NAKED IN THE PROMISED LAND

By Lillian Faderman

Houghton Mifflin. 356 pp. $26 This is how absent-minded it's possible to be: I picked up "Naked in the Promised Land," and although several people have said to me over the years, "Did you ever know Lillian Faderman?" that question slipped my mind; I didn't make the connection, until -- with the single difference of gender preference -- I began to read the story of my own life. To think how often I've preached to creative writing classes: "The real purpose of the writer is to alleviate loneliness, to make a connection with the reader that validates his or her existence!" Only I always thought I would be the one making the connection, not the other way around.

So I read this book with considerable bias. To be raised poor in Los Angeles by a hysterical single mother -- yes, I remember that. To be seduced into some pitiful storefront drama school taught by folks who know less than a pack of wild squirrels about how to "make it" in Hollywood. To spend numberless nights with that screaming raving nut case who happens to be your mother. To yearn with a measureless yearning to get out of the cage that is your life. To find yourself in sour furnished rooms, strolling Hollywood Boulevard at 2 o'clock in the morning because there's no point in going home and you're only 16, literally wondering where your next meal is coming from. And then to lock on to the idea of academic life at UCLA because it really does look like civilization compared with where you've come from. To study and study and hold on, and then get your PhD, only to get sold down the river by the white guys in charge. And then to make it anyway! Oh, and throw in an absolutely wacky first marriage with wedding pictures that make you wince. And throw in after that a disastrous trip to Mazatlan, watching tropical sunsets over the Pacific with expat drunks on the balcony of O'Brien's Bar. No, this isn't self-indulgent me, talking about my life; it's Lillian Faderman, talking about her own.

Faderman's mother was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia whose only friend in the New World was Rae, her equally clueless but not quite so forlorn sister. From the town of Prael to New York and thence to L.A., where Faderman's mother would work in a sweatshop, the sisters suffered but survived. Faderman grew up wild with ambition: She would "save" her mother and aunt by becoming a movie star.

Poverty's face is meticulously drawn here. When Lillian's mother marries a poor wretch who's been trepanned after having a nervous breakdown in the desert outside Veracruz, Lillian is banished from the furnished room she shares with her mom and relegated to an old army cot that's been set up in the landlady's dining room. "Furnished room." "Army cot." "Coffee Dan's," the restaurant on -- was it Hollywood and Highland? Where the young and dispossessed spent long, oddly glamorous nights. These nouns evoke a life specific to time and place. (The ads for "furnished rooms" in the L.A. Times this morning? Fewer than 40 in a city of 11 million.) Either these evocations are valuable or they're not. But Faderman is strong in her belief that all voiceless humans deserve voices, and a respectable place in our American history.

Faderman had an amazing figure. She parlayed that into jobs as a nude model, then a stripper. She decided early on that she was a lesbian, but in her youth took up with more than a guy or two. She was literally making up her life as she went along. At UCLA, as a graduate student, she encountered a bunch of men as white and slick as Crisco who were making it up as they went along, too. They needed graduate students to teach, and girls were nice. But the good job offers -- after years of hard work -- went to the men. Faderman was told there was only one job the year she got her degree -- at Fresno State. Her male classmates went to major universities.

This account ends in the mid-'70s with the birth of Faderman's son, destined to be raised by two devoted mothers, the transportation of Faderman's academic career (she becomes a dean, respected historian and general lesbian hell-raiser at Fresno State, which she learns to love) and the eventual discovery of her own heart's desire, Phyllis, a kind and good lady. But it's the early scramble and chaos here that's enchanting and true to life.

So, Lillian! It's so nice to meet you finally, if only in print. You made me remember Coffee Dan's, and sleeping under newspapers. You made me remember those fairly awful guys at UCLA, but looking at the bright side, they did let us play; they just tried to rig the game. Only five years and a measly gender preference separate the two of us. Didn't we live at an amazing time, in an amazing place? And my God, Lillian. Weren't we brave?