The “slow and silent fade of monogamy” drives Stephen McCauley’s latest tale. Living with Conrad, his fashionable partner of eight years, forty-something Richard Rossi has begun to feel a low-level of “gnawing discontent and dissatisfaction.” The areas of his life that once held so much promise are now packed in a metaphorical box, just like the boxes of dusty, mildewed books, the items he once valued most highly, long ago put into storage in the basement of the Beacon Hill condo that he shares with Conrad.
Richard’s personal life is on the brink, the word
monogamy having “recently fallen out of his vocabulary." Richard isn’t completely surprised to learn that Conrad is seeing someone on the side. The owner of a successful consulting business, Conrad frequently travels for work, so it’s not unexpected when Richard discerns an “insignificant other” in Columbus, Ohio. A dead giveaway, the revelation is perhaps a little out of character for this highly organized, precise and emotionally distant man who does his best to exhort a “limpid snobbery.”
From the outset, McCauley establishes Richard’s provocative life with Conrad, the relationship taking on a passive-aggressive aura as both retreat into a “tolerable unhappiness,” self-imposed penance and strained domestic bliss.
A psychologist who has segued into a human resources role at a software company, the groundswell of anxiety is steadily eroding Richard’s carefully calculated life, perhaps a combination of fiery office politics and a clandestine affair with handsome Benjamin, his supposedly heterosexual lover.
Meeting Benjamin for furtive sexual trysts at The Club, a studio apartment in central Boston, Richard is torn between wanting to satisfy Benjamin's deepest, darkest sexual urges while also helping him stay true - and married - to his gorgeous wife, Giselle. Ironically, though, Benjamin worries about Richard’s fracturing relationship with Conrad. As the lurid scenarios of Conrad philandering with some older man in Ohio run through Richard's mind, disturbing him and similarly arousing him, he reasons there is little to worry about: an eager friend living in Columbus is certainly not a threat in the way a paramour from New York or Los Angeles would have been.
The action is always filtered though the sardonic, looking-glass lens of Richard’s point of view, and through his
own perspective we view him looking for excuses to justify his affair with Benjamin, a relationship as “logistically messy” as it is reassuring.
Working out in the local grimy basement gym, dark, humid and surrounded by “sweating maniacs,” Richard often comes across as a character in crisis. Throughout, he
remains astute, a kindly observer of the human condition and, like his idol, the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, a thorough and nonjudgmental chronicler of human nature.
McCauley does a fine job of contrasting the differing intentions of his supporting characters, who spend much of the novel lugging around a substantial amount of heavy baggage. But it
is Richard and Conrad who find themselves caught in complicated battle of wills, kept vital by an undercurrent of jealous hostility. Richard detects something brewing in Benjamin’s life that his lover prefers to keep hidden, perhaps for fear of where his own fragile sexuality might lead him. A clever and droll skewering of the American dream, this darkly humorous tale of love, sex and moral ambiguity redefines issues of sexual fidelity. The novel is always joyful and funny, most memorable for the character of Richard, his shrewd and artful asides reflecting his search for a new and exhilarating form of commitment in his chaotic world.