cover image The Man of the House

The Man of the House

Stephen McCauley / Author Simon & Schuster $21.5 (0p) ISBN 978

Two-thirds of the way through McCauley's dolorous third novel, a novelist sighs and says of her earlier work, ``So light and optimistic... I can't write that way any more.'' It seems that McCauley-whose first book was the sprightly and disarming The Object of My Affection-has the same dilemma. His narrator, Clyde, a tepidly unhappy gay man who teaches literature, still smarts over the dissolution three years ago of his relationship with a selfish lawyer. Clyde's stagnation is paralleled by that of his ``diligently heterosexual'' roommate, Marcus, mired in a dissertation about the ``significance of the frown in human relationships.'' Marcus and Clyde alike are shaken up by the arrival of Louise-Clyde's longtime friend and Marcus's long-ago lover. Complicating matters further are Clyde's attempts to reconcile himself with his irascible, demanding father. As these plot lines intertwine dispiritedly, the book indulges in a misanthropic kind of comedy, where McCauley holds up to ridicule not the corrupt or the cruel, but the merely hapless. Donald, Clyde's downstairs neighbor, is one such character, reclusive and socially clumsy; his hair is said to lie atop his head ``like a leaf of lettuce flung atop a grapefruit.'' There are welcome moments in the novel when McCauley's grotesques make room for more carefully drawn characters, specifically Louise and her young son, Ben. Scenes between Clyde and Ben, understated and lovely, explore with admirable nuance the difficulty with which these lonely characters let down their guard. McCauley is also capable of striking turns of phrase. One savors the richer moments, evocative as they are of McCauley's poised and compassionate debut. Author tour. (Feb.)