The Trouble with Normal

The Trouble with Normal

David Leavitt continues his autobiographical journey in a novel that’s not gay

With the release last year of Edmund White’s “Fanny”—a richly imagined historical novel about 19th century author Frances Trollope—and now Leavitt’s “Boyd,” we face the prospect of two noted chroniclers of gay life offering, instead, historical fables about other (heterosexual) novelists. Does this indicate a healthy transcendence of gay difference, or a dispiriting retreat from the demands of the contemporary?

“Boyd” begins in the late 60s and is told primarily from the perspective of Denny, an unprepossessing female secretary for a prestigious university psychology department. A chance encounter at a beauty salon with her boss’s wife, Nancy Wright, leads to a somewhat masochistic friendship—and a simultaneous affair with Nancy’s husband, and Denny’s boss, Professor Ernest Wright. While there is less drama in this arrangement than you might expect, Leavitt’s skill is to tease out the subtle erotics of the triangle.

Denny is not hostile to Mrs. Wright; sleeping with her husband, it seems, is Denny’s attempt to solidify a bond with Nancy: “Nancy took off her apron; lit a cigarette. She was harrowed by anxiety, while I, on the contrary, felt rising within me the richest rush of pleasure. That morning was the apogee of my love for Nancy, a love of which I dared not speak, and which I had tried, ironically, to consummate through my affair with her husband. Later I grew to love Ernest for himself; that Thanksgiving, he was an irrelevancy.”

Unfortunately, the suggestion of lesbianism here is all too briefly treated. I think Leavitt’s really suggesting in this novel that the mysterious and unpredictable appeals of friendship often trump the rather routine thrills of sex. When it comes to mid-century America, it was really in the bridge club and at poker night that the interesting dynamics were to be found—not in the bedrooms.

Into this cozy scene sweeps Nancy’s estranged best friend, Anne, and her new husband, Jonah Boyd, for a short stay at the Wright house. Anne is a henna-haired alcoholic, a shadow of her former self; Boyd, a semi-famous writer full of pretensions and neuroses, can only write on special leather-bound notebooks from Italy, which he keeps losing. (What would Freud say?) While staying with the Wrights, Boyd takes under his wing the Wrights’ son Ben, a self-pitying poet—Leavitt’s unflinchingly negative portrayal of whom suggests a portrait of the artist as a young man.

A little background might be helpful here. In the early 90s, Leavitt was accused of plagiarism in his historical (but still homosexual themed) novel, “While England Sleeps.” While Leavitt admitted he took inspiration from Stephen Spender’s 1948 autobiography “World Within World,” the admission wasn’t enough, and Spender filed suit, forcing Leavitt to revise the novel significantly and re-publish it.

It would be presumptuous to say that the scandal damaged Leavitt, but it certainly changed his direction as a writer. Since then, Leavitt seems less interested in plumbing the depths of character and motivation, and more interested in autobiographical legerdemain. In “The Term Paper Artist,” one of the novellas in Leavitt’s collection “Arkansas,” a character named David Leavitt has been accused of plagiarism. While he tries in vain to work through a writer’s block, he occupies himself by composing term papers for college students—in exchange for sex. Fun stuff.

Leavitt’s subsequent “Martin Bauman: or, A Sure Thing,” continues the literary self-beration. The roman à clef follows Leavitt’s salad days as a young writer in New York, and the Leavitt character emerges as an unlikeable anti-hero, full of ambition and insecurity. “Boyd,” if read autobiographically, likewise paints a morally bankrupt picture of the successful novelist.

This find-the-real-author ploy is a technique Philip Roth perfected in his autobiographical Zuckerman fantasies. And Leavitt employs it well. By painting as unsavory picture of the writer as possible, Leavitt essentially negates it. If the writer were actually guilty of such unscrupulousness, he wouldn’t recognize it, much less admit it—right?

Yet even if you tire of Leavitt’s reverse psychology reputation-rescue, the author does masterfully draw out the ambitions, the heartaches, and the hard-won pleasures of the writing life. Of the overblown Boyd, his wife Anne recalls, “Although it annoyed me sometimes, I rather adored his crazy, inflated rhetoric. It was part of what made him so appealing—this boy from Texas who talked like Longfellow.”

Though Leavitt’s writing is never overblown, the reader is similarly drawn toward the flaws in Leavitt; the unwinning aspects make him more lovable.

The writer Leavitt resembles most in this regard is E.M. Forster, the clever and chatty writer of “A Room with a View” and “A Passage to India.” In fact, “Boyd” is in many concrete ways an update of “Howard’s End,” with its questions of class, fidelity, and who will inherit the family house—the ultimate beneficiary of the Wright house is just as surprising as it was in Forster. Like many of Forster’s works, “Boyd” is light, expertly wrought, and attuned to life’s subtle ironies.

Yet Forster’s weaknesses are also Leavitt’s—a compulsion to charm rather than challenge, and a conservatism that can register, especially to the gay reader, as timidity. Not every novel needs to report from the sex club, and I support Leavitt’s unwillingness to limit himself to gay themes. Yet Tolstoy was surely right when he said that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Why, then, does Leavitt’s rendering of this dysfunctional family need to be so drearily normal?

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