Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stephen McCauley’s novel from the eighties still has great resonance.

I have said that I decided to read some of McCauley’s earlier novels. This one was published in 1987.

The Object of My Affection

Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (320 pages, Washington Square Press, $14) tells the story of George, a feckless kindergarten teacher living in Brooklyn. George is good looking but badly, or idiosyncratically, dressed, and he has more or less lost faith in the possibility of a satisfying gay relationship. His one failed relationship, which we partly witness in the novel, is with a Columbia professor who was also his mentor. The relationship happens after George has left grad school, so there is nothing nefarious in its inception; but there is a problem in the personality of Jolie, the man with whom he is involved, and his inability to commit or even to pay particular attention to the person he lives with.

In flight from Jolie, George rooms with his old friend Nina, who is trying to complete a Ph.D. in psychology. Nina and George have a great relationship, taking dance lessons and sharing meals on the packing crates that stand in for a dining table in their apartment. But when Nina announces that she is pregnant—Nina’s on-again, off-again boyfriend is the father—George faces a whole new kind of crisis. Nina would like George to participate in her pregnancy and the birth of her child, and it even seems that she would like him to help her raise the child. She doesn’t want anything to do with Howard, but he finds out about the pregnancy, and he tries to become the active father. But Nina has other ideas, and she uses George to help her keep Howard at bay.

In the meantime, George meets in Vermont, where he has gone on an ill-advised weekend with his former lover, a wonderful young man, who is himself raising a young child from Central America. George almost falls for this guy, but he puts up defenses sturdy enough to make the guy think he isn’t interested. George returns to New York with the intention of following through with his commitment to Nina, but when he realize that cannot work, he returns to his Vermont fantasy, and the novel leaves him somewhere caught between the two. He’s living in Vermont, but he cannot stay away from Nina and the new life she has created for herself after the baby is born.

What I find fascinating about this novel is that it was written in 1987, at the absolute height of the AIDS epidemic, and although there are a few mentions of disease and even once or twice AIDS is mentioned, you would never believe that there is any greater crisis for George than whether he should live with a gay man or a straight woman. It strikes me that this may have been McCauley’s way of dealing with the crisis. The question in the novel seems to be: can George accept himself as a gay man. The seeming impossibility of gay relationships may be one thing that is scaring him away from them. Another, unspoken fear, though, might be the fear of AIDS. George would not have been the first person to “go straight” as the result of the fear of AIDS.

Whatever is true about McCauley’s underlying motivations here, this is a lively and entertaining novel. It bears McCauley’s stamp of humane humor that makes it a novel to treasure.

Stephen McCauley

Pick up a copy of The Object of My Affection at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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