THE VELVETEEN FATHER

By Jesse Green

Villard. 242 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Kevin Allman

A newly arrived alien might be puzzled at Americans' attitude toward children. Couples who have seven or eight children they can't afford are derided as leeches on the public dole -- unless they have them all at once using fertility drugs, after which they're offered beaucoup freebies and hailed as Superparents. We pay lip service to the importance of kids, but it tends to stop at the checkbook when it comes to paying teachers or improving schools. What's going on?

Jesse Green, an unexpected father, has no answers, but he does have some perspective on our national rugrat schizophrenia. A journalist and happily single gay man, he found his life metastasizing in strange ways when he fell in love with Andy, a man who had just adopted a baby. The Velveteen Father is a tale of parenthood told by an outsider (an outsider in more ways than one), and much of Green's saga has a gimlet-eyed objectivity that pierces the familiar cants and cutesies of books about parenthood.

As a journalist in the 1980s, Green covered more than one landmark case about gay adoption (usually babies with AIDS), but the thought of fatherhood didn't really occur to him until he went to a party and met Andy and his adopted infant son, Erez. Soon the three were a family, and soon after that Green and Andy were negotiating to adopt a second son, Lucas.

Though this isn't primarily a book about homosexual parents, Green does make some observations about the "gayby boom" in all its uneasy manifestations. He makes a good case for his contention that the stealthy growth of gay adoptions over the last decade wasn't about civil rights but pragmatism: By the mid-'80s, the number of HIV-positive and crack-damaged infants was simply overflowing the banks of the social-services system. Sympathetic social workers began to ignore the sexual orientation of some prospective parents or just not to ask too many questions.

Tartness and insight are The Velveteen Father's strengths. "It cannot be overstated how ham-handedly American culture pushes parenthood on heterosexuals and how stingily it withholds the idea from gay men," Green writes. "Are you miserable in your marriage? Good, have a baby. Are you mature and well-off and responsible, but gay? Good, collect Roseville." And, on the subject of "having it all," he notes: "You could be a perfectionist, you could have children, you could have a career; you could even choose two from the list. But not three."

Weaker are the well-phrased but shopworn observations of parenthood as ultimate miracle, and Green can get sticky as a lollipop at times. He undercuts his own keen observations with things like a collection of rugrat malapropisms straight from a generic kids-say-the-darndest-things compendium (the "Statue of Lickety" and "Percules" both make cameo appearances). Worst of all, he gets downright snarky when Andy's supervisor snipes at the adoptive dad for taking so much time off work when Lucas arrives, just as he had done when Erez came. But most of Green's observations are sound and dry, observed with sly wit. By the end of the book, with Lucas making four, Green is heading into still-uncharted waters with "my newfangled family: my millstone, my crown, my tattoo."

Obviously this book isn't for those who devoured Bobbi McCaughey's insta-tomes about her septuplets (two, so far) but it would be a shame to see The Velveteen Father relegated to the small but growing shelf of books about alternative families. There are observations here sure to resonate with the childed, the childless and the childfree; and Green's contemplative view of parenthood is all the stronger for his resistance to see this ultimate responsibility through the gauzy lens employed by many of his contemporaries.

Kevin Allman's novel "Tight Shot" was an Edgar nominee. He edits the magazine WHERE New Orleans.