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Alternatives to Sex A Novel Stephen McCauley Simon & Schuster: 290 pp., $24

April 16, 2006|Darcy Cosper | Darcy Cosper is the author of the novel "Wedding Season." She contributes frequently to Bookforum and edits the online edition of the literary journal Swink.

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that Stephen McCauley's fiction is charming, sparkling, delightful. Reviews of his novels -- "The Object of My Affection," "The Easy Way Out," "The Man of the House" and "True Enough" -- declare them light as a souffle and warm as a hug.

Caveat lector: Don't believe the hype.

This is not to say McCauley's work isn't a pleasure. But he is also a writer with a fierce, occasionally lacerating wit; a gimlet eye for human foibles; and a commendable willingness to dally in ambivalence and moral ambiguity with not entirely likable characters -- talents put to excellent use in his latest novel, "Alternatives to Sex."

Like McCauley's previous books, "Alternatives to Sex" revolves around a self-effacing, gently neurotic gay man who lives in a large Eastern city, has a modest job and is deeply conflicted about long-term relationships. Here, the narrator is William Collins, a Cambridge, Mass., real estate agent who "[had] recently turned forty -- and more recently than that had turned forty-four." As the book opens, William is taking a vow of celibacy after a year of "computer dating -- a euphemism for online chatting followed by brief encounters, less impersonal than old-fashioned anonymous sex because you exchanged fake names with the person." Among the novel's ironies is that this period of promiscuity began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when, William reflects, "everyone I knew was trying to choose between ... putting selfishness aside and doing good, and abandoning altruism altogether and doing whatever it took to feel good. Right now."

William recommits to his career while engaging in virtuous pursuits like reading Simone de Beauvoir and cleaning his apartment (which he already does with borderline pathological regularity and rigor). Though he's unable to remain celibate for even a single day, fate blesses him with two real estate deals -- both, from a reader's perspective, gratifyingly fraught. On the morning William takes his vow, he meets a middle-aged couple, Samuel Thompson and Charlotte O'Malley, who want to leave their house in a remote exurb for an apartment in Cambridge. William, fascinated by the tenderness and complexity of their marriage, finds himself "flush with the warmth of infatuation I often experience for inappropriate people" and over-involved in both their real estate search and their relationship. The second opportunity comes via Edward, a diminutive, tart-tongued airline attendant with whom William has a long-standing, but platonic, camaraderie. When Edward announces that he's moving to San Diego and asks William to handle the sale of his South End studio, the latter finds himself unaccountably pained at the idea of his friend's departure.

It hardly bears mentioning that Charlotte and Samuel's marriage will turn out to be less ideal than it appears or that William will, in the eleventh hour, sort out why Edward's emigration leaves him feeling so bereft. But surprise endings are not what McCauley's after. How Americans were affected by Sept. 11 provides this novel's leitmotif; fear, and how we sublimate or -- much more rarely -- reckon with it, is the theme. McCauley uses his twin narratives, and a bevy of subplots and appealing tertiary characters, to explore this material with impressive dexterity and a refreshing lack of portent.

As always, McCauley has a light touch. The comic set pieces, clever banter and savagely efficient character descriptions for which he is known are all here. But make no mistake: McCauley is a social satirist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde -- and like them, he's a serious writer indeed. *

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