THE KITCHEN MAN by Ira Wood (Crossing: $16.95). At the tender age of 30, baby boomer Gabe Rose is stymied. Not only has he yet to become a famous playwright, but his fragile relationship with frigid Dierdre Roth is about to end altogether, which would leave him right where he began (and where he stays throughout most of the novel), a waiter in one of Boston's finest eateries. Gabe is like all red-blooded American boys: He wants to succeed, and he wants sex, though not necessarily in that order. His anxieties invariably occupy a narrow middle ground; it is hard to get too worked up, after all, over someone whose main complaint is that he has a job "serving supper to the people we were supposed to become." Gabe's fortunes take a turn when he starts chasing after Cynthia Kagan, an older woman who also happens to be a no-nonsense feminist director. Cynthia correctly diagnoses Gabe's trouble: He is just not a mensch .

How Gabe becomes one during their topsy-turvy romance constitutes the core of this au courant tale. Wood's first novel has "cute" written all over it; each chapter is embroidered with one-liners and instant pop culture studies of people ("Mary's hair is clipped box-like, Jean Seberg playing Joan of Arc"). You can't lose with a style like this. On the other hand, you can't really win much, either.

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