Since his first novel, “The Object of My Affection,” became a bestseller in 1987 and a hit movie in 1998, Stephen McCauley has been writing stories that challenge and expand the definition and parameters of gay life and the “gay fiction” category. In the film, Jennifer Aniston (straight) and Paul Rudd (gay) play best friends who become lovers and co-parents. In McCauley’s 1996 novel, “The Man of the House,” roommates Clyde (gay) and Marcus (straight) obsess over their exes with the equal-opportunity angst of teenagers. “My Ex-Life” (2018) revolves around (gay) David’s tortured relationship with his (straight) ex-wife, Julie. In McCauley’s tales, then and now, the rigid rules of sexual-orientation segregation do not apply.

Thanks in part to this kind of bias-busting representation, much has changed for queer people, in life and in literature, since the 1980s, which the magazine the Bookseller called “the decade of the gay novel.” AIDS. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Legal marriage. Gender-neutral bathrooms. Openly queer legislators, news anchors, football players, rappers. It’s a testament to McCauley’s prescience, faith and talent for fictional world-building that his eighth novel – the first in five years – resumes the wish-and-make-it-true fiction that he and other gay authors started publishing decades ago. In “You Only Call When You’re in Trouble,” McCauley drops us into a real-life land, somewhat resembling ours now, in which sexual orientation is part of the landscape, not an unnatural disaster, and love is love (and mishegoss), no matter its form.

In alternating chapters, we hear from McCauley’s three related but very different protagonists: gay, 60-something architect and Olympic-level codependent Tom; Tom’s self-serving, needy, straight younger sister, Dorothy; and Dorothy’s professor daughter, Cecily. As the novel opens, Dorothy is ambivalently inviting Cecily to attend her latest gambit: the opening of her new retreat center in Woodstock, New York, which is her “last chance at a business success.” Revealing a terminal case of maternal narcissism, Dorothy writes, “Give me the chance to make YOU proud of ME.” Or not. When her daughter shows up, Dorothy decides it’s finally time to correct the lie she’s told for 30 years: that she doesn’t know who Cecily’s father is. Dorothy does indeed know, and that truth, if told, has the power to shatter Cecily’s world.

As he has done for nearly four decades, McCauley weaves a witty social critique from the interplay between his characters and the day’s breaking news – in this case, Cecily’s ripped-from-the-headlines suspension from her teaching job, following charges that she sexually assaulted a female student, who, she assures us, actually lunged at her.

“In academia, discomfort of any kind was increasingly equated with trauma,” Cecily explains. “But if you described a kiss from a student as ‘trauma,’ what word was left for the suffering of refugees freezing and starving in tents all over the planet?” Her doting uncle, Tom, pooh-poohs the accusation, attributing it to “that generation’s eagerness to hunt down, unearth, buff, and polish every scrap of experience that could be put on the trophy shelf of Slights, Insults, Microaggressions, and Trauma.”

Victim-status-seeking though it may be, the accusation ripples through every aspect of Cecily’s life. Her boyfriend’s prim mother threatens to banish her son from the family if he stays with an alleged abuser. To avoid forcing that choice, Cecily flees to the cottage built just for her by Tom, whose long-term boyfriend, Alan, has just left him, citing his codependent caretaking of his sister and niece.


Despite his cynicism about marriage – “Monogamy,” Tom says, “was as unsustainable and unhealthy as a raw food diet and, in the case of male couples, as cloying as matching sweaters” – Tom begins a fruitless campaign to win Alan back. Finding himself single at 63 exacerbates the indignities of aging. “For him and most of his peers, attempting to stay ‘young’ amounted to deriding the things they’d grown to enjoy (nostalgic music, dull food, large-print books) and condemning as ‘too old’ politicians who were more or less their own age.”

In certain sectors of the queer community – the crusaders who brought us same-sex marriage, for example – equality means seamless assimilation into the larger straight world. To other queer folk, the spoils of heteronormativity – state-sanctioned marriage, PTA membership, corporatized Pride parades – threaten what makes queer people and queer culture uniquely, delightfully queer. McCauley falls firmly into the first camp. Like his previous novels, “You Only Call When You’re in Trouble” is a skillfully written, playful paean to a melting-pot society, in which love means never having to name your orientation, and neuroses like failure to launch, narcissism and codependency are equally distributed across the populace.

At the novel’s denouement, in which Cecily demonstrates long-awaited signs of maturity, and Dorothy soars to new heights of self-centeredness, and Tom finally hits his limit for codependence, issuing words we thought we’d never hear from him – “The answer is a firm no” – it seems irrelevant that two of these characters are heterosexual and one is gay. It seems downright old-fashioned to even peer at the novel’s conclusion through that prism.

Depending on your vision of a post-homophobic world, you might find this blurring of once-defining differences disappointing, or unrealistically optimistic, or triumphant. Depending on your place on the caring/compassion/codependence continuum, you might agree with, or shudder at, Tom’s weary – or is it Zen? – conclusion: “At a certain point, you have to accept that your life is the choices you’ve made.” But whatever your politics and predilections, McCauley’s gifts for prose, plot and provocation are likely to offer you a few fast-flying hours in his sunny, slightly futuristic world.

Meredith Maran is a journalist, a critic and the author of “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” among other books.

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