A highly touted first novel, billed as a coming-of-age saga for the 70's, about a Midwest boy with stars in his eyes who goes to New York, where he lives in sexual frustration with two women, one the impossible Emma of the title--a familiar story that, here, can be very funny and endearing, but too often strays glibly into clichÇ or cleverness. Gilbert Freeman is a zesty if repressed comic narrator who drops out of acting school in Illinois to move in with Lisa, his only New York friend, and Emma, an Italian would-be poet who loves to bait and taunt everyone (about politics, especially) from the safety of her celibacy-support group. The three of them form an unlikely but protective mÇnage. Gil, spurned sexually by his roommates, auditions endlessly and finally gets work at the Venice Theater, "a place of ignominy," as a propman, dresser, and first reader. All the while he looks for "someone I don't have to act with." In the meantime, Emma plays mind-games, banning words such as "work," "joy," and "love" from her vocabulary, protecting Gil from sex, and Lisa from "going normal" with a Wall Street stockbroker. On a Bicentennial beach trip, Gil, his loins still aching halfway through the book, complains because the musical-bed scene is all mental: "nobody really slept with anybody. What a lot of talk." Eventually, he manages to contract herpes ("MY SEX LIFE WAS OVER!"); Lisa marries; and Emma deteriorates (imaginary tumor, Valium, suicide attempt)--"I'll tell you one thing they won't revive: ANYTHING from the late '70s and early 80s." In a climactic scene, Gil, graduate of a Herpes Victim Support Group, and Emma, still phobic about sex, finally try to do it. No luck. Gil returns to Illinois, marries, and writes his book--part autobiography and part homage to eternal misfit Emma. A very energetic debut, full of lights, cameras, action, and New York moments, some archetypal, others arch.