To the spate of novels investigating the lives of famous artists and their relationships with the people who loved them most, add this intriguing take on Tennessee Williams and his lover of 15 years, Frank Merlo.
Nicknamed the Horse by Williams for his stocky build, Merlo was a man from a working-class Italian family in New Jersey who rose to elite echelons of society through his relationship with Williams, becoming friends with, among others, Anna Magnani and Truman Capote (whom neither he nor Williams cherished). Castellani’s Merlo, with a heart that’s “big and simple and practical,” is the focus here. Merlo is fulfilled by his work for Williams—arranging the details of the scatterbrained playwright's life—but also plagued by doubts about his own purpose (“If Frank could not be the fountain, he could at least feel the spray,” Castellani writes). In portions of the novel set in 1953, Castellani imagines that the couple meets a glamorous Swedish mother and daughter, “these fierce and delicate greyhounds, with their taut slender necks,” the younger of whom, Anja Bloom, they take under their wings. She will become an international star known for her work in art house cinema, but her fame won’t soften her “haunted and hard” heart. Castellani (The Art of Perspective, 2016) shuttles between 1953, when Williams was collaborating with Paul Bowles to write the screenplay for Luchino Visconti’s Senso, and now, when Bloom’s star has faded but she is still in possession of Williams’ (imaginary) last creation, a terrible one-act play, Call It Joy, that he wrote to assuage his guilt for not visiting Merlo in the hospital in 1963 as he was dying of lung cancer. Will Bloom allow the play to be performed? In an ambitious act of ventriloquism, Castellani includes the entire script of the play here. There are only a few missteps in the novel; it is not clear, for example, why anyone would fall in love with the petty and cantankerous writer John Horne Burns.
Humane, witty, and bold, this novel imagines the life of a loving but tortured couple.