Book Notes: 'Insignificant Others,' by Stephen McCauley

Rae Francoeur

“Insignificant Others” By Stephen McCauley. Simon & Schuster, New York, June 2010. $25.

Boston-area author Stephen McCauley’s new novel, “Insignificant Others,” is a good surprise. It ambles circuitously, slow and quiet, promising little but clever discourse and an amusing narrator. Pages turn. There are course corrections, clues to mull — dropped like breadcrumbs on this curious outing, a couple of subplots to visit, then a clearing. There, in full light of day, it delivers.

The gay, middle-aged narrator, Richard, works in HR at a large and at one-time prosperous software company in Cambridge, Mass. The recession and a number of other inevitable reckonings are bearing down. We are uneasy here.

Richard lives with a handsome younger lover, Conrad, who travels a lot in an art consulting business he shares with his business partner Doreen. Richard also has a secret lover, Benjamin, perhaps one of those people he considers among the “insignificant others” he sees on occasion. Benjamin is married, passionate and tortured by his “bifurcated” life. Richard is glib and stoic, by comparison.

In this character study into the sad ways of coping with loss and disappointment, Doreen and Richard are like kind, in some ways. Richard belongs to two gyms and spends hours in furious exercise. Instead of rejuvenation, he suffers aches and pains and a haggard countenance. Both his lovers are unavailable just as Doreen’s crush on Conrad will go forever unrequited. Neither Doreen nor Richard relishes food, though Richard certainly allows himself sexual abandon with Benjamin, when he’s available.

Richard’s earlier and beloved partner died of AIDS, and Doreen’s husband left her for a man. Conrad, distant literally and figuratively, is charismatic but otherwise engaged in a new and serious love affair. All these people have a lot of work ahead of them if they are ever to crack a genuine smile.

For a good deal of the book, the expectation is for disaster. Lies, avoidance, denial, problems at work that worsen lead readers to brace for poor Richard’s unhappy but deserved demise.

But there are breaks in the dark and twisted path. An occasional glint of light catches us, practically blinds us. We see that Richard practices the truest form of love when he offers Benjamin ideas for improving his relationship with his son. In a poignant moment of connection with Richard, Doreen and Richard spy Benjamin and his wife in an airport. Doreen takes one look at the woman and tells Richard of the coming sadness, second-guessing and opportunity for self-recrimination the wife will have to contend with when the inevitable happens and her gay husband finally takes truthfulness in hand.

Richard is fun. His voice is chatty, knowing, gently sarcastic but usually at his own expense. “At some point in my life,” he says, “it would be nice to once again be in a relationship in which affection is shown openly and joyfully, without first calculating the repercussions; but since I had no immediate plans to acquire a pet, that point was probably far off.”

Richard tells Doreen early on, “I think the best relationships between men are handcrafted.” He’s speaking of gay men finding ways outside of the male/female model to foster intimacy. But he’s really speaking for anyone who has lived and suffered and tried to start again. It all starts, he says, with truth.

Rae Francoeur can be reached at Her new book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is now out. See her blog at