What was it like to be one of the moons — a prominent moon, but still just a moon — orbiting the lush, overwrought, pill-popping planet known as Tennessee Williams?
In this novel about the great American playwright’s longtime lover Frank Merlo, Christopher Castellani tries to imagine. In a “Note to the Reader,” Castellani reveals that his fascination with Merlo began in 1997 when he came across mentions of him in Dotson Rader’s memoir, “Tennessee: Cry of the Heart.” As a “twenty-five-year-old working-class gay Italian guy from Delaware with dreams of being a writer,” Castellani felt an “instant kinship” with both Merlo and Williams. But it took him 20 years to find a way to write about the pair and their circle.
“Leading Men” opens with a celebrity-packed party thrown by author Truman Capote in the Italian seaside resort of Portofino in 1953. For Frank, an aspiring actor and dancer from New Jersey coupled with a famous man, it’s a familiar scene: “How many times had Frank found himself in an overflowing room like this one, greeting guests as they arrived, recognizing their faces from movies and the backstages of theaters. How many times had these people walked in, looked around, saw Frank, saw nobody, spotted a somebody over his shoulder, and then headed upstairs.”
Frank’s way of dealing with his non-luminary status? Once Jack Warner asked him “What do you do’’ at a Los Angeles party during the filming of “The Glass Menagerie.” “I sleep with Mr. Williams,” came Frank’s ready reply, shocking the movie mogul. The truth is he did more than that. He made all their travel arrangements and tended to all the practicalities of their life together. He also served as the principal lure when he and Williams went cruising for extracurricular sex with young Italians (Merlo had the looks — but Williams, apparently, was more generously endowed).
At Capote’s party, they make four new acquaintances who become central to the book: real-life writer John Horne Burns and his Italian lover Sandro Nencini, and a fictional lookalike Swedish mother and daughter. Burns is in full alcoholic meltdown, while Anja Blomgren (17 passing for 22) and her mother, Bitte, are wanderers vaguely seeking their fortune in Italy. Mother and daughter are discreetly sharing the same lover (“a local fisherman, a brute with a smashed nose and hook-shaped scars on his bulging forearms”), and this, unsurprisingly, has led to some tensions between them.
While on a ramble the day after the party to see a famous clifftop view, Williams, Merlo, Burns, Nencini, and the Blomgrens are brutally assaulted by a swarming gang of juvenile delinquents. (Anyone familiar with Williams’ work will recognize the nod to the over-the-top finale of “Suddenly Last Summer.”) The victims go their separate ways in traumatized disarray, with Anja ditching her mother to accompany Williams and Merlo to Rome, where she becomes their protégée. Meanwhile, Burns, holed up in a beach house with Nencini, makes telephone pleas to Merlo to rescue him from threats he believes he’s facing — including the possibility that Nencini is trying to poison him.
These fraught 1953 doings anchor the novel, but Castellani also moves agilely back and forth through time, chronicling Merlo’s earlier blow-ups and reconciliations with Williams and his final days in 1963 New York where he died of lung cancer in his early 40s.
Providing a longer perspective is Anja, who as “Anja Bloom” has become the film-star muse of a celebrated Swedish director. Long retired and out of the spotlight, Anja has a final, never-performed Williams play in her possession — one she fears slights Merlo’s memory, making her reluctant to show it to Williams devotees clamoring to get their hands on it.
Castellani’s quiet portrait of Merlo has a deep, aching appeal, and while his invented story of Anja’s legendary career and reclusive later years has its moments, it doesn’t match the passages where he plunges directly into the give-and-take of Merlo and Williams’s loving if volatile relationship. Castellani’s prose has a beguiling lilt and color, whether he’s evoking his characters’ evasive or erratic emotions, or conjuring the far-flung locales where these globe-hoppers touch down. A summer evening in Portofino, for instance, offers “a dry windless night, the waves not so much crashing as crinkling at their feet, then shyly retreating, as if embarrassed to have appeared at all.”
“Leading Men” has shrewd things to say about the ways that love between two men hazily defined itself 60-odd years ago: “They couldn’t call the thing marriage, and, even if they could, Frank didn’t want the word. At best, it was a mistranslation. At worst, it smelled of garages and empty milk bottles and the floor mats in his father’s Chevy.”
There’s a felicitous uncertainty, too, in the central issue that unseen Williams play raises: Who has final say on the legacy we leave behind? And who has final word on how we’re remembered?
“Leading Men” doesn’t deliver answers — but it’s seductive in the way it raises its questions.
By Christopher Castellani
Viking, 357 pp., $27
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Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.