Gay fiction’s elegant stylist (Martin Bauman, 2000, etc.) returns with an uneven, mutable collection of nine stories inspired by his deep biographical readings of Oscar Wilde's circle—and by profound sympathy for an aggrieved present-day gay community.
Leavitt moves from past to present, as well as from voice to voice, with the fluid grace of an expert novelist. In the first and most successful piece, “Crossing St. Gotthard,” which originally appeared in The Paris Review, he assumes E.M. Forster’s stately, ironical tone as a group of Americans traveling by train in Italy—the anxious widow Irene Pratt, her two scoffing sons, and their incipiently homosexual tutor Harold—each anticipate in her or his own way enclosure by the long Alpine tunnel. It is of course the tutor's voice that Leavitt rides out: a young man who reads Ovid to distract himself from his charge's Apollonian beauty, Harold cries out in silent anguish: “I belong to a different age!” This could be the author's cri de cœur. While “St. Gotthard” feels curtailed, as if the author had started a novel, then changed his mind, “The Infection Scene,” a long tale that attempts to link turn-of-the-century England to today's AIDS-devoured gay scene, loops and weaves interminably. The subject here is “Bosie” Douglas, the malevolent aristocrat who “corrupted” Oscar Wilde (or vice versa). As he’s following exhaustively Bosie’s coming-of-age seductions and later obsessive litigiousness, Leavitt flashes forward to mid-1990s San Francisco, where a young couple contemplate the politics of infecting each other. He mines deeply the sense of despair in the gay community: hate becomes disease, infection. In graceful, atmospheric love stories such as “Black Box” and “The Marble Quilt,” he introduces violent death of a partner not by AIDS to curious, suspenseful effect.
An abundance of fine, sharp moments proving that Leavitt, despite his characters' tedious obsession with youth and beauty, might be aging pretty well.