YEARS FROM NOW By Gary Glickman Knopf. 263 pp. $16.95
WHEN The Wall Street Journal runs a feature article, as it did this summer, indicating that something like a quarter of the undergraduates at Yale are gay, we can assume that the American Mothers' Top-Five Index of Things to Worry About has a powerful new entry. At an age when their parents were either sexually innocent, discreet and terrified (or married) -- and had never met an avowed homosexual -- significant numbers of young people are homosexually involved, or are trying on bisexuality to see what everyone's talking about. In an era of institutionalized frankness, there must be thousands of homes where nobody knows what to say.
Any change in sexual mores or family choreography will produce pain, confusion and art. The possibilities for fiction are very rich; one thinks of the early part of the century, when a similar schism between generations yielded the great novels of immigration. Will there be great novels of the gay decampment from family lines? Gary Glickman's first novel, Years From Now, is an early entry in the field.
Set in the context of a Jewish family saga, the book centers on David Rosen, a young gay man and his closest friend, Beth. Beth is gay, too -- or she's emotionally straight but she prefers gay sex, or she's bisexual in a lukewarm way, or she's going to be straight next week. Whichever, she is definitely in the closet as far as her family is concerned, and she desperately wants to have a child. She wants David to father the child. In fact, she wants to marry him and raise a family. When David points out that he's gay and that he has a solid relationship with Andrew, his lover, she asks impatiently, "What's so bad about that? You'll have your lovers and I'll have mine." David and Beth wander in and out of family celebrations, pretending for their parents' sake to be a couple, arguing in whispers: she whines at him about getting married already and he explains again that he's gay. Then they go back to his apartment and take a bath together and make love, maybe (it's unclear just what they're doing in that bed), and stand naked in the kitchen making oatmeal and bat the question around some more.
When that gets tedious (and it does), there are always the Rosens to tune in on. The book could equally well have been called Guess Who's Coming to Seder? In fact, it begins as a traditional family saga, concentrating strongly on David's mother, Zellie. In a promising early scene, Zellie emerges as a 7-year-old observer at a family wedding, figuring out what makes the world go round, and the reader is led to expect that she will be the focal character in a generational novel. We do see a lot of her, but she is not focal -- no character is, and that's the problem with this book: the author never commits to a character or a point of view. The overwhelming feeling one gets, reading Years From Now, is that of watching snapshots go past and drop into one of two boxes, "Zellie's Family" or "David and Beth." There is no real linkage between the two story lines, and no real depth to either part.
THE NOVEL could, powerfully, have been David's story, but it never achieves that, either. There are two frustratingly promising scenes that hint at what the book might have been. One takes place in David's apartment. He is in bed with Andrew for the first time, when Beth calls. Like a jealous lover she says, "I can't just keep saying goodbye to you, giving you up like this whenever a handsome man comes along." They fight, and when they hang up David turns to Andrew again, but he feels Beth there in the bed between them; the privacy of the moment is lost. If Glickman had pursued this tack -- David torn between his lover and his best friend with her ambiguous needs -- the book might really have found its center. The other tantalizing moment is the final chapter, a first-person narrative in which at last we get into David's head (and which is the strongest writing in the book). In the light of this intimacy, it suddenly becomes very clear how much we never know: how does David feel about Beth, for example? How does he feel with her? Why does he give in to her and let Andrew go?
We haven't a clue. In fact, at critical points, the story becomes downright obscure -- for example, there is a possibility that Beth may be mortally ill, and on that basis David agrees to father her child but, incredibly, we never learn whether she is dying or not. Unfortunately, by that time, it's hard to care. Despite the moments of insight and the poignant snapshots, this is not the novel it might have been. Glickman can write dialogue, and he can see scenes. He has yet to focus them strongly enough to make us see what he sees.
Rita Kashner is the author of "Bed Rest" and of the recent novel "To The Tenth Generation."