Now in his early forties, William Collins admits he's suffering from a kind of predictable midlife malaise, and like many others post 9/11, he wonders where things are going. The past year has been a post-traumatic time of uncertainty and anxiety for the whole country, and William life has been so exception. Currently working as a Boston realtor, William classifies himself as an obsessive compulsive, whether he's neurotically cleaning his apartment or looking for guys to hook up with over the Internet, he's always droll and totally aware of his shortcomings.
But lately, William feels as though he's had enough of the anonymous sexual encounters; the timing of them during the past year, a combination of makeshift management and fatalism of "the better-get-it-while-you-can variety." Determined to remake himself, William decides to embark on a career of abstinence, determined to approach the question of his spirituality, even practice the tedium of vacuum cleaning, hoping that it will provide a reliable alternative to sex.
Even reading Simone de Beavoir and arranging dinners with his airline steward friend Robert can't assuage William's insecure feelings; it's as though he's living in the cold waters of semi-reality, "trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next." It doesn't help that Robert, now prone to panic attacks at 35,000 feet, is planning to quit the airline industry and movie to San Diego with his best friend Marty.
And then there is the problem of Kumiko, William's passive aggressive tenant who lives in the apartment below him, and who owes William three thousand dollars in back rent, yet refuses to pay. The fact that William has allowed himself to be exploited by her has regretfully made him feel morally righteous, yet also quite guilty for feeling this way. His boss Gina has also been hounding him about his poor work performance, and it is only through selling to his new clients Charlotte and Samuel, a yuppie couple who are hoping to find an apartment in the city, that William sees any hope of making money.
His job performance, the Kumiko debacle, curiosity about Edward's plans for big changes and the fact that he keeps acting on impulse, seeking out sex with guys at a moments notice, doesn't alleviate the fact that he really loves Robert, and he just can't keep it at the level of a complicated friendship any longer. " I felt closer to him than I'd felt in years, as if the two of us were connected by a strong intangible bond, I'd taken entirely for granted and just now realized was immutable."
The fleeting physical pleasures of William's erotic adventures are blended in with the feelings of disappointment and regret, as though they have all become part of the same experience. In this tale of money, real estate and love, author Stephen McCauley instills in his protagonist a catty, incisive and biting sense of humor, his reactions to the world around him a series of low-key, brittle judgments, his flaws and eccentricities drawn with a deft and clever precision.
The novel is written from the standpoint of a certain age, a single man in his early-forties, with the cynical and world-weary wisdom of midlife. The narrative is complex, William's inner life is carefully recorded, and his thoughts, timely and honest: "In the end most people just wanted to be left in peace to f*ck, overeat, doze off watching the evening news and sleep through the night without having to get up too often to p*ss." And with pretty people:" its as though there's something wearying about lugging around the burden of beauty, always being the object of admiration and envy."
The Alternative to Sex is never maudlin or depressing even though the characters are desperately searching to connect in a world now fraught with hostility and danger. In William, McCauley has yet again, created a totally unique and distinctive voice, his observations of the people around him showcasing the human condition with all its flaws, foibles and insecurities. Mike Leonard March 06.