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The Novel as Parade : An epic novel celebrates gay America--but is that good enough? : HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON? By Ethan Mordden (Villard Books [Random House]: $25; 590 pp.)

June 25, 1995|Mark Merlis | Mark Merlis's first novel, "American Studies," (Houghton Mifflin) was pubished last fall

The cascade of gay fiction in recent years has produced first-rate work in nearly every genre, from the novel of manners to the murder mystery. Sooner or later someone was bound to attempt the big novel, "the great-American," with a cast of dozens wandering the continent over a span of decades. Serious writers abandoned this territory to the Jacqueline Susanns a generation ago. To write the "collective novel" with a straight face requires a unifying vision of a society in which disparate lives are connected by shared mores and shared history. America as a whole is no longer such a society, if it ever was. But some of its subcultures are, and it is possible at least to conceive of an epic novel about the gay community.

Perhaps if anyone was going to undertake this project, it had to be Ethan Mordden. Over three volumes of stories about New York gay life, collectively titled "Buddies," he has developed an idiosyncratic mix of keen social observation and low comedy, with occasional sidelong glances at real emotions. His relentlessly chatty and self-conscious narrator turns some readers off. I have always found it irritating but engrossing, the voice of someone honestly groping for the larger meanings in a seemingly narrow world of brunches and cruising and pumping-up at the gym. His most recent stories have hinted that he felt himself to be in training for the main event. So here is the contender. "How Long Has This Been Going On?" weighs in at 2 1/4 pounds and slugs its way from Los Angeles in 1949 to New York in 1991.

The story opens at a gay cabaret called Thriller Jill's, run by a hard-boiled-but-lovable lesbian named Lois and featuring a sardonic young singer named Johnny the Kid, who wants to give up the Broadway standards, put on a dress and start singing the truth about how gay people live. At Thriller Jill's we meet the familiar demimonde of 1940s gay fiction: hustlers and johns, the closeted movie star. But we also get a few whispers of a dawning gay consciousness, most interestingly in the form of a vice cop who painfully crosses over to the "Other Side."

As Mordden plows through the decades, we go other places--Minnesota, New York, San Francisco, rural New Hampshire--and meet scads of other characters, especially Tom and Luke, a couple of high school jocks who come out separately but are blissfully united at last, their loyal straight girlfriend, and Walt, Tom's cute and virginal cousin, who speaks through his teddy bear and offers stunning insights in a faux-naif squeak. (Readers of Mordden's earlier fiction will recognize him as Little Kiwi, the puppy-like figure whom only Mordden can love and who adorably sabotages story after story.) Mordden is so fond of Walt that he awards him the novel's premier hunk, a good-ol'-boy hustler named Blue who throws out aphorisms in a dialect thick as corn syrup--except when he's speaking for the author and utters whole paragraphs of college-educated prose. (Everyone in the book succumbs to this now and then, as if possessed.) Along the way we get some fairly persuasive pictures of the travails of coming out and some less convincing stabs at describing relationships: Mordden can do starry-eyed love and wistful parting, but not the daily grind and healing of real couples.

We stagger through the Stonewall riots, the liberated '70s, AIDS and ACT UP, and arrive finally at the New York gay pride march in 1991. Here we re-encounter practically every character Mordden hasn't killed off. At the very end, we are suddenly informed (if we haven't read the dust jacket) that the whole story has actually been told by Johnny the Kid. Don't be fooled by this tacked-on conceit. The story has been told by the patented Mordden narrator, with all his usual virtues and defects. Except that the intrusions that sometimes deepened his earlier work are now as pointless and uncontrolled as hiccups. Walt condemns hunting, and the narrator chimes in to say he agrees. And he can't resist spilling future plot developments: the climax is disclosed 156 pages early.

As a critic, Mordden has been so ungracious about other writers' small imperfections one is tempted to show at some length how very ill-advised he has been to throw stones. (In a widely discussed introduction to the anthology "Waves" last year he trashed some gay writers' careers on the basis of faulty syntax.) He loses track of time (1953 arrives twice) and tense and point of view and the antecedents of his pronouns. When he tries to get fancy he spews out stuff like this: "Chris gazed upon the Parade for a moment. A long one, a deep gaze, surrendering to it in triumph as the parched traveler bends to the welling fountain, or the infant lips its mother's nipple." In fairness, he does get off the occasional wisecrack--"A cop taking a rape complaint is not unlike a rabbit taking a complaint from a carrot"--and the dialogue is often snappy, if rarely lifelike.

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