THE PATERNITY TEST, by Michael Lowenthal. Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, 278 pp., $26.95.
What could be a line from a Borscht Belt comic -- I'm glad gays are getting married and starting families because now they can be as miserable as everyone else! -- lies at the serious heart of Michael Lowenthal's latest novel, "The Paternity Test."
Credit Lowenthal for taking what could have been a safe, sweet story and turning it into something knotted and barbed. The scenario is sitcom-ready: Two mismatched gay men decide to adopt a baby, and they hire a plucky Brazilian woman to be their surrogate, despite the hesitations of her lughead husband. Canned, false laughter should ensue. But Lowenthal is aiming for something truer to life.
Consider our gay couple: At first, they seem so predictable that their descriptions should come with exclamation points. Pat is a quiet textbook writer with a heart of gold! Stu is a highflying pilot who likes to have a guy in every hub! Will a baby change everything?
Well, not so fast. Pat is friendly enough, but he's also pretty friendless, and he has gotten so used to his own desperation that he doesn't recognize it as his motivating force. And Stu might be a hothead, but he has his own twisted loyalty streak.
At the start of the paternity adventure, Pat reflects: "Could you decide to want kids? Whether to have them: that was a choice. And when, and with whom. But wanting them? Wasn't that just an ore you had within? At least that's how it was for me: not chosen but discovered, uncovered."
Or so Pat thinks. When surrogate-mom-to-be Debora enters the picture, the determination to have a baby starts to feel more about what it could mean for his relationship with Stu and less about the baby itself. As one of Pat's friends cautions, "Gay men having kids is fine. It can be gorgeous. But not just automatically."
This is certainly an interesting vein to explore. The weakness of Lowenthal's novel -- and what can cause it to be profoundly annoying -- is the ridiculous depths of stupidity to which these characters descend. This is not always unintentional ("Did you plan to be so dumb?" one character snaps at another), but it can lead to some long stretches without a single sympathetic character in sight. Debora is a particular miss, her personality built from bursts of exposition, not actual humanity.
But back to Pat and Stu. Even if you can't stand them, you can recognize that they stand for something. It's a lesson both straights and gays would do well to heed: Just because you can have children doesn't mean you should.