David Leavitt's "The Lost Language of Cranes" is a first novel about the gay world which, ironically, is displayed as a very bleak one indeed. The accuracy with which it reflects the perceptions and attitudes, the aspirations and grievances of that influential community should make the book of interest and controversial, indicating as it does the growing viability of the gay alternative in our society.
The story centers on a seemingly ordinary New York City family of three, Owen Benjamin, schoolmaster; his wife, Rose, copy editor for a publisher, and their 25-year-old son, Philip, an editor. The problem presented by their apartment's going co-op soon merges into a more threatening one, the "coming-out" of Philip. He reveals himself as anxiously in love with a young man called Eliot. In no time, the homosexual web widens, showing us first Philip's haunted, hopeless pursuit of the arrogant Eliot, the elegant aloofness of Eliot's adoptive, homosexual parents and then, surprisingly, the secret homosexual longings of Owen, Philip's father, and the misery of his lonely fulfillment of them.
As these disclosures are made to Rose, she is understandably distressed and reluctant to accept the change in family dynamics, which is now asked of her by both son and husband.
By "coming out," Philip has released himself from one onerous set of constraints only to confront another, that centered on his need for approval and love. He does not want to live as a pariah.
Father and son alike seem to have set out upon such anguished, unpromising courses in their love lives that we wonder how there can be a satisfying conclusion to them. Moreover, their sexuality has drawn them toward men so powerfully that Rose feels betrayed as wife and mother, and it is even harder to anticipate how the family situation can be resolved. These two questions keep us reading.
The puzzling title emerges from a psychological case history that intrigues Eliot's lesbian roommate, Jerene. It concerns a retarded child's obsessive love for, and mimicry of, the cranes used in building construction. From this, she concludes that "each in his own way . . . finds what it is he must love and loves it . . . that is who we are."
I take that to mean that those whom we love are decided by fate, and thus we are absolved of responsibility for the choice.
At the conclusion of the book, Philip has begun a cautious relationship with a likelier partner, but the worsening family situation comes to crisis over a dinner party to which Owen invites a potential lover for Philip. Rose's dismay at these intrigues erupts in anger, but then, taking an unexpected liking to the quest, a forgiving embrace for Philip.
Nevertheless, she seems far from reconciled to the pattern of Philip's life. Moreover, there is a screen across the rest of it. We never see him at the office, have no idea if he is good at his editing, takes any gratification from it, or how he gets along with his boss and the switchboard operator. If he has made any effort toward upgrading his self-esteem in the work place or elsewhere, we are not told about it.
As for poor Owen, he has fled Rose, seeking shelter in Philip's small West Side apartment, awash in booze and self-pity.
Leavitt seems to be telling us that gay men do what they must do with a sense of manifest destiny but that they do so with little joy. Pacing icy streets in the morning's early hours searching for a sex partner, his principal male characters are habitually in tears. Other thoughts, of work or play, rarely enter their minds
"The Lost Language of Cranes" has a persuasive authenticity about it, and yet, it seems out of social context, indifferent to the polarization that is characteristic of these gay men's lives. That polarization is the lingering question of the book and one this first novelist may want to deal with next time.