Book Review:

Fool's Errand by Louis Bayard

Patrick Beaton, the main character of Louis Bayard's novel Fool's Errand, is a 36-year-old gay man in Washington, DC, with a suitable boyfriend and a vanilla job at the National Conservation Alliance. He’s trying to learn the violin, his father is shiftless, and his car keeps getting vandalized. One afternoon he falls asleep at a party and meets the man of his dreams; when he wakes up, the man is gone. Hoping to recapture such nirvana, Patrick goes off on a quest for the elusive object of his fantasies.

This book is a gem. I loved it, I really did. I didn't expect to – I bought it because I wanted something to read and I was intrigued by the summary on the back cover. But the more I read, the more I found myself bonding with this funny, engrossing, heartwarming novel, and during the last thirty pages or so, I got unexpectedly teary several times – partly because I was moved by what was happening, and partly because I was sad that I would soon be done. For several nights after I finished it, I wanted to hug it to my chest like the Bible and sleep with it under my pillow.

Bayard's style is breezy but fresh. There's at least one terrific phrase on each page – he has a dead-on sense of comic timing, in both the narration and the dialogue. (He knows the humor of a well-placed "Oh.") I read some of his lines with glee. On cats: "There was something a little withheld about cats – a nagging sense that you were being billed for their time." On S&M: "'Well, it’s a lot to go through just for an orgasm.'" And the plot is filled with many succulent red herrings: you think you're several steps ahead of the author, but then you realize he's run around a secret corner ahead of you, grinning as he does so.

At least one reviewer has likened this book to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series from the 1970s. Like those books, Fool's Errand's short chapters, quirky dialogue, and ever-widening cast of intriguing characters make it hard to put down. But this similarity is not the only thing that makes the story seem pleasantly retro.

There's something innocent about this novel. It's about urban gay life, but there's no mention of AIDS, no drugs, and practically no sex. Practically no sex; there's one scene in which sex apparently takes place, but it's almost as veiled as the scene in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and it's hard to tell what gay sex act has occurred, if any.

Bayard takes the gay novel in an interesting direction: backward. Or is it forward? It's hard to tell; it depends on how you define gay progress. The definition has changed over time. In the giddy 1970s, progress meant being able to sleep with whomever you wanted, wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted; today, some see this as regression. And in the bleak 1980s, progress merely meant not dying.

But if the AIDS epidemic has made random sex seem reckless, and if the growing acceptance of gays during the 1990s has made such defiance unnecessary, then what is progress today? Ellen has come out; "Will & Grace" is a hit; Jerry Falwell, of all people, has seen the rainbow-colored light recently. There's much more work to be done – the laws still don't treat us with decency and respect – but in day-to-day society, things are a whole lot better than they used to be. Being gay doesn't have to be so political anymore; you can just be gay. So what do we do now?

Do what everyone else in the world does – try to find domestic bliss. "Classic postmodern gay," as one character in the book calls it. "I fantasize about domesticity. Instead of sex."

For the most part, this novel is squeaky clean – almost too clean to be a gay novel, by the old standards. But what’s wrong with being squeaky clean? For although the book seems to paint a postmodern gay white male fantasy, what happens at the end of the book seems perfectly achievable, and it gives an idealistic gay man some hope of future happiness.

Here is the postmodern millennial gay lifestyle: "...we put away the stuff from Bulk Barn, and we feed the dog. And we vacuum. We sweep the back patio. We clean the bathroom. Iron the cloth napkins. Just normal weekend stuff, yes? And the whole time we're saying – I don’t know, really stupid banal things: 'Oh, we forgot the light bulbs.' 'Oh, never mind, I'll stop at CVS tomorrow.' Stuff like that. And if you were listening to us, you'd think, How boring. And it wouldn’t be. It would just be us."

Boring? Perhaps. But you can almost see Pat Robertson and Michelangelo Signorile nodding, shaking hands, and saying, "OK, it's a deal."

Copyright 1999