by David Leavitt
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published September 21, 2001
Fiction (short stories)
256 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
September 19, 2007.
David Leavitt is a writer about whom gay men who read—an all-too-small minority within a minority!—tend to have strong feelings. His early, commercially very successful work struck many as playing it safe, particularly in having very desexualized gay characters whose important relationships were with family members or straight female friends.
This appealed to many nest-building gay men who abhorred and feared “fast-lane”/ “ghetto” gay life. Those Leavitt fans were shocked and appalled by his novella “The Term-Paper Artist” (in the collection Arkansas). While that venture alienated much of his fan base, those who had sneered at Leavitt for playing it safe and desexualized retained suspicion of him. I think that ongoing resentment at his success was also involved for many frustrated writers, as if Leavitt was published in the New Yorker and by mainstream publishers for being unsexed if not anti-sex (or anti-queer which, rather than any insightfulness, is why I think that the untalented and un-insightful Andrew Sullivan is a New York Times pundit).
I’ll get to the book eventually, but I think that David Leavitt as a phenomenon may be more interesting than his writing. In recent years, he has not been playing it safe. The sex scenes in While England Sleeps seem to me to have upset the mediocre English poet Steven Spender, the discreetly closeted or ex-gay real-life model for the historical novel. Sir Stephen accused Leavitt of plagiarism—not for lifting sentences but for taking a life that Spender had made a career of putting in the public domain, albeit in carefully edited, disingenuous … Continue reading
Trading blow-jobs with UCLA undergraduates for top-flight term papers pushed many people’s buttons (not least the editors of Esquire which dropped “The Term-Paper Artist” like the proverbial hot potato). That was consensual sex between adults. Leavitt widens the age gap in his novel The Body of Jonah Boyd. Come to think of it, the mentor/protege age-gap was already in evidence in the fairly discreet The Page-Turner.
Intergenerational lust reaches for an earlier age in the first story in the collection The Marble Quilt, though that of the poor-relation tutor for a bratty young adolescent in a train car under the Swiss Alps, heading for Italy in “Crossing St. Gothard” is not acted on (the story is much more about differences of class than about lust for the young).
There is murder (and illegal antiquity gathering) in the title story in which Vincent Burke tells Roman carabinieri about his ex-lover, Tom, who has been murdered, and realizes how little he knew about Tom, not just after the end of their relationship but while they were together. Tom, not his murder, is the mystery that interests Vincent, even knowing that he is a possible suspect to the police. That story echoes that of Johan Winckelmann, the art historian enamored by ancient marbles and Italian boys who was murdered by a hustler with the amazing name Arcangeli in 1768.
A more famous disaster of gay history than the misnamed Arcangeli was Alfred Lord Douglas, “Bosie”, the arrogant, gilded youth whom Oscar Wilde made the mistake of loving and who pushed Wilde into suing his (Bosie’s) father, the Marquess of Queensbury whom Bosie hated and was always seeking ways to strike back at.
The longest story in the collection (67 pages) “The Infection Scene” counterpoises musing about documented events from Bosie’s life with imagining a contemporary “bug chaser.” Leavitt imagines that when a schoolboy, Bosie persuaded his lover of that time to expose himself to mumps so that they could be confined together. The present-day story has an HIV- Christopher determined to “share” the HIV-infection of John, who is put off by the demand. John f___s Christopher once without a condom. After Christopher tests positive, John is very relieved he has not infected him and refuses to participate further. Indeed, John does not want to have any further relationship with Christopher.
Christopher’s mission was originally to share John’s HIV- status to have more in common, but he persists in his pursuit of HIV beyond the end of the relationship. This is a horror story in my view. I know that there are a few partners (male or female) of HIV men who seek to be infected to go with their partners. Leavitt imagined Christopher on the basis of a newspaper article. I don’t think he is able to imagine the warped, self-hating, self-destructive psychology of someone a generation younger than he is. Neither can I! But it sure provides evidence against the old “playing it safe” charge. (In passing, I should mention that the paralleling of the historical case of a very bad-news boyfriend and a contemporary one sometimes feels forced.)
Not entirely trusting Leavitt, and wanting to stick my toe to test the water before plunging in, I first read the shortest stories in the collection. I liked them less than the longer ones but did not dislike them so much that I didn’t read what I then thought were the better ones. I guess that they are “experimental,” perhaps showing the influence of taking up a university job one semester a year (at the University of Florida).
“Speonk” is a mildly amusing Rashomon narrative with three versions of an actor who played a villain on a soap opera trying to get to the small town of Speonk on eastern Long Island one night. In two of the versions, his TV persona is recognized and affects how he is treated. He wants to dissociate himself from that role but is also unhappy when not recognized at all.
“Route 80” is a very slight—and I don’t just mean short in length—two-part story about male lovers who broke up, wedding cake, and how much about each other they did not know (yes, this is a leitmotif of the collection). Both seem like exercises, though they show that Leavitt can breathe life into characters with an economy of words.
“The List” will probably seem much more entertaining to academics than to other readers. It consists of emails about indiscreetly showing a manuscript biography and prickly scholars trying to explain and rectify a breach of confidence and sort out the lies of one of scholars.
“Heaped Earth” is a forgettable story about a Hollywood party of half a century ago, with a refugee pianist and a film biography of Franz Liszt.
I have left the best ’til last. Although I have barely ever been in the Deep South (and never outside metropolitan areas in it), I enjoy Southern Gothic fiction (Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner). It’s not a genre I’d have imagined David Leavitt contributing to, but in “The Scruff of the Neck,” a story that is not at all postmodernist or “experimenting with narrative,” he does so with signal success. It involves a student doing a medical history of her family. The student, Audrey, is charmless and in my opinion very rude, and the two aged great aunts are forgetful. Audrey’s research reveals a long-kept secret, but more interesting than the contents of the secret is the reaction to the revelation.
The other (longer) story that I consider a complete success is “Black Box.” It has some hot-button issues, of which a little sex between survivors is a minor one. The major ones are terrorist downing of a plane (this was published before 9/11) and finding ways to exploit a videotape of a school group before they boarded the doomed flight. There is a grimly appropriate twist in this story. And, come to think about it, the ethical gay survivor in “Black Box” has a strong resemblance to Christopher in “The Infection Scene,” even if the bad guy (a bitter school teacher named Ezra who has the videotape of the doomed children and a teacher/chaperone) is more pathetic and less of a monster than the villains of “The Infection Scene.”
published on epinions 19 September 2007
©2007, 2016, Stephen O. Murray
|⇑1||Sir Stephen accused Leavitt of plagiarism—not for lifting sentences but for taking a life that Spender had made a career of putting in the public domain, albeit in carefully edited, disingenuous form. Spender’s claims to having his privacy respected are nearly as silly as Andrew Sullivan’s when his publicly posted ads for barebacking were noticed…|