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Babes in Boyland : KANSAS IN AUGUST by Patrick Gale (E. P. Dutton: $15.95; 140 pp.) : THE BOYS AND THEIR BABY by Larry Wolff (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.95; 258 pp.)

March 27, 1988|Donna Levin | Levin's most recent novel is "Extraordinary Means" (Arbor House)

Imagine that Freud revised his famous rhetorical question, and asked instead what men wanted. He might have been surprised to learn that the answer was "a baby."

At least two new works of fiction (as well as the film "Three Men and a Baby") suggest that this is so. Young men accidently become single fathers and find themselves able to commit to fatherhood in a way they could not to other relationships.

"Kansas in August," the latest novel by Britisher Patrick Gale, takes place in neither: In fact, it is London in winter. The title comes from the song, "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy" from "South Pacific," and my only complaint about this amusing, well-crafted, and stylish novel was that the song kept running through my mind while I was reading it. Hilary, the soon-to-be-father, is a failed dancer who loves American musicals; he is pursuing a hopeless romance with Rufus, a bisexual cad. Unbeknown to Hilary, Rufus has begun an affair with his sister, Henry (short for Henrietta), but the incestuous triangle remains secret to all because Henry has concealed her real name and identity from Rufus, lest he feel threatened by her position as a psychiatrist at a very loony loony bin.

One night, after being stood up by Rufus, Hilary finds an abandoned baby near a subway station. Hilary takes him to the authorities, but the social worker assumes that he is trying to unload his own illegitimate offspring. Forced to care for the baby (whom he calls Dan, after a pet guinea pig), Hilary finds he likes it, and ultimately decides to adopt him; but complications abound.

Gale does for London what Tama Janowitz does for New York and Cyra McFadden did for Marin County. We learn about "signing on" for the dole, life in tower blocks, and Pakki bashing. The characters never moved me deeply, but they were truly clever ducks, and great fun all 'round. Add to this that Gale turns 26 this year, and it becomes clear that we have a rather daunting talent on our hands.

Larry Wolff, who makes his debut as a novelist with "The Boys and Their Baby," also has a strong sense of place. The place here is San Francisco, where gay couples are common; but for Adam Berg, "homosexuality, like day care, has never been much more than an abstract concept. . . ." Newly arrived, Adam can't help but notice not only a lot of homosexuality, but that his new roommate, Huck, has an infant son named Christopher, and that Christopher's mother is mysteriously absent.

Adam, a teacher in a private high school, becomes involved with two women: a cabaret singer who ravishes him and a fellow teacher with a penchant for flamboyant shoes. He is also followed by a troubled gay student and threatened by Christopher's disturbed mother; but the person who has the greatest influence on him is the baby: "There are moments . . . when the baby is so transcendently beautiful that Adam can't keep looking at him."

Adam's mother is a famous professor of literature at Yale, and just in case we overlook the significance of the characters' names--Adam, Huck, Christopher--she points them out to us in letters to her son.

This is a coming-of-age novel: Adam and Huck are "boys" whose experience of fatherhood forces them to maturity. Unfortunately, we tend to wonder what took them so long.

It's only fair that men get a piece of the parenting action, since women are becoming astronauts and neurosurgeons. Besides, the men in these novels actually enjoy changing diapers, and that can only represent a giant leap forward for personkind.

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