By Louis Bayard

Alyson. 470 pp. Paperback, $12.95

By Richard Lipez, who writes mysteries under the name Richard Stevenson.

Louis Bayard's funny, tenderhearted first novel, set in Washington, is, among other good things, a reminder of how goofy the cultural-right term "gay lifestyle" is. In a free society there are--lucky for everybody--innumerable ways of being both straight and gay, some fast and loose, some slow and tidy. The most common American "lifestyle" for both--all?--sexual orientations is the widely familiar one chosen by Bayard's droll, companionable nice-guy protagonist, Patrick Beaton.

Patrick goes to work at his "bearable" job at an environmental organization. He's smart and apparently works hard, and he owns a pleasant, small house on Capitol Hill. He has friends and a cultural life, and while he's aware of the larger questions of human existence, he's not tormented by them. Except for the routine vandalism of his cherished '87 Olds and of his small garden, Patrick likes his life. But as with a lot of young singles of a certain age, the one thing Patrick misses is the right partner--housemate, lover, spouse-person--to bring him out of himself, and love, and live his life with. Finding that man is what "Fool's Errand" is about. And while Bayard's title might suggest that Patrick's quest is hopeless, it turns out to be merely very entertainingly labyrinthine.

We meet Patrick when he's 32. He's concerned about his looks--"pinched and severe . . . like a Spanish ascetic"--though men are certainly attracted to him, most recently Alex. A dog lover, which Patrick isn't, and a bit of a control freak--his parting request was to clean Patrick's mini-blinds--Alex has moved on to Ted, an exquisite chef and decorator, a self-satisfied fellow with a two-story luxury condo off Florida Avenue. One of the funnier scenes in the book involves a dinner party in which Patrick is called on to "break bread with his ex and his ex's lover and his ex-lover's ex." A scene like that could conceivably happen in New York, but it's almost inevitable in social Washington, which, as one character says, is "smaller than Mayberry."

The MacGuffin that sets "Fool's Errand" in motion is an incident at a Sunday brunch that Patrick has no interest in attending, and where he has trouble staying focused, or even conscious. "He listened to men his own age discussing things he would never have thought to discuss: simplified employee pensions, the stormproofing of summer houses in Delaware, the anti-wrinkle properties of Preparation H." One of Bayard's themes here is that large numbers of gay men lead lives entirely lacking in either glamour or depravity. They can be as dull as anybody, and so what?

Finding an empty room in his brunch host's town house, Patrick dozes off, only to be half-awakened by a man in a cranberry Shetland wool sweater, who, when Patrick mumbles how sleepy he is, advises Patrick to go ahead and "cast off." Days later, Patrick recalls the man in the sweater and manages to inflate him into the man of his dreams, based on not much more than an aching, vague need. What follows is "the quest," an increasingly obsessive and sometimes farcical attempt to track down Patrick's "Scottish prince." "Fool's Errand" is preposterous if you think for more than a second about the sustained delusion at the center of it, and at 470 pages--what is this, St. Petersburg?--it's about a quarter too long. But the book is hard to put down mainly because as a writer Bayard is so damned likable.

His frequently endearing, but only rarely too endearing, cast of characters includes Patrick's divorced father, George, a romantic ne'er-do-well who shows up on Patrick's doorstep with a suitcase full of new schemes, including a plan for the CIA to join him in marketing disused Cold War paraphernalia; Patrick's impressionable and a little desperate best friend, Marianne, who is in love with a vegetarian Yanni aficionado named Victor but can't figure out why; Rick, a law librarian who answers Patrick's personal ad for Scottie and turns out to be too many things to too many people; and Seth, Ted's ex-boyfriend, a sweaty, insecure young mattress manufacturers' lobbyist who assists Patrick in his quest, ostensibly to "kill" the false illusion of Scottie, although over time life becomes emotionally complicated for Seth, too.

Seth's search for Scottie up and down gay Washington provides a wonderful opportunity for '90s gay picaresque. There's a brief stop at a gay line-dancing bar (a "lifestyle" for Gary Bauer to mull over) and a funny mix-up--one of many in the novel--when Seth turns over a "sketch" of Scottie to a group of gay crime-fighting vigilantes called the Pink Posse and asks them to help find the man who, he lies, mugged him. An invitation to a couple's commitment ceremony states: "Please join Scott and Jeffrey as they consecrate their lives together. The only intoxicant will be life. The only animals will be dancing."

Patrick Beaton may have a very narrow and specific idea of what he thinks he wants in life--he surprises himself in the end--but Louis Bayard's spirit is larger and more encompassing, and it should bring much pleasure to many readers of his wise and sweet novel.