A Broken-Down Projector

The Boys and Their Baby

By Larry Wolff

260 pp.

Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95

WHEN you finish reading The Boys and Their Baby, you feel like you're emerging from a movie in which the projector breaks down half way through. The story makes little sense, or at best seems irrelevant. You're not really sure how the plot is going to wind up. The only difference is that with a film the projector usually gets repaired and you can resolve the questions you have. But with The Boys and Their Baby, the novel ends and you're still waiting for more. Five days after you finish it you're still waiting to tie the strings. But the loose ends persist.

Part of the problem with The Boys and Their Baby is that it's difficult to sympathize with the main character. He seems like he has so many problems, but when you get right down to it and analyze them, they seem so meaningless. Adam Berg, is a 30 year old Yale graduate who just can't deal with his real world. It's not as if Adam has AIDS or is penniless or something. He is merely upset that his mother has remarried a man he doesn't like. And he is upset to find out that his girlfriend, Suzanne, has been using the Widener stacks here at Harvard for more than intellectual pursuits, igniting a sexual relationship with her comp lit advisor.

Furthermore, he just can't seem to find any job that suits him. Suzanne nags him to go to graduate school, but he is intimidated by her intellect. So he works as a phone repairman yet continually laments his fate and his inability to make the dreaded career choice.

It might be possible to sympathize with Adam and the things that disturb him if he were about 15 years younger. The Boys and Their Baby might turn into a sort of 1980s Catcher In The Rye. But Adam is 30 years old, a college graduate, yet he seems completely incapable of making decisions on his own. So what does Adam do? Like a typical child who can't handle his problems, Adam just picks up and leaves Boston, fleeing to San Francisco where he moves in with his college roomate with whom he hasn't spoken in over a decade. It is when Adam moves to San Francisco, in fact, that things jump from disturbing to unreal.

IF Boston is the source of all unpleasantness, then San Francisco is the source of unreality. And this is what makes the book all the more insane.

In San Francisco, Adam lives with Huck, who somehow maganes to be raising a one-year old child, Christopher. Adam wonders who the child's mother is. But he doesn't ask. Then, this woman Lucille, who refuses to wear anything but men's tuxedos begins to show up in Adam's room at bizarre hours of the night, just to make love to him and then leave as mysteriously as she enters. Adam sees her during the day, but he is unwilling to ask her where their relationship stands. He does not even presume to think that they are lovers. But he wonders.

Other strange and bizzare experiences mark Adam's time in San Francisco. He begins teaching at the Stringfellow School for privileged high school students, and one of the boys in his advanced English literature class begins to follow him around and eventually attempts to begin a romantic affair. Meanwhile, he becomes lovers with Amy Armstrong, the physics teacher at the school, who was also a Yale classmate. Amy's only distinction is that she has a fetish with suede shoes--and she places them at the foot of the bed each time they have sex so that her footwear has a clear view of the proceedings.

If Adam is disturbed by the situation, he doesn't react. Nor does he question or even talk to Huck about the various homosexual men with whom he spends the night in their apartment. These are the 1980s, the book seems to say, the era of acceptance.

The Boys and Their Baby might seem worthwhile if we were convinced that Adam learned something from his San Francisco experience. He begins to write letters to his mother and Suzanne--all he needs is a little detachment for him to deal with his problems--and it is here that we see what his inner feelings are about his encounters with the eccentricities of the city. He thinks a lot about paternity, sexuality and his career and somehow he does seem to become closer to his former enemies. But we are really left wondering if he makes any major life decisions.

BY the end of the novel, in fact, the only significant things that have happened are that Adam's mother has come to visit, he has been stabbed, in the middle of masturbating, by Christopher's mother who returns in the middle of the night to reclaim her son, and Christopher takes a step at the end of the novel. We know that Adam will continue in San Francisco for at least the rest of the year. But the rest is uncertain.