MOTHERS AND SONS
By Paul Hond
Random House. 291 pp. $24.95
To young Moss Messinger -- 27 and bummed out, a sad bachelor living in New York -- it may seem, if he thinks about it at all, that he has nowhere to go but up. He's at zero, emotionally speaking: He has lived in the same crummy apartment for as long as he can remember; his view opens onto an air shaft and a flock of belligerent pigeons who seem to have it in for him; and he pines (or not) for his absent mother, who -- after some whimsical, one-time sex with a stranger 28 years ago -- found herself pregnant with Moss, raised him until he was 19, then left to play jazz piano in Europe.
Moss can't seem to get over this desertion. He avoids getting a job and relies on three other equally marginalized humans to get by: Fran, a sometime heroin addict; Boris, a bald 35-year-old who started up a sperm bank called Little Einstein, then sold it to become a dot-com millionaire; and Danielle, a sweet girl from Michigan who keeps pestering the lethargic Moss for some kind of "commitment."
Then one day Moss has lunch with Boris in a fancy new restaurant so that Moss can write a freelance review of the place. The pigeon (yes, pigeon) entree is bad, and Moss makes a note of it. The plot begins to lurch forward.
Paul Hond, the New York-based author of an earlier novel titled "The Baker," has set up a difficult challenge for himself. He has created Moss to be totally infantile, trivial, selfish, self-absorbed, unpleasant and a bad writer to boot, yet this poor, more-than-repellent guy is supposed to be able to carry along the novel's action for 291 pages, and -- I guess -- the reader is supposed to be rooting for him all the way.
Partly because of some more pigeon action, and for other reasons that never become clear, Nina, Moss's mother, returns to the apartment for a visit, and we are made more aware of the root of his troubles. When his mother left for Europe, Moss really did consider himself to have been abandoned and has therefore been unable to evolve as a human being. He insists on behaving like an obdurate child -- no, he won't grow up, no, he won't!
This state of affairs is mostly acted out in a series of endless conversations with the beautiful Danielle, who must be dumb as a plank; she keeps pressing him for that elusive commitment while he repeats endlessly that yes, he loves her, but he's not ready for any of that. The more he says he's not ready, the more she cajoles and accuses him, and then -- wouldn't you know it -- as part of the oldest poker game in the world, she gets pregnant. The ensuing 50 or so pages are devoted to whether she should have the child and whether he'll stand by her. Should Moss be trapped in a life he's unsuited for and plainly doesn't want? Or should Danielle have the child alone, or should she have an abortion?
"Mothers and Sons" is all about the conflicting needs of men and women. The author seems to feel that having children is the cosmic it for women, and that maintaining every possible freedom is it for men.
Oddly enough, although the narrative is set in contemporary Manhattan, you'd think the city had never heard of birth control. Not counting the one that led to Moss, three pregnancies occur in this novel: Nina, Fran and Danielle all find themselves in a family way. Two of the three pregnancies come from "but it was only one time!" situations.
The whole thrust, so to speak, of the men in this novel is to maintain their single status. "Why not just castrate yourself?" Boris smirks when Moss mentions perhaps marrying the exquisite but dim Danielle. "That's what marriage is, essentially." Later, Boris himself gets pensive: "It's funny, isn't it? If we didn't have sperm, we'd be of no use to them." He should know; he made his millions off that sperm bank startup.
I'm not giving away any of the plot to say that Moss, early on, passes up $10,000 to donate his sperm when an eager customer-couple ask him to undress so they can inspect him for deformities, or to mention that bananas abound symbolically in this story, or that a human birth is finally experienced, either in fantasy or fact, with all the gruesome, bachelor-scaring gore appropriate to that otherwise happy occasion. I'm not giving away the plot because I'm not sure there is one, actually. Not that a novel has to have one, but with all these uncharming characters, a little action -- I'm talking about the middle of the book, not just the last 20 pages -- would be nice. But the author prefers to sermonize and explain, in sentences like this: "On the other hand, by hurting Boris -- by confirming that she could never love him, Moss aside -- Nina would short-circuit any blame that Boris might level at Moss for destroying his chances; and from what Nina had heard, anything she could do to ease the tensions between the two men would be advisable."
This kind of thing tries the patience of the reader and sinks the novel. But new waves of young men discover every day, to their sorrow, that many young women crave detergent and diapers more than they crave free love. Maybe these disaffected, disillusioned males will make up an audience for this book.