John Rechy, . . Grove, $24 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1746-5

This ambitious and very funny novel tells the coming-of-age story of Lyle Clemens, "the child who would grow up to become the Mystery Cowboy who appeared naked along Hollywood Boulevard." It's a tall tale, a simultaneously sweet and vicious satire of contemporary America, with the handsome, empathic and guileless Lyle—an innocent in a cruel world—serving as vehicle for Rechy's reflections on religion, sexuality, fame and greed. Self-consciously modeled on Henry Fielding's 18th-century classic The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, the book begins with Lyle's birth in Rio Escondido, Tex., to the unwed Sylvia Love, whose dream of becoming Miss America was shattered by her Bible-thumping mother Eulah. The book feels at times like one of Robert Altman's classic films, perhaps Nashville, with its expansive canvas and its mixture of humor and sadness. Moving with fluid grace from Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas and Hollywood, the story features a large cast of characters, most of whom use Lyle to further their own ambitions, notably Brother Bud and Sister Sis, a pair of greedy televangelists, and a has-been actress named Tarah Worth. Rechy has great command of this sprawling narrative, and he generally strikes the right balance between satire and real emotion. His humor can be less than subtle—an unsavory pair of mismatched pornographers and a crooked banker are named after several standing Supreme Court justices—and his explicit, campy sex scenes won't please everyone. Still, this distinctly American novel is ultimately about the search for love and redemption, about the ideal of "amazing grace" from the old song that serves as a touchstone for Lyle. It's a comic tour de force and, at the same time, a truly heartfelt book. (Oct.)

Forecast:Rechy, author of the 1963 gay classic City of Night, is an American original—a kind of cross between Mark Twain and Terry Southern. This new book should introduce him to a broader range of readers and strengthen his claim to stardom.