Plain and Normal

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his seventh novel James Wilcox relocates his fictional world from Tula Springs, Louisiana, to New York City yet retains his focus on a pair of unprepossessing Southerners adrift in the Big Apple. Wilcox is noted for his gentle sense of humor and keen eye for small but telling details of character, dress, and speech. In Plain and Simple, he turns his attention to sexual bigotry and political correctness to examine the irrepressible humanity lost in the solemnities of modern life.

The novel opens with Severinus Lloyd Norris, a volunteer with Manhattan Cares, a social agency, visiting the apartment of a pair of elderly men whom he believes need companionship. When one of them doubts Lloyd’s altruism, the story spins out a convoluted series of mishaps and misunderstandings that leave Lloyd longing for the quiet security of his favorite chair before the television.

Lloyd has a comfortable job as a label designer for Nylo, a personal-care products manufacturer, and has returned to live with his ex-wife, Pearl Fay, after she attempted suicide because of a failed romance. Lloyd desperately attempts to put his life in order after discovering that he is gay, though he has never slept with nor even dated a man. He longs for a suitable companion but has no idea how to begin the search and would rather forget the whole endeavor because it seems too complicated.

The plot stems around shuttlings between his former home in Yonkers and his office in Manhattan, and nowhere can he find anyone who understands his dilemma. After being forced by his supervisor to fire his secretary, she is hired by the company’s chief executive officer, who insists on demoting Lloyd’s boss and instead giving the job to him. Pearl Fay takes a lodger, and the two of them encourage Lloyd to find a male companion, while coworkers either respond to Lloyd’s expressions of sexual identity with indifference or amused acceptance—no one is shocked, as he expects them to be.

The plot wanders among a host of characters who somehow find themselves in Lloyd’s life, though none is an acquaintance of any consequence. Lloyd is forever the outsider, alienated and alone, and frankly content with his marginality. Each character has his or her own notion of who Lloyd is and should be, and never do these perceptions bear any relationship to the image Lloyd retains of himself. The novel explores these contradictory definitions of self without attempting to fashion a uniform vision.

In many ways, the novel is a topical study of a decidedly 1990’s phenomenon, sexual outing. The sexual lives and preferences of celebrities, athletes, and politicians have become the titillating entertainment of the masses. It is, of course, one thing to learn of sexual dalliance or profligacy and another to learn of an unexpected sexual preference. Into this climate wanders poor Lloyd, who is constantly chided by Pearl Fay to join Gay Nation, to stand up for his rights, and to challenge others with his sexual preferences. The amusing irony is that Lloyd does his own outing, and no one cares.

This is Wilcox’s point; there is no polemic here. Lloyd is not the victim of pranks, gay bashing, or intolerable bigotry. When the other characters are not blithely accepting his declarations of otherness, they are maniacally approving of his difference. All around him, there is turmoil and roisterous jockeying for position; everyone in the novel is dissatisfied and desperately angling to secure their miserable scrap of misguided happiness. All that Lloyd wants is the banality of a life that is “plain and normal.” Thus he is the furthest thing from an exemplum of the late-century American gay male—he is not at all militant nor terribly concerned that he might be disadvantaged by his status.

Wilcox, himself gay, is in fact challenging many of the stereotypes that heterosexuals harbor about gays. Pearl Fay views his outing as the first step in glorious personal emancipation; as she sees it, Lloyd must begin pursuing other men. His problem, if it is indeed a problem, is his natural reserve and timidity, and his libido is hardly alive, much less overactive. The slogan “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be a prescription for privacy and discretion, but for Lloyd, the slogan should be “don’t bother.”

The views of his acquaintances and co-workers especially reveal the gulf between perception and the reality of Lloyd’s life. The CEO at his office assumes that because he is gay, Lloyd somehow ranks in life’s avant garde: “You gays, you really are the cutting edge.” His supervisor is suspicious that Lloyd is using sexual...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)