Gay longings in academia.
Eschewing the unsuccessful novel-in-verse format of Branches (2000), Cullin proceeds here by assigning chapters to seven principal characters (though one of them does write poetry). The story centers on Bing Owen, a professor of astronomy at Moss College in Houston, Texas. He has a book to his credit and a disaffected, childless wife given to heavy doses of Jesus. Bing and Susan have divided the house into his and her rooms and have not slept together for a very long time. She has had an aneurysm; he has bloody semen from a prostate as big as a baseball. Meanwhile, the prof is losing students from his undergrad class, Origins of the Universe, and his second course was canceled because of his drinking and paranoid late-night phone calls hectoring a female colleague. He’s now “a runty man of 58, who could pass for 68,” with a W.C. Fieldsian pale, round face, a gin-blossom nose, and squinty eyes. In his teens, Bing had a few homosexual affairs but abandoned that life to marry Susan. At 36, he fell in love with 24-year-old Marc, who returned his affection but then was struck by a car and killed. Now Bing is obsessed by his straight student Nick and devises various ruses to get much, much closer, offering the young man a solo course in vacuum decay, Thanksgiving dinner, and extended companionship. Anyone familiar with Charles Jackson’s The Fall of Valor (perhaps the first American novel to broach this theme) knows that nothing good will come to Bing when he makes his moves.
The best passages here, about astrophysics, come from research. The more emotional material isn’t as compelling.