Whose Song? And Other Stories
by Thomas Glave
(City Lights) $12.95

Three young men are violently raping a teenage lesbian. Each of the rapists is revealed within the narrative to be experiencing at least some form of homosexual panic. The narrative focus is primarily on the boys--Robbie, for example, is in crisis, trying to prove his masculinity, or "hardness," as it were, compensating for the fact that he once had sex with another boy: "But he was holding onto me and sliding, sliding way up inside sucking coming inside me in me in hot..." Robbie thinks.

Somewhere beneath this rapist is the victim, with a turpentine-soaked rag in her throat, practically ignored in terms of character development. It is at this point, perhaps, in the last, title story to Thomas Glave's debut collection, Whose Song?, that the reader is finally unable to stomach all the excess horseshit.

This is sad, really, because Glave is a powerful writer: like a less-refined Gertrude Stein when the prose reads like free verse, and a cruder, more paranoid James Baldwin when the prose is more grounded. Glave has been compared to Baldwin on more than one occasion, and not entirely without reason: The young author, after Baldwin, is the second gay black writer to claim the O. Henry Prize. And occasionally, his writing rises to the emotional and intellectual precedents set by Baldwin. The problem is, Glave's explorations of sexuality are far more self-conscious, always at the forefront of the stories, and, at times, downright embarrassing.

Begin with the story "Accidents," in which one of a pair of gay lovers very eloquently gives himself over to insanity, into eventual, heart-rending mental collapse. The story is elegantly written, well paced, and insightful. Only one passage is ruined by Glave's own prescriptions, but it pokes out through the text like a big, ugly rainbow flag: "Loving another man wasn't strange; people can't hate the idea enough to change it, for us or anybody." Aw, shucks. It's not an awful sentence really, just trite. The rest of the passage, which goes on to describe his lover's smell ("bay rum and books"), and the manner in which the moon arcs over the roof at nighttime, is the part that reads as human, evocative enough to make anyone trust the integrity of the relationship, minus the sloganeering.

Most of these stories are beautiful, regardless. "Their Story" is unique, even if the plot feels contrived. Two men in a closely knit neighborhood lose their wives at around the same time. Although they are far beyond their respective youths, they manage to find love in one another. The story is written in lyrical prose, reminiscent of Baldwin, thick and heavy with revelation. The story twitches with implausibility, however: One of the men gets beaten by a gang of thugs when he intervenes to protect a gay youth, an encounter he just happens upon. But this is fiction, after all, and there's a submerged, meditative tone to the prose that is ultimately gratifying.

Perhaps more troublesome than the trite, pro-gay sentiment, however, is the gratuitous use of sexuality, like in "The Final Inning." In this story, a closeted husband and father, with a history of anonymous bathroom sex, is forced to confront the fear of AIDS when a friend dies of an AIDS-related illness. The story is a fast, bracing read that weaves itself into a satisfyingly bleak conclusion. Again, the only time the narrative gets clunky is when the protagonist thinks about sex with men: "Lay across his dusky thighs, smell his dusk, his musky parts in the hands; a palm to those musk-dusky parts moistened by the mouth." Why is the protagonist thinking about "musk-dusky" sex in a moment of AIDS panic? In a story that is, by design, already emotionally heightened (one that would read just as easily in the sparest, most objective tone), the passage is more masturbatory than relevant, and, ultimately, a detriment to the storytelling.

This is a problem with much of the gay literature being produced today: It keeps on fluffing us. With the exception of the repulsive "Whose Song?" all of the stories in Thomas Glave's collection are gorgeous, layered, deeply conflicted, and just shy of important. Let it be known that Glave is a stormy, luminous writer worthy of being heard. For now, however, he seems a bit too "moistened by the mouth" to know how relevant he actually is.