THE AERODYNAMICS OF PORK By Patrick Gale Dutton. 185 pp. $15.95
Patrick Gale's second novel is a romance, but a most unusual one: Two of its romances are homosexual, and the other is no romance at all. This is to say that it is a novel about love and sex in the new age, with all the complexities and ambiguities the age brings with it -- not the least of them being the looming sense that the age can come to a speedy end at scarcely a moment's notice.
The principal characters in the first two romances are Seth Peake and Maude Faithe. Seth, soon to be 16 years old, is a violinist of gifts "prodigious beyond question"; he has just been given the boot at school and is on his way home to London, from which he will journey with his mother and sister for their annual stay at a countryside "pacifist festival of music and art." At the festival he will meet Roly MacGuire, a sculptor several years older, and fall in love with him.
Maude, known as Mo, is a police inspector in London, assigned to plainclothes duty. A few years ago, when she was 22, she had fallen in love with Maggie, and had lived with her "for three years' marital bliss" until Maggie's death in an auto crash. Since then she has been on her own -- "She'd lusted, but lust was just lust -- an indulgence, like the occasional ciggie or a glass of port" -- but a new woman is about to enter her life, a pop singer by the name of Hope Linden.
And then there is Venetia, Seth's 20-year-old sister. She is beautiful and charming, but she is no child of the age; she remains, at her advanced years, a virgin. She hopes for love but has no thought of lust: "She was the last person in the world to be called neurotic. She was simply keeping her options open. And her legs crossed." Oddly, though, her stomach has begun to swell, just as though she were pregnant; a doctor diagnoses "a rare state of hysteria in which pent-up sexual neurosis is made manifest in all the classic pregnancy symptoms."
What eventually brings these three people together, even if only tangentially, is a peculiar case to which Mo has been assigned. A series of burglaries has been committed, every one of them against an astrologer or prognosticator or visionary of some other variety. It seems that each had been about to make a public prediction of a dire nature; one was going to announce "that the society we know and love can never be the same after this coming Friday." The principal suspect is a man who seems to believe that by stealing the predictions he can prevent the cataclysmic event; he is Seth and Venetia's father.
This last ingredient in the plot, though it serves to bring together Seth, Mo and Venetia, seems to me a complicating element that diminishes, rather than heightens, the tension between love and lust that is Gale's principal subject. Peake the elder never makes more than a perfunctory appearance in the story, and his motives are never sufficiently grounded in character to be convincing or even especially interesting; his role seems more a matter of Gale's contrivance than of any real connection to what is happening elsewhere in the novel.
This is a pity, for Gale is a clever, original writer with a sharp eye for social comedy and an equally sharp ear for dialogue. To wit the woman who is upbraided by Seth's mother for calling homosexuals "gays" and replies: "But you can't say homosexual, it sounds too like something people bring home from one of those warehouses in the back of the car, and put together themselves. 'The Home-O-Sexule -- a new concept in living.' "
Gale is also a kind observer of the human comedy. For all the foolishness his characters are inclined to do and say, he likes them all the same, with the result that they become real people -- even those whose appearances are brief. The one exception is Seth's father, in whom Gale seems to have little real interest ("Always so cold, so unremittingly rational, never treating children as children") and who as a result never takes his own natural place in the novel's scheme.
Thus "The Aerodynamics of Pork" -- the title, as best I can figure it, has to do with Mo, the policewoman, being a "pig" -- is not quite the success that "Ease," Gale's first novel, was. But second novels are tough, and all the tougher when they follow impressive debuts. Gale is young, and has many good books ahead of him.