Louis Bayard, the author of "Endangered Species," often gets props for being a gay writer who writes gay stories that, somehow, don't seem "gay." And that's true enough in "Endangered Species," whose thoughtful protagonist describes being hit by a biological urge all men, even the gay ones, face: To spread his seed, as Nick Broome puts it, as far and as wide as an Atlantic herring's.
In telling Nick's story Bayard avoids all the usual gay tropes. His close friend Shannon does seem semi-fabulous, but she's no stereotypical fag hag, and none of his friends seem like nonstop Circuit-hopping club kids. Imagine "Will and Grace" minus Karen and Jack, and their constant camp soundtrack. Bayard also doesn't earnestly harangue us to try and understand Nick the way so many writers of gay characters do, in literature or film or (in the case of the smugly "naughty" show "Queer as Folk") on TV. We are won over by Nick for a simple reason: He's neither sideshow nor saint but an actual, believable human being.
"Endangered Species" tracks Nick's torturous struggle to find a way, as a single 34-year-old government worker in Washington, of fathering a child. It's a deceptively simple premise, and Nick's journey from sperm donation to personal ads to surrogate mothers is entertaining. But what really holds a reader's attention is trying to figure out what, exactly, makes his quest so urgent. Is it prompted by his two straight siblings, who both seem officially ambivalent to reproducing, threatening to be the end of the line for the family Broome? Could it just be a version of conventional machismo?
Regardless of its provenance, it's an obsession, strong enough to cause Nick to look longingly at his own sperm. "I peer into it, and I can almost see my little Atlantic herrings, waiting to fan out. One of them could turn into a young boy. A young boy in a royal-blue parka, unzipped, with the hood down, running toward me across a soccer field and endlessly dividing as he runs so the whole field is aswarm with him, the same young boy in the same blue parka, stretching out his thousands of arms. Waiting to be lifted."
His recurring image of the boy in the parka makes for an arresting motif and suggests, over time, what might truly be behind Nick's deep urge. Perhaps, we come to see, his quest has less to do with any strictly biological urges and more to do with the sense he has, as a gay man, that some opportunity has been lost to him.
But that's a subtle message in "Endangered Species," a book written with so casual and comfortable a voice that its deeper, moodier undercurrents come to the surface only over time. While what seems to make Bayard unique is his ability to create gay characters that pop out in full three dimensions, what makes "Endangered Species" appealing is a protagonist whose internal conflict become as engrossing to us as it is to him.