This ambitious and intelligent first novel by a D.C.-based gay writer focuses on the bad old days before Stonewall and one victim of the dual McCarthyisms of red-hunting and gay-baiting. Merlis has been trying unsuccessfully to finish and publish a first novel for many years, finally reaching his goal at 44, and this product of that struggle betrays its troubled origins only in its occasional verbosity. That is to say, it reads like the work of someone who has had a lot of writing bottled up in him for many years, not an entirely bad thing for a first novel. The book's narrator, Reeve, is a middle-level federal bureaucrat lying in a hospital bed after ``an especially unrewarding encounter with rough trade'' has left him battered and nearly blinded in one eye. Given so much time to reflect on his wasted life, the 62-year-old Reeve thinks back to his friend and mentor, Tom Slater, a prominent literary critic who committed suicide after being hounded by a '50s witch-hunt that threatened to expose his homosexuality and a former dalliance with the Communist Party. Reeve slowly recounts his friendship with Slater (based loosely on F.O. Matthiessen, who virtually created the field of American Studies in the 1940s), his own ambivalent coming to terms with his gayness, and the events that led to Slater's suicide. All of this is intermingled with a no less detailed recollection of the night that landed the narrator in his current predicament, on the verge of losing his job and his apartment. All of the events are retold with a bitter, wry humor that leads gradually to a surprising and thoroughly satisfying denouement. In spite of being a little too long and sometimes overwritten, this is a substantial first novel and one that promises much from its author.