A Nov. 25 review of the book "Late and Soon" incorrectly attributed a quotation to Henry James. It was William Wordsworth who wrote, "The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." (Published 11/28/2005)

LATE AND SOON

By Robert J. Hughes

Carroll & Graf. 328 pp. $25

"Late and Soon," a thoughtful if sometimes tortured and tortuous novel about art lovers and art auctions in New York, is not for everyone. If you're not interested in gay culture, you can pass on this. If you don't care about fine art and how it's judged, stay away; you'll be bored to tears. And if a baroque prose style gets on your nerves, your patience is apt to be tried.

Otherwise, you might find yourself fascinated by this idiosyncratic, highly original, defiantly unfashionable novel. It takes as its subject seven young Manhattanites whose lives are undergoing serious change. What they have in common is an ambiguous attitude about self-knowledge (some work desperately for it; others feel that the less they know, the safer they are). They aren't particularly pleasant people: Adjectives like "impatient," "petulant," "sarcastic," "sardonic" and "self-loathing" describe them at least three times each in the narrative. Hughes writes that one poor guy "smeared himself with so much self-loathing he could have been a self-basting turkey." They are tied together by bonds of love, blood, marriage, affection, betrayal, divorce and distaste. At the center of the novel, Claire (who puts together 19th-century genre-painting sales at Sotheby's) has been left by her husband, Peter, who's come out to her as gay and taken up with a nice man named Toby. Claire, with great self-discipline, has befriended Toby and Peter as a couple, but now Peter has dumped Toby, too, and hooked up with Sean, a police detective who still lives with his mother. Sean had an earlier, covert affair with Jose (the self-basting-turkey fellow), who obsessively cheats on his longtime partner, Nestor. Toby is left brokenhearted and stricken. Claire can only sympathize and try to remain friends with them all.

To thicken the plot, Frank, Peter's older brother, who has spent 10 years first as a priest and then as a celibate professor, comes into New York, ostensibly to work on a self-help book based on the business principles of Saint Teresa of Avila. Of course, he's really come to see if he has any chance with Claire. Frank is in equal anguish about his wasted past life and the prospect of wasting what life he has left. He's in a constant state of fury -- at other people, at himself. He's repelled by his gay brother and still in a rage at his father, who coerced him into the priesthood and then ran off recklessly with a nun-turned-slut.

These are the characters. The plot is held up like a literary drawbridge by the descriptions of two auctions at Sotheby's. The first is a glittering evening in which we see millions of dollars exchanged for art in a twinkling, all in a world of "socially prominent matrons -- that breed of calcified clothes horse who never ate, and rarely even sipped water for fear of having to use a public restroom, and whose husbands absented themselves with mistresses, masseuses, nonstop moneymaking, or even background boyfriends while their wives bejeweled their parched throats for charity." This world of glamour and fine art, the author suggests, is made up of society's castoffs: disaffected gay men, loveless women and "walkers," professional escorts paid to keep these hags company.

The second auction is a much more modest sale put together by Claire, made up mostly of those 19th-century genre paintings that are the auction house's real bread and butter. These are the paintings interior designers buy to fill a wall of someone's entry hall. The star of Claire's show will be a James Tissot painting called "The Widow," which depicts several women in different stages of their lives -- and of course mirrors Claire's own life-dilemma: She's in many ways still a naive little girl, but she sometimes feels as world-weary as a crone. She longs for love but doesn't know what it is or how to find it. She's seen enough parched and lonely matrons to have some kind of inkling of what's in store for her. (She knows that men, too, struggle to make meaningful connections, terrified equally of intimacy and isolation.)

There are a lot of problems with this novel. Jose, Nestor's cheating boyfriend, seems to exist merely as a character study of a certain kind of homosexual, and their relationship as emblematic of a certain kind of emotional imprisonment. Peter's new boyfriend, Sean, is most unconvincing as a police detective, and Toby's Alcoholics Anonymous parents simply appear as cameos, doing little or nothing to further the plot.

"The world is too much with us; late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers": Hughes takes these Henry James lines as secular scripture and uses them to build his tale of art, money and love. Art, here, has been hijacked by commerce. The job of all these characters is to wrench their eyes from this materialistic charade and remember the spiritual importance of life, affection and love.

Sunday in Book World

* Jed Perl pictures the New York art world at its peak.

* Michael Scheuer on what's ailing the CIA.

* Who'd win in 2008, Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice?

* Christopher Lehmann-Haupt recalls a deadly summer camp.

* And novels about women -- bored, tempted and dead -- trying to make their marriages work.