by David Ebershoff
Viking, 222 pp., $23.95
Ah, the sweet promise of the future. The young gay men at the center of David Ebershoff's biting short stories all seem to be looking ahead to a better time, when the awkwardness or closetedness of youth passes away to a life of open happiness, each of them "believing blindly that what lay head must surely rank above what lay sprawled behind." They are mistaken not because their adult lives will necessarily be miserable, but because they can't see that with the pleasures and freedoms of adulthood -- be it gay or straight adulthood -- will come all of the heartbreaks and disappointments that life offers.
Not all of Ebershoff's protagonists are young men. In the title story, a fortysomething gay man continues to look ahead to a bright future, even as the regrets of his past circle about him. Undeniably the best story in the collection, "The Rose City" is a sad but fascinating glimpse of a day in the life of Roland Dott, whose beauty has faded but whose vanity hasn't. Roland is one of those classically deluded characters, an arrogant phony who can't accept the truth about himself. This particular day he is having his once-a-month get-together at the Pasadena Athletic Club with Michael, a successful broker who had a 17-year relationship with the now-deceased Graham, a man who Roland also had a relationship with, though for only one year. The relationship ended because Roland couldn't stop cheating on him, and then Graham met Michael.
Now, years later, Roland finds himself bored with Michael, who "was the type to live in the past. Roland didn't like that in a man. He was a forward-looker, saw the future as where his life would really begin. ... One day his hubby-hub would arrive at the apartment door and bang away until Roland opened up." As the day goes on, Roland flirts shamelessly with other men, drinks too much, and tries continuously to shut out the past. And that is the way Roland gets through his days -- by fooling himself into thinking life is just beginning, when, for him, it's really already passed by.
The other stories here showcase younger gay men, each on the cusp of the future that poor Roland still thinks is his. In these other stories -- the best are "Trespass" and "The Charm Bracelet" -- youthful enthusiasm is laced with caution. Billy, the beautiful teenage protagonist of "The Charm Bracelet," walks home from his first foray at a gay bar and realizes that "it happens in a flash, one day every guy in the bar wants to buy you a drink and the next day you've gone invisible." So true, so true. Therein lies the power of Ebershoff's gracefully written stories -- by delving so deeply into the minds of his characters, he captures all of the conflicting emotions and bitter truths of not just gay life, but life itself.
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