Author Stephen McCauley is one of America's preeminent queer-themed writers, his métier the encapsulation of the smaller details of domestic gay life, his characters always vehicles for witty and biting social satire. In his latest, Alternatives to Sex, McCauley cleverly skewers the effects of one gay man's midlife crisis, at the same time providing a compelling social commentary on the emotional status of Americans one year after the tragic events of 9/11.
Now in his early forties,
William Collins is tormented by a kind of midlife malaise, the past year a post-traumatic time of uncertainty and anxiety not just for him but for the whole country. William has a successful career as a Boston realtor, a job that he enjoys, but he also has a problem with obsessive compulsion; whether it
is fanatically cleaning his apartment or looking for guys to hook up with over the Internet, William is always on the go.
Lately though, he has had enough of these anonymous sexual encounters, the timing of them during the past year, a combination of makeshift management and fatalism of "the better-get-it-while-you-can variety." Determined to remake himself, William decides to embark on a career of abstinence. Perhaps if he can approach the question of his spirituality, or even practice the tedium of vacuum cleaning, he will at least be able have a reliable alternative to sex.
It is as though William has been living in the cold waters of semi-reality, "trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next." But it
is all so much more complicated that that. He is in love with his best friend, Robert; however, Robert, an airline steward now prone to panic attacks at 35,000 feet, is planning to quit his job and move to San Diego.
There is also the problem of Kumiko, Richard's passive-aggressive tenant who rents the apartment below from him and owes three thousand dollars in back rent
which he refuses to pay. To top it all off, Gina, his boss has been hounding him about his poor work performance, and it is only through selling to his new clients Charlotte and Samuel, a yuppie couple who are hoping to find an apartment in the city, that William can see any hope of making money.
His job performance, the Kumiko debacle, curiosity about Edward's plans for big changes and the fact that he keeps acting on impulse, seeking out sex with guys at a moment's notice, fuels his obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He just cannot keep his relationship with Robert at the level of a complicated friendship any longer: " I felt closer to him than I'd felt in years, as if the two of us were connected by a strong intangible bond, I'd taken entirely for granted and just now realized was immutable."
William's feelings of disappointment and regret are blended with the fleeting physical pleasures of his erotic adventures, as though they have all become part of the same experience. McCauley instills in his protagonist a catty, incisive, biting sense of humor, and his reactions to the current state of the world and those closest to him are a series of low-key and deeply ironic judgments.
Alternatives to Sex is all about a man in his early forties who has adopted a cynical and somewhat world-weary wisdom of midlife. William's inner life is carefully recorded, his thoughts timely and honest.
This tale of sex, love, real estate, and even gossip is never maudlin or depressing, even though the characters are desperately searching to connect in a world now fraught with hostility and danger.
In William, Stephen McCauley has yet again created a totally unique and distinctive voice, a type of reluctant domestic gay hero, his observations of the people around him showcasing the human condition with all its flaws, foibles and insecurities.