The Boston Globe, October 15, 2000
A memoir through a novel's prism
Martin Baumann; or, A Sure Thing
387 pp. $26
a young writer, one of the pleasures David Leavitt offered was that he wasn't
Edmund White, Christopher Isherwood, or Ned Rorem, publishing weary diary
extracts as dispatches from the gay front. He hadn't been through disco, much
less Stonewall. His inexperience was well-timed and oddly compelling, a mixture
of innocence and promise. But if fame came to him overnight, it was gone by
lunchtime. His acclaimed collection of stories, "Family Dancing"
(1983), and a first novel, "The Lost Language of Cranes" (1985),
gave way to novels that had all the life of well-dusted knickknacks. But fortune
smiled once more on David Leavitt. In 1993, Stephen Spender filed a lawsuit
that forced Leavitt to withdraw his novel "While England Sleeps"
and rewrite passages that too closely resembled Spender's own autobiography.
Though the novel was republished to the same lukewarm reviews that had greeted
its first appearance, something had finally happened to Leavitt, had reached
him in a way little else seems to have done. His work regained an immediacy
that had been missing almost since the first stories, when he seemed to be
forming his identity with each fresh sentence he wrote.
Closely observed, brutally honest, Leavitt's novel "Martin Bauman"
is a merciless spin on the author's early career. Lesbian friendships, a mother
with cancer, a clueless protagonist. So far so familiar. What is new is the
irony, and the brutality of Leavitt's self-portrait. In true Christian spirit,
he does to himself what he was accused of doing to Spender: that is, supplement
the biography with previously suppressed details - in Spender's case, sex,
in his own case, sin.
Of course, the idea of David Leavitt writing his autobiography might cause
some jaws to drop. Philip Roth was 46 when he published "The Ghost Writer,"
with nearly a dozen novels behind him. Yet Leavitt can argue that his early
career allows him to capture an infamous age: New York City in the '80s, when
AIDS was just a rumor, cocaine a treat for rock stars, and the Brat Pack meant
Molly Ringwald and Rob Lowe and not Tama Janowitz. In Martin Bauman's constant
cry of "Me Me Me!" the '80s return to horrific, cautionary life.
The young Martin, asexual, uninterested in anything but television and a few
books and movies that he revisits obsessively, is clearly a boy to run from.
His lack of humor is so complete that Cotton Mather himself would flee. In
high school he has been picked on and snubbed, and in the more polite arena
of college, where we first meet him, he seems to have a variety of friendships
but no friends. He is routinely being dumped.
All this gives way in his junior year when he sells a short story to a magazine
so famous he won't even whisper its name (The New Yorker is where the 20-year-old
Leavitt published "Territory," the magazine's first openly gay story).
This undergraduate high gives way to a series of post-college lows, as he
moves to Manhattan and begins work in a publishing house, where he reads unsolicited
manuscripts and dishes dirt with other young writers. Though Leavitt's prose
in its lyrical beauty is suited to fiction, his thyroid gland seems inclined
to the essay - incisive observations from a chatty narrator, a large cast
with little to do. If it weren't for the frequent sex and the occasional cocktail
party, Leavitt's characters would never climb off their sofas.
What gives the novel its verve is the viciousness of Leavitt's observations.
He is hardest on those nearest to him. A college roommate, a New York friend,
finally his boyfriend and fellow novelist, Eli. But this trio is slathered
in kisses compared to Leavitt's treatment of his fictional self, though he
often clears his throat too long for revelations that prove anticlimactic.
("Thus began a dark and tormented period of my life" - only to tell
us that he was somewhat unpopular in high school.) Still, the large and small
confessions accumulate. Martin is deceptive, disloyal, with a competitive
strain that would impress Macbeth. Why he doesn't grow up to be the next Roy
Cohn is the mystery the narrative seeks to explain.
"Of my mother's death," Leavitt writes near to the end, in a chapter
that combines the beauty of his earliest writing with a new ease and maturity,
"which occurred late that summer, I shall say little here. I have already
made too much of it in fiction, milked it too much for sentiment and dread.
Such episodes ought to be recounted only in the spare nudity of their experiencing."
Martin's shame lends the narrative its first empathetic emotion, as he recounts
the publication of his acclaimed collection of short stories, the end of his
relationship with Eli, and the fall from grace of both minimalism and its
practitioners. Leavitt writes, "The problem was that in those days I
clung to the notion that any misfortune could be redeemed through its own
recounting; and while it is true that cooking down of experience into something
at once more beautiful and less inchoate than itself can be a cathartic process,
clarifying as well as purgative, such transformative episodes are both rare
and costly, requiring a degree of self-knowledge I did not then possess; what
was really a subtle and complex negotiation between fate and art I misconstrued
as the crudest kind of barter, in some cases a literal barter, as if by earning
more money from the story I wrote about Joey than he had stolen from me, I
could not only compensate for, but somehow profit from his attack."
Grief has caught up to him, taught him lessons that success failed to. By
the last page one accepts that this account, though bitter and punishing,
is finally an apology - to friendships betrayed, to his mother's memory, mostly
to his own younger self. Loveliness is the novel's true subject, hectically
disguised as insecurity, ambition, fear. Perhaps loveliness is the key to
all Leavitt's writing, in the poignant frustrations they offer the reader.
Honest, frequently beautiful, "Martin Bauman" reads like the first
half of a two-volume novel. This half is a purge, and what we need to know
now is what will come of this second chance that the dogged, capable David
Leavitt has won for himself.