by Tom Spanbauer
(Grove Press) $26

Way back when, my brother handed me a copy of Tom Spanbauer's novel The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, thinking I might like it. I'd heard tell of the book, but I wasn't so sure it was my cup of tea. Too flaky, too hippie-dippy, too cultish. Seeing as I love my brother, though, I set the novel neatly atop my stack of to-be-reads. Then, as so often happens, other stuff started piling up. Eventually, Spanbauer was transported guiltily from stack to bookshelf. Years passed. Every so often, I'd slide the book out and scan the cover blurbs. Put it back.

When, recently, the opportunity arose for me to review Spanbauer's new novel, In the City of Shy Hunters, I leapt, figuring I could kill two proverbial birds. In doing the proper research, I could also tell my brother that I'd finally read that damn book he'd gifted me. Instead of just two birds, though, it's like I stoned a whole flock. My brother had been right all along: Spanbauer really is a gem. So not only should one never look into a gift horse's mouth; neither should one judge a book by its cover, ever. That's my story.

There is, by the way, a recurring theme in Spanbauer's work: We are only the stories we tell about ourselves. Bullshitting is an act of self-construction. And Spanbauer himself is something of a poetic fabulist. In both The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and In the City of Shy Hunters, his rambunctious prose wheels around the dynamo of myth, while the characters themselves--Indians, cowboys, whores, drag queens--are constantly sent spinning by the vagaries of fate. These are novels with an existential ax to grind. Always at stake in Spanbauer's work is being itself--the human spirit vying for wholeness, struggling against disintegration. And yet for all the philosophizing, Spanbauer never lets abstraction get in the way of a powerful yarn. His pacing is superb; his characters, deep and compelling.

Of the two novels, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is the more artful and fully realized. Spanbauer's prose is wonderfully lush and twangy and strange, a sort of eroticized American vernacular that achieves moments of wild lyricism. The plot reads like a bawdily inverted Western--imagine an X-rated High Noon--with a gaggle of spirited, bisexual misfits fighting to maintain a local whorehouse against the assaults of the bigoted Mormons who are slowly buying up the town. What begins as a routine battle of good against evil becomes a vast, complicated meditation on sexual liberation, religious intolerance, and how capitalist expansion anchors itself in the repression of otherness.

Spanbauer explores these same themes in Shy Hunters, a 500-plus-page epic 10 years in the writing. In it, a young Idaho hick, searching for a friend who may be his brother as well as his lover, comes to Manhattan--also called "Wolf Swamp"--in the early '80s. He gets a flat and a job busing tables in a posh restaurant. William of Heaven soon finds himself tangled up in a community of junkies, queens, performance artists, gurus, and cranks. It's a community under siege from within. The threat of AIDS, which Spanbauer envisions as a dragon crouching in the city's darkening heart, is palpable throughout the book; it brings an excruciating vibrancy to every random encounter, every glance and gesture and word.

Shy Hunters isn't as controlled and deliberate as Spanbauer's previous novel, which makes it by comparison a lesser work, though hardly a failure. The atmosphere of panic lends the narrative a compulsive force; the depiction of piling-up wreckage is akin to a magical realist soap opera, a heartbreaking fable about the internecine ravages of an epidemic. Think car crash, and the difficulty of looking away. The book's mythology is simultaneously desperate and salvational. When, in the end, the hero gallops triumphantly through New York streets on a stolen white steed, the message is clear: The stories we tell about ourselves are not only self-creating. They might be stays against death.

Spanbauer reads Tues June 12 at 7 pm at Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E, 323-8842, free.