This novel opens with a fascinating premise. A young black gay man from Chicago's South Side becomes an expatriate in Berlin in the early 1980s, before the AIDS epidemic hits.

The Berlin Wall is still up. He leaves the U.S. wanting to be an exotic foreigner rather than a race problem.

He is also inspired by the 1930s Berlin stories of Christopher Isherwood, which promised him that the city "meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany's crimes by loving a black boy like me."

But the substance of the novel remains profoundly puzzling to me. I can't decide whether Darryl Pinckney is deliberately writing an experimental book, with little to no plot, or whether he simply can't figure out where he's going.

Jed Goodfinch drifts around Berlin aimlessly, never able to figure out where and how to fit in, and the novel drifts with him. The book moves along in non sequiturs. The pages could be read in any order, with no loss or increase of comprehensibility.

At one moment Jed is talking to his cousin Cello, a once-promising pianist now married to a wealthy German industrialist; the next a scene from his Chicago childhood pops up out of nowhere. The Chicago Exposition of 1893 and the baking exploits of Aunt Jemima are invoked.

We also learn about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and something of the life of St. Augustine's mother. I have no idea how any of this sheds light on Jed. Oh, he also runs into Susan Sontag.

His inner life is as jumbled and confused as his ramblings. For a while he's writing a book with the famous architect Rosen-Montag until, vaguely, he isn't. He works at cafes and bars, lives with Cello until she kicks him out, crashes for a while with a German "hardhat" named Manfred, on whom he has an unrequited crush, and for two years gets no action from those fabled white boys.

Finally, he meets a gorgeous young French-African named Duallo and they have a satisfying affair until it falls apart for unspecified reasons that may, at least in part, have to do with Jed's frequent visits to Chicago. Those reunions with his parents and brother are stilted and frustrating.

Jed describes life in west Berlin as "an endless hanging out" but, to my taste anyway, all that hanging around gets wearisome. At the end of the novel, the Berlin Wall is hacked apart by protesters on both sides and Jed's prospects and goals are as up in the air as ever.

Sentence by sentence, there are elegant, even gorgeous observations, but as to the whole, I'm baffled.

Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis and a past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.