It’s summer 1953, and Truman Capote is throwing a party at his villa in Portofino, Italy, guests swilling booze and interlocking fingers as the world outside goes quiet. In attendance are artists, writers, intellectuals; among them, Tennessee Williams, dancing and drinking through what will become one of his life’s most consequential nights. Yet the playwright exists only on the margins of this telling, which centers instead on the man who loved him.
Christopher Castellani researched and conceived Leading Men over several years, filling in history’s gaps to illuminate Williams’ longtime lover, Frank Merlo, as the hero of their story. Over the many years of their volatile, non-monogamous partnership, Merlo played the role of companion, assistant, homemaker, and muse. (When asked what he “did,” he tended to respond, “I sleep with Mr. Williams.”) His is a story of cultural ascension: born working-class in New Jersey, introduced to an older, sophisticated, successful artist, and permitted to run in his vibrant circles. The bulk of Leading Men is framed by Merlo recounting the Capote bash a decade later, as he waits on his deathbed, in tarnished hope, for Williams to visit him.
In this queer ’50s European setting, Castellani is so completely at home, writing with an evocative precision that historical fiction often merely aspires to. The mood is smoky and sexually charged, lonely yet communal. When Merlo and Williams make eye contact across a room, after keeping their distance for much of the party, the author writes: “This was how it always was: after a night apart, lost in a parade of strangers and giddy acquaintances, they reunited in the final hours, faded into a corner, the faces and lights and music and clinking glasses becoming a silent blur around them.” Then, when they leave the party with new friends, wandering on a humid night around a town resembling so many other Italian towns: “People stood around with their ice cream cones telling jokes and flirting and swaying to the music.” Castellani captures this place, sensually and sweetly, as well as the couple’s place within it.
Over the course of the evening, Williams and Merlo are joined by the novelist John Horne Burns and his partner, Sandro, as well as a peculiar mother-daughter pair from Sweden. The younger of the two women, Anja, is 17 years old and develops a mutual infatuation with Merlo. This group of six extend their friendship beyond the night; they travel Italy between picnics and late nights, joys and tragedies.
What connects this to Merlo’s state, 10 years later — or, for that matter, to the present day, where Anja, now a faded movie star living in isolation, grapples with a secret about Williams and Merlo? Castellani untangles these knots skillfully, if dutifully. Merlo is a sturdy focal point for Leading Men, his last days and his memory of better days imbued with a slick, glittering emotional pull. But the book stiffens as its meditations on fame and artistry increasingly dictate the narrative, rather than the organic tension between Merlo and Williams. The prominence of Anja — whose thematic significance doesn’t compensate for her flatness as a major character — becomes a bit of a drag. Her interactions with a man tenuously connected to that ’53 Italian summer read like an epilogue stretched across an entire novel.
Castellani has a lot on his mind, and generously employs the craft necessary to convey it. Leading Men is unafraid to expand beyond its glitzy hook into something deeper, sharper. But like Merlo and company, until the novel’s enormously moving final chapter, we’re gradually left in the haze of a steamier, drunker time, where two men’s passionate romance, doomed to fate, could find new life — briefly and unforgettably — in a single longing glance. B
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