''The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon'' -? Tom Spanbauer talks about his new book

Tom Spanbauer, 45, has worked as a superintendent in a dilapidated New York City building, lived with Masai warriors in Kenya, and overcome a Catholic upbringing in Pocatello, Idaho, to acknowledge his homosexuality. But perhaps the bravest thing he has done is to write The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, a novel narrated by a bisexual Huck Finn who lives in a much wilder West than any Kevin Costner ever imagined.

In Excellent, Idaho, Spanbauer’s turn-of-the-century mining town, a pink whorehouse is lovingly ruled by a madam who wears blue when she ovulates, and the narrator turns tricks in the shed with a cowpoke who is in love with the moon. An endangered minstrel band, a wise American Indian spirit, a rotten sheriff, and a host of fervent Mormons bent on mining gold for God’s glory fill out the cast. ”Do I dare say that?” Spanbauer admits asking himself frequently during the years he spent working on the book, his second.

He took the dare. And now The Washington Post has called his book ”dazzlingly accomplished,” comparing him to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Twain. Seven foreign publishers have bought rights. HarperCollins will publish it in paperback. And his editor at Atlantic Monthly Press says that The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, which will soon go into a third printing, ”is more successful than any other novel we have ever done, with the exception of those by Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.”

While his fictional imagination was going West, Spanbauer was mired in Manhattan earning $400-a-month patching together bad plumbing and cleaning up after the homeless who combed through his building’s garbage looking for food. It was the ’80s, and he was also watching many of his friends die of AIDS. So even though his novel is set during the days of cowboys and gold rushes, a distinctly modern malaise looms like dust clouds trailing wagon trains across the prairie.

”People have said that it reads like a much older man wrote it, like a man who was at the end of his life, not the middle. That threat was always there,” Spanbauer says. ”That’s why I had to do this. I had to battle the devil.”