I have read a couple of Stephen McCauley’s novels, and I have always admired them. I was pleased to see that this novel was up to his high standard. A friend recommended it to me, and I am really delighted to have read it.
Richard, the middle-aged gay man who is the hero of Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others (256 pages, Simon and Schuster, $25), thinks he is happy enough. He is himself in great shape, and his compulsive over-exercising makes certain that he had no middle-aged spread. In fact, he looks just a bit haggard, but he finds that makes him something of a success in the gay world. He has a handsome younger lover, with whom he has lived for some time; and he also has a “friend with benefits,” whom he meets occasionally for talk and sex, “with no strings attached." This is what he calls an "insignificant other." Furthermore, he has a job in a Cambridge high tech company that pays him quite a lot and demands of him very little.
There is trouble in paradise, though, when he discovers that his partner Conrad seems to be having an affair with someone in Cleveland. Richard is immediately offended, even though he is careful to keep his own affair a secret. Benjamin, or Ben, his “friend,” is himself married with two kids, and that suggests to Richard that he is safe from any uncomfortable clinging.
Still, all this starts something like a mid-life crisis for Richard. In the first place, he starts to fall out of love with Conrad. This happens in part by talking to Conrad’s female business partner, who is herself in love with the guy and actually offers Richard some perspective.
Even more helpful is Brandon, a talented young colleague whom Richard is trying to persuade to stay with the company. He is singularly unsuccessful at persuading Brandon to stay, until he realizes that it doesn’t matter. Once he starts congratulating Brandon on his decision to take a chance—Brandon is headed to Las Vegas to make a living golfing and gambling—Brandon starts to wonder whether he is really doing the right thing.
Richard learns a lot from Brandon, though, including how brutally limited his own life is. Suddenly he backs off the exercise a bit—he’s the kind of guy who felt crazy if he didn’t get to at least two gyms a day—and he starts to realize what’s missing from his life. Conrad slips into the background as Richard realizes that he really loves Ben. This is as complicated as it could possibly be. Ben is not anywhere near being able to tell his family or his friends about his secret life, and he has decided that his relationship with Richard is really too much of a threat.
Well, everything comes crashing down around him, and still Richard somehow manages to make the right choice when it does. This is an odd love story, because the hero spends so much time talking himself out of Ben. But as if we were reading a Jane Austen novel, we as readers really know more than the character knows, and when the resolution starts to be clear, we can congratulate ourselves that we saw it coming. I think McCauley wants us to.
This is a wonderfully generous novel, entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. I recommend it enthusiastically.
Insignificant Others available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.