic Toronto lover. One step ahead of sentimentality at all times, McGehee makes his exit with a very witty and touching flourish.