| It's hard to know just what to make of James Wilcox's antic new novel, "Plain and Normal," the story of a repressed, downtrodden, reluctant gay man whose only wish is to be "left alone." Wilcox is a master of comic detail, with a grasp of the bizarre and the eccentric that frequently leaves you rolling on the floor. On the other hand, "Plain and Normal" doesn't really have a plot, which is a drawback even in a novel as funny as this. The book is all situation, all character, all repartee, spinning around in what we may assume is a deliberate circle, ending just as it began and going, essentially, nowhere. It's a double-pronged story about sexual confusion and the power of appearances to shape our lives, but in the end you're screaming for something to resolve itself, ready to throw the book across the room if something -- anything -- doesn't come to a head.
The hero, or anti-hero, of Wilcox's tale is Severinus Lloyd Norris, called "Lloyd" or "S. Lloyd" by his family and friends but always "Mr. Norris" by his creator. It's impossible here to miss the ironic reference to Isherwood, whose "Mr. Norris" was a confirmed, if unlikely, debauchee. Wilcox's Norris is just the opposite: a drab, tired, overworked, overweight, endlessly harassed and completely frustrated New York businessman, who's been dragged kicking and screaming out of the closet by his ex-wife, Pearl Fay, a woman he'd married in high school in Tula Springs, Ala., because she was pregnant with another man's child. Mr. Norris is always doing the right thing, or trying to, though his efforts misfire with karmic inevitability, and he finds himself stuck with the blame for every catastrophe and misunderstanding that afflicts the people around him.
"Why can't people see I'm just about the most bland person on earth?" Mr. Norris laments. "That's all I want. Is it asking too much?" The gallery of eccentrics and egomaniacs who ruffle Mr. Norris' life -- Pearl Fay, with whom he still lives after their divorce; his bosses at NyLo, a company that designs labels for cosmetics and health-care products; his terrifying secretary, Mrs. Kundaa; his wife's friend Dawne, a widow who works as a meter reader and wants to become a lesbian; and the pair of gay men, one "out," one "in," who intermittently stoke his desire -- are all hilarious creations, forever urging Mr. Norris to take action, to trumpet his sexuality to the world, to go for the gold and get laid, for God's sake. But it's an endless series of banana peels for poor Mr. Norris, to the point that his associates begin to suspect he's invented his gayness to get ahead in the business world (this being New York at the end of the millennium).
"From now on," Mr. Norris vows with a rare flash of spirit, "I guarantee I'm not going to have anything but normal friends, plain, honest, bland people." It's a vain hope. There's a strange and ultimately unsatisfying subplot involving two elderly men whom Mr. Norris thinks are gay but aren't, and what seems like an obligatory AIDS theme that doesn't connect to the larger story. In the end, Mr. Norris is right where he was: all good intentions and no earthly reward. Same with the book, alas, clever as it is.