A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD

By Michael Cunningham

Farrar Straus Giroux. 343 pp. $18.95

A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD deals with what I suspect will become a peculiarly '90s preoccupation: the family and its alternatives in the overlapping aftermaths of sexual liberation and AIDS. New Yorker Michael Cunningham has written a novel that all but reads itself. However sensitively introspective a passage may be, the effort behind its writing rarely betrays itself and that is no mean achievement.

No less than four narrators are employed so that the gentle ironies of their story are kept in constant motion. Inevitably some readers will whine that they cannot tell the narrational voices apart. It is true that Cunningham does not always differentiate between them but then, these characters are close and imitation is one of intimacy's pleasures.

The four narrators, Alice, Jonathan, Clare and Bobby, are each, in his or her way, refugees from the family battlefield. Alice is an ice-cool Southerner who married the first man who asked her because he drove a convertible and she couldn't think of a good reason to refuse him. Marriage has meant impoverishment, exile to Cleveland, sexual tension and overwhelming love for a son who rebuffs her as naturally as she rebuffs her husband. Jonathan, her son, is very much her creature. Gay, unable to equate love with sex, he is passing through life with a sense that he has somehow failed to join the party. Clare is a poor little rich girl whose girlhood has flashed by in a rebellion against her background. Wounded for life by her father's desertion, she has tried and rejected marriage and found herself drawn instead to the frustrating constancy of gay male friendship.

Quiet and observant, Bobby is the unwitting catalyst who brings these three to a realization of their deeper needs. A man of clay (symbolically, he is a skilled baker), he absorbs the emotions around him and unconsciously assumes whatever fantasies his nearest and dearest project onto him. It is a testament to Cunningham's psychological dexterity that Bobby emerges as lovable rather than as plain dull. He, too, is well acquainted with grief. The junkie brother he worships dies horribly after walking through a plate glass window, his mother commits suicide and his father burns to death along with the house.

Allergic to solitude, Bobby adopts first Alice then Clare and then Jonathan as his surrogate family. When Alice pushes him out of the nest he moves into Jonathan and Clare's New York apartment. Jonathan has always joked about marrying Clare and has a jealous crisis when the only people he loves start sharing a bed. Their tensions come to a head when the three are reunited at a funeral and they seek to resolve them in Bobby's (distinctly late '60s) utopian vision. They move to a rambling house in Woodstock where Clare brings up her baby girl and finances a tasteful cafe.

The idyll is shattered by the arrival of Jonathan's ex-lover, now dying of AIDS. Mother and baby abandon the household, so keen is Clare to spare her child from pain, but the novel ends on an unexpected note of uplift. As he and Bobby take his dying friend for a swim in a woodland pool, Jonathan finally experiences a sense of belonging: "I wouldn't say I was happy. I was nothing so simple as happy. I was merely present, unexpectedly, and perhaps for the first time in my adult life."

Observing his characters' lives as acutely as David Leavitt, Cunningham manages to be tender. His narrative pull is such that it is only in the closing chapters that one has a moment to look back and notice the book's careful structure. One conversation echoes another years later, an image from childhood memory mirrors another perceived in adult understanding. This creates a pleasing sense, at least, of resolution, even if the characters are no less happy at the close than they were before.

Patrick Gale, who lives in Cornwall, England, is the author of six novels, including "Facing the Tank" and "Little Bits of Baby."