What might almost have been Leavitt’s first novel is instead the presumably autobiographical stuff of his ambitious fifth: an alternately lighthearted and turgid chronicle of a young writer’s pursuit of love and fame in the New York literary world of the early 1980s.
Narrator Martin hooks us early on, with a detailed account of his worshipful acquaintance with his college writing teacher Stanley Flint, a snappish, mercurial martinet whose flamboyant persona and manifold eccentricities pretty clearly betoken legendary editor-writer Gordon Lish. Simulacra of other celebrities of the period (such as Edmund White, Tom Wolfe, and Jay McInerney) keep popping up in the chronological apologia (of sorts) that follows, in which Martin fills us in on his precocious youth, startling early success as a contributor to “the magazine” (the New Yorker, of course) of the moment, frustrating entry-level job with a rigorously uncommercial publisher (any of several guesses may be correct), and awkward efforts to “come out” with dignity, find the man of his dreams, and avoid contracting AIDS. It moves along smartly, thanks to Leavitt’s wry, lucid style and penchant for self-deprecating summary statement (“in the language of the human heart I remained . . . illiterate”). And Martin is on the whole an interesting character: both a well-meaning romantic (always on the lookout for “a sure thing”) and a hoarder of emotions who knows he’s been guilty of trivial and consequential acts of “cheating” and “betrayal” since early childhood. In fact, that duality keeps the novel teetering—uncertainly and, at times, disturbingly—between what feels like artful calculation and presumably candid revelations of “the longing of those who have been hated for what they are to be loved for [what] they have made.”
Nonetheless, the gossip value alone should make this Leavitt’s most popular book. It’s also his best since his early successes, Family Dancing (1984) and The Lost Language of Cranes (1986): a cri de coeur that’s intelligent, funny, and genuinely revealing.