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Hansen has won deserved praise for his Dave Brandstetter mysteries, especially for the sensitive, matter-of-fact treatment of Dave's homosexuality. But now, in a somewhat autobiographical novel, the sexuality is stage-center instead of incidental; and, though Hansen's talent often surfaces here, this mid-1960s erotic odyssey is largely maudlin, melodramatic, and gushily superficial. ""Pretty,"" thin, balding writer Whit Miller has been married for over ten years to boyish-looking but maternally protective Dell--who accepts his need for sex-on-the-side with a variety of men: promiscuous, short, red-haired Sandy; muscular young neighbor Kenny; black, married commercial artist Burr. But then--just as Whit is leaping from scraping-by (writing porno) to big-book/movie-sale fortune--his sexual status quo collapses: Dell has found someone else, someone who doesn't just need her, and tells Whit that he's ready to go it alone; Sandy opts for gay monogamy; Kenny opts for heterosexuality; and Burr's tough, cheerful just-sex approach is a dead end. So Whit, weighed down by all the accouterments of California success, has to look elsewhere--to bearded young Jaime, counterculture bookseller and poetry-lover. It's love at first sight (""Whit wants to look at him forever""); Jaime claims to be in chaste mourning for a heroin-killed lover; but when drunken jealous Whit (furious to discover that Jaime is having sex) tries to shoot him, Jaime is touched and does move in--only to wind up, soon, in the hospital via LSD. And then Whit becomes promiscuous, which results in his being robbed and beaten up badly: everyone comes to his hospital bedside, including eager/fickle lover Kenny; but Whit says, ""I don't want to be beaten up again--not outside, not inside,"" and he ends up alone with his faithful cat. . . . As in his mysteries, Hansen does fine with the moody backgrounds here, deftly sketching in supporting players. And his terse yet textured narrative, twining present-tense action with past-tense memory, is skillful, if a bit mannered. But Hansen hardly faces up to his hero's basic problems--which seem to have more to do with arrested development than sex per se; one never has the sense that Whit really learns much from this series of unhealthy, not-quite-convincing relationships. And it's distressing to see a good writer like Hansen writing soppy dialogue and such awful lines as ""She lowers her shadow head and takes his cock that stands and throbs and never will know anything about grief."" So, though a classy item by gay-fiction standards, this is too much a clinical case and too earnestly artsy to be the mainstream-fiction debut one would have wished for an undeniably talented writer.

Pub Date: April 21st, 1981
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston