In his first book in eight years, Mr. Maupin, the author of the inviting "Tales of the City" series, presents Gabriel Noone Jr., a writer beloved by countless readers (not to mention Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, who use him in their promotional materials) and by listeners on National Public Radio for his "stories about people caught in the supreme joke of modern life who were forced to survive by making families of their friends."
Little do his admirers know how Gabriel is suffering. "My marriage had exploded in midair," he confides at the book's start, going on to canonize his estranged lover, Jess, as "this sweet, volatile man who had come out of nowhere to slay my dragons." Then, out of nowhere, a new special somebody comes into Gabriel's life.
Gabriel happens upon a manuscript by Pete Lomax, a 13-year-old who has been monstrously molested by his parents: raped by his father, sold into prostitution by both parents and eventually infected with AIDS. Instantly, this is enough to shake him out of what he calls "my feeble little French-vanilla existence."
He develops a telephone friendship with Pete and it blossoms into extraordinary closeness. So extraordinary that Pete, who is in Wisconsin, is soon asking if he can put his head on Gabriel's shoulder, despite the fact that Gabriel is in San Francisco. "Could I call you Dad sometimes?" Pete inquires. And, "Are you still holding me?" For his part, Gabriel begins thinking of himself as Pete's parent, as in "he needs his old man to make it all better."
Since Pete is preternaturally fluent in self-help-ese ("You have a right to your feelings," he assures Gabriel), the stellar author begins confiding some very adult thoughts. He tells Pete all about how Jess's interest in black leather and rough sex broke up the couple's happy home. He sends the heterosexual boy a copy of Playboy. He confesses his insecurities to Pete, who answers: "Look at the people who love you . . . Look into their eyes and see what they're seeing; that's all you need to know about yourself." At this point in the story, as at numerous others, Gabriel finds himself in tears. Readers are liable to experience alternative emotions.
It looks as if Mr. Maupin may be setting up trouble between Gabriel and Donna, who is Pete's stepmother and could be antagonized by the erotically charged long-distance friendship. That would suit the book's reliance on soap-opera crises (even a beloved dog becomes a pawn to this) and gay clichés (there is the obligatory sexual encounter between Gabriel and a straight truck driver, who turns violent after their mens'-room pickup is consummated). But instead it's mystery that Mr. Maupin has in mind. So he abruptly raises the question of whether Pete exists at all, or whether he is a figment of Donna's imagination.
That turns a lengthy part of "The Night Listener" into a sleuthing expedition, as Gabriel ventures to Wisconsin in search of the truth. It sounds as if he may have strayed into Madison County by mistake, especially after Gabriel describes himself as "following a star to a child I'd never met" and comes to the conclusion that "sometimes you have to stop doubting and trust your heart."
As to what he actually discovers, aside from "a small but ardent shrine to me in the form of photographs and yellowed press clippings," that remains regrettably unclear. Mr. Maupin seems to be generating suspense mostly by refusing to make up his mind which way this story is headed, and by preferring vague platitudes about love and trust and hugs to an actual resolution. In a book that never succeeds in finding Pete (though it comes tantalizingly close), the author finally shifts his emphasis to a more generalized idea of relationships between men.
So Gabriel weighs the connections between himself, Pete and his father in a chapter modestly titled "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." And in a melodramatic confrontation with his ailing parent ("How pathetic it felt to be having this overwrought `East of Eden´ conversation so late in both our lives") he tells the senior Gabriel Noone that "I know what it means to accommodate someone else´s anger, because I ended up marrying you." This would carry more weight if it had been made more important to the narrative. But it serves almost as an afterthought in a drifting, irresolute book with only the most contrived brand of forward momentum.
As a final sign of uncertainty, Mr. Maupin turns "The Night Listener" into the book Gabriel starts writing after the events described here have occurred, if that makes sense - which it doesn't.
A vital though undeveloped aspect of "The Night Listener" is the fact that Jess is H.I.V.-positive and that both he and Gabriel anticipated his death throughout the years they were together. But now Jess's drug cocktail, which includes protease inhibitors and has raised his T-cell count, has so greatly improved his health that the book unfolds in an atmosphere of new hope. The dread that brought together the "Tales of the City" characters into such close, supportive community is miraculously diminished, but with it has gone some of Mr. Maupin's sense of purpose. The news is good, but it's not good for this book.