THE MAN WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH THE MOON, by Tom Spanbauer (Atlantic Monthly Press: $21.95; 355 pp.) Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a story about a 20th-Century Argentine writer who rewrites "Don Quixote." The modern version is the same as Cervantes', word for word--but it's also totally different because the context has changed.
If Tom Spanbauer had written "The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon" 20 years ago, this brave, original, ribald, funny, heart-rending fable about the Old West would have become a major cult novel and, with a little censorship, a hit movie (maybe starring Dustin Hoffman as its bisexual, biracial hero, Duivichi-un-Dua or Out-in-the-Shed). It would have done for frontier gays what Thomas Berger did for Indians and Tom Robbins for cowgirls.
Now, however, Spanbauer is fighting what may be the final rear-guard action in defense of whoopee, radical individualism, recreational drugs and, generally, having a good time. People will still like this novel, but they'll get edgy about it. Spanbauer's originality will seem compromised by minor resemblances to earlier novels; his bravery will seem irresponsible now that Magic Johnson's AIDS press conference has marked the high-water line of the sexual revolution and the onset of a Puritan undertow that will last goodness knows how long.
The '90s may view this story--Shed grows up in a whorehouse in an Idaho gold-mining town at the turn of the century, is raped by the man who kills his Shoshone mother, and later falls in love with a moonstruck cowboy who probably is his father--as a grim tale of child abuse and prejudice tricked out with leftover hippie mysticism. Too bad for the '90s. This is a book as bright as it is dark, full of fictional and philosophical pleasures, a quirky, unsettling look at American history and a vision quest in the grand old tradition. Let's hope its time comes round again.