June 19, 2019

‘Leading Men,’ a Novel About Tennessee Williams and His Lover, Casts a Spell From the Start

‘Leading Men,’ a Novel About Tennessee Williams and His Lover, Casts a Spell From the Start

Merlo is Williams’s factotum and aide-de-camp. He makes the reservations and buys the tickets; he mends Williams’s socks, plumps the pillows and goes on late-night pill runs. “It was a job in itself keeping track of who he was angry with, and who was jealous of him, whose parties he was looking forward to and whose they’d have to make up some excuse to get out of.”

Merlo had a sense of humor about his position. In life, as in this novel, when asked what he did, he replied: “I sleep with Mr. Williams.” Theirs was, for many years, a great love, one that Castellani describes as a “one-night stand that lasted 15 years — or 16, or 14, depending on who told the story.”

In John Lahr’s agile 2014 biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,” Lahr notes that Merlo’s other fundamental task was to tend to Williams through his “hysterical outbursts, his paranoia, his hypochondria.”

“Leading Men” is largely told from the perspective of 10 years after its opening scene, when Merlo is dying from lung cancer in Manhattan and hoping Williams will visit.

Christopher CastellaniCreditMichael Joseph

The book wraps a second, slightly less successful story around this first one. It’s about a fictional actress named Anja Blomgren whom Williams and Merlo meet in 1953. She goes on to become a Garbo-like film legend, adopting the name Anja Bloom. More centrally, in terms of this novel’s plot, she comes to possess the only copy of a short, final, previously unknown Williams play, which he had sent to her before his death. A young man wants to have it produced.

Castellani hews closely to the facts of Williams and Merlo’s time together without being pinned down by those facts. There is nothing dutiful about the reimagining of their lives. This book is a kind of poem in praise of pleasure, and those pleasures are sometimes stern. Its author knows a great deal about life; better, he knows how to express what he knows.

This novel’s furniture is spare but well-placed. There are just enough pivotal scenes (one involves a pack of feral boys and the apparent rape of two women) that each leaves room for overlapping echoes to rebound.

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