IN SEPTEMBER, THE LIGHT CHANGES

The Stories of Andrew Holleran

Hyperion. 306 pp. $23.95

Andrew Holleran's first book, Dancer from the Dance (1978), was almost instantly recognized as the classic portrait of gay New York in the 1970s. Reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby (and not unjustly, even though that's the sort of thing reviewers tend to do). Since then Holleran has brought out only two further novels, Nights in Aruba (1983) and The Beauty of Men (1996). This last chronicled the wistful and bleakly stoic life of the middle-aged Lark in Florida, where the author himself now lives. That same melancholy -- compounded of aging, solitude, the passing of time, the death of friends, reminiscence -- characterizes many of the 16 stories of In September, the Light Changes, Holleran's collected short fiction.

Though pervaded by an almost Japanese sense of the transitory, the feeling that life is only a bridge of dreams, In September, the Light Changes alternates between tears and laughter, and not only gallows humor. In the opening story, "The Ossuary," a dryly sardonic and world-weary journalist, Mister O'Connell, "had worked for The Catholic Worker when Dorothy Day was alive, and had become more secular with each successive magazine, till now he was at Conde Nast Traveler." As the narrator says, Mister O'Connell was "the beautiful ruin of a long Catholic education." At one point this refined sybarite talks about the Jesuits:

" `The Jesuits are the reason Pascal wrote the Provincial Letters,' said Mister O'Connell in a somnolent murmur. `They were very slippery creatures even then. They're awfully smart. And you know where intelligence leads you . . . ,' he said.

" `Where?' I said.

" `Directly into S and M,' he said."

Holleran clearly isn't afraid to trade on common stereotypes, but only the most inexorably pious will resist at least a smile. Take another example, the latter-day Antony Blanche in "The Boxer," who dresses "entirely in every piece of clothing sold at Iowa Book and Supply to boosters who wanted to advertise their allegiance to the university; a student who looked, in his ten-foot black-and-yellow striped scarf, like a human bumblebee, who took one glance at the parlor of our house and said, in the most acidic, terminally jaded voice I have ever heard: `Why didn't you tell me you were living in a play by William Inge? This is beyond Picnic, this is Dark at the Top of the Stairs? Tell me, is everyone living here as sexually repressed as I am, or am I jumping to conclusions?' And the poet burst out laughing. `No, I'm serious,' the bumblebee said, his voice changing in pitch but not acidity, as he unwrapped the scarf from his neck, `Where are Roz Russell and William Holden? When does the picnic begin?' "

Another afternoon the bumblebee, "in a blazing yellow Iowa sweatshirt, Iowa scarf, Iowa cap, and Iowa mittens," appears at a seldom used front entrance to this group house. " `I've always wanted to come in the front door,' he said in the nasal drone that the cold had made even flatter and more attenuated. `The porch swing, the doorbell. The divine Midwest. America is the Midwest. America is the heartland. Tell me. Does anyone around here shuck corn? Or make apple Betty? No, that would be too much to hope for."

Such queenly characters as Mister O'Connell and the bumblebee call to mind Sutherland from Dancer from the Dance, and one suspects that some of these stories may have been warm-ups or run-throughs for the novels. (In an interview Holleran has said that a few of them are 20 years old.) A character from The Beauty of Men talks about being able to speak French "on both a dark and light level," and this same phrase appears here in "Joshua and Clark." Though Holleran's narrative voice sticks to the rambling middle register, the easy-going style of good conversation, there are occasional signs of unintended repetitions and sloppiness. In one paragraph of "Delancey Place," the heartthrob Joe is called "a broken angel with shadows under his eyes." A dozen lines on, Joe is again "a broken angel," as if Holleran had forgotten he'd just used the phrase. One of the best stories, "The Sentimental Education," is marred by an apparent typo in its last paragraph (let's blame the publishers): The joy of waking up beside a stranger has become the joy of "walking up" beside one.

By preference, Holleran likes to write about the friendships between gay men -- friendships more lasting than love -- or to profile the gay equivalent of "my most unforgettable character." "Mister Friel was a hefty man whose white flesh was always contained within the confines of a dark, three-piece outfit we liked to call his `May-We-View-the-Body?' suit." Ashley Moore, once a fashion designer, becomes a prickly arbiter of gay elegance -- "the seventies," he explains "were about lounging" -- whose penthouse "was often crowded with men who dressed not as what they were but what they were hoping to attract; as if the object of their sexual fantasy was only looking for a mirror image of himself. The FIT graduate who could talk for an hour about what to look for in a moisturizer dressed like a pipe fitter on on offshore oil rig; the novelist like a Puerto Rican boxer on the skids, the drug dealer like an investment banker at Morgan Guaranty, the Edith Wharton scholar like a Hell's Angel from upstate new York." Many of the stories are clearly set in specific times -- the 1970s just before AIDS, during the Reagan era, last year. The slightly mournful narrators, apparently Holleran or his avatars, are always looking back in quite justifiable sorrow: "He wasn't even sure now why sex had been so important to him; but whatever the reason, the people he might have tried to explain his life to were dead." Clearly, much here is autobiographical, and one guesses that New Yorkers who made the scene at the Eagle's Nest will recognize some of the real-life originals.

The angst of cruising or bar-hopping, the desperation that comes with the loss of good looks, the gulf between those who are healthy and those with HIV, the pleasures and regrets of solitude -- all these are archetypal gay themes, yet Holleran makes us feel their power, no matter what our sexual orientation. After all, who hasn't known loss and sickness, mourned the passing of youthful innocence or sometimes felt "crushed by the fact that life does not allow us to love whom we should"? In how many stories, too, do characters find solace in reading -- Flaubert, Mary Renault, an unnamed bestseller that "makes Jean Rhys look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." There are wonderful descriptions of the sea at Fire Island, of Amsterdam and Mexico, of Philadelphia and a small Florida town, where the grocery store's "clientele was poorer, alcoholic, working class, sunburnt, and fat." The last story, "In September, the Light Changes" is very nearly a prose poem, even a dawn song: "The breeze was blowing off the ocean -- there was always a breeze in September -- fluttering the leaves of the grapevine on the trellis they had put up, and the sunlight fell gently, ever so gently, on the plate of toast, the coffee cup, the pot of jam the owner of the house had left there on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. . ." Surely, we have seen this house in a painting by Fairfield Porter.

Still, Holleran's strength remains his flair for conversation, and in many of these stories people simply talk, make pronouncements, crack jokes. "His eyes -- I simply swam in them. Did everything but wear flippers and a face mask . . . . Only aristocrats like Colin have the nerves of steel required for doing absolutely nothing with one's life . . . . He came walking down the street in his usual outfit of faded jeans and T-shirt that suggested he did not separate whites and colors when he did a wash . . . . `Bad sex leaves you depressed,' he said, putting down his cheeseburger with a solemn expression on his face. `Good sex leaves you suicidal.' "

It's generally recommended that a collection like In September, the Light Changes should be read slowly, over time, each story given proper appreciation. But I couldn't do this: As soon as I finished "The Hamburger Man" I could hardly wait to start "Someone Is Crying in the Chateau de Berne," and the book was read through in three days. This man possesses the hypnotic voice of the Ancient Mariner -- like the Wedding Guest, one cannot choose but hear. Holleran will make you laugh and may occasionally shock you, but he's a master storyteller, and he speaks in these pages with doleful wisdom. "In September, the light changes -- as he crossed the bay, it was once more beginning to break, in long, beautiful shafts, through the clearing sky -- but not the human heart."

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.