A PLACE I'VE NEVER BEEN

David Leavitt

Viking. 194 pp. $18.95

"HOMOSEXUAL LOVE" is shown often in stories -- the noun and the adjective both -- but of "heterosexual love" we know only the noun. When Romeo woos Juliet we notice, but not because he woos her instead of Mercutio. The choice to love Mercutio, on the other hand, is dramatic and consequential. So gay fiction honors the adjective in gay love, gay life, gay death.

How much honor remains for the noun? That is the question and, in A Place I've Never Been, the difficulty. Of David Leavitt's 10 stories, all but two have gay major characters; and those two, the straight stories, are the best in the book.

In "Spouse Night," Arthur, a widower, finds an acrostic puzzle half-solved by his late wife. He sits down to finish it. "But as soon as he saw how thick and strong his own handwriting looked in comparison with the jagged, frail letters of Claire's decline, he laid his head down on the newsprint and wept." We're brought so close that grief seems freshly discovered, tenderness once again felt for the first time.

In "I See London, I See France," Celia, late of New York, has reached Tuscany. She badly wants to belong here -- to slip into the background of famous Renaissance paintings she's studied. What she learns is that she will always be a fearful, poor, unworldly Jew from Kissena Boulevard, whose obese mama and bedridden bubbe watched the soaps as though the Messiah might appear, while outside, on the stoop at dusk, Chasidic boys traded "Torah Personalities" the way other boys traded baseball cards.

Could Celia have been a lesbian, a gay male? Why not? What's good about these stories isn't that they're straight; it's that their sympathy is deep and broad, their understanding complex.

But in many of the gay stories, character is superficial, relationships asserted rather than proved. At times Leavitt trusts in plot as though certain events were automatically important. Though the die is decisively cast, little or nothing has been bet.

Another Celia, in the collection's title story, breaks her attachment to Nathan, who is cold and greedy and gay. Why, why in particular, does it matter? What -- beyond the answer already implied in the question -- does Ellen Britchkey, the lesbian protagonist of "My Marriage to Vengeance," lose when her ex-lover marries a man?

Where is the feeling heart of "Roads to Rome," wherein Grazia, living with Alberto, is married to Marco -- Giuliana's ex-best friend and former lover of her mother Fulvia (his mother Rosa's crony) -- who is now, while posing falsely as the father of Laura's son, Daniele, living with Nicholas?

Often the writing hopes to convince without much effort to persuade. Leavitt is fine at rendering detail -- "Above the {urinal} trough a mirror had been strategically tilted at a downward angle." "Their purses fascinated me. Some were hard as shell and shaped like kidneys, others made out of punctured leather that reminded me of birth control pill dispensers" -- but when he draws back from the moment he will settle for cliches -- "I felt as if a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders" -- and phrases too weary to escape.

Yet one gay story, "When You Grow to Adultery," makes passion nearly palpable. Andrew, the protagonist, is drawing away from an old lover, drawing toward a new. Andrew is smitten with Jack -- "the way Jack put his face under the shower, after shampooing his hair, and shook his head like a big dog escaped from a bath; the way he slept on his back, his arms crossed in the shape of a butterfly over his face, fists on his eyes."

Meanwhile, "with Allen, lately, there'd been thrashing, heavy breathing, a voice whispering in his ear, 'Tell me one thing. Did you promise Jack we wouldn't have sex? I have to know.'

'No, I didn't.'

'Thank God, thank God. Maybe now I can go back to sleep.' "

Fresh and true. So is the story's dramatic and chilling close, where Andrew, stroking Allen asleep, traces on his trusting back messages of love to Jack. "Andrew gave himself up to this wild and villainous writing, the messages becoming longer and more incriminating even as Allen moved closer to sleep, letting out, in his stupor, only occasional noises of pleasure and gratitude."

When writing gets this good, that Andrew is gay matters no more than that Romeo is straight. Love is an affair, at last, of the noun. Jonathan Penner is the author of the novels "Natural Order" and "Going Blind" and of a story collection, "Private Parties." He teaches fiction writing at the University of Arizona.