In his 1956 book “In the Winter of Cities,” Tennessee Williams printed a small and exquisite poem titled “Little Horse,” a tribute to his lover Frank Merlo. This poem ends:
Mignon he is or mignonette
avec les yeux plus grands que lui.
My name for him is Little Horse.
I wish he had a name for me.
Williams and Merlo were together from roughly 1947 to 1963, a stretch during which the playwright composed some of the American theater’s enduring classics, including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and “The Rose Tattoo.”
Merlo was a working-class New Jersey boy from an Italian family and a charming young war hero. When they met, Tennessee Williams was already Tennessee Williams, flush from the success of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” voluble and lit as if by klieg lights.
Not long into their relationship, Williams wrote in a letter to a friend: “Have I ever told you that I like Italians? They are the last of the beautiful young comedians of the world.”
Williams and Merlo’s years together are the subject of Christopher Castellani’s blazing new novel, “Leading Men.” Writing fiction is to no small degree a confidence game, and “Leading Men” casts a spell right from the start.
“Truman was throwing a party in Portofino,” the first sentence reads, “and Frank wanted to go.” This is Italy, 1953. You know Truman’s last name without being told. What you’ve yet to learn is how reliably tender and evocative Castellani’s onrushing prose can be.
His first achievement in “Leading Men” is to create a world, one inhabited largely by young, charming gay men, that seems to be comprised almost entirely of late nights and last cigarettes and picnics on good blankets and linen suits with the trousers rolled to the knees. This writer’s scenes glitter, and they have a strong sexual pulse.
At the end of one party, in writing that has some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opaline poise, Castellani observes: “Then, slowly, as the ashes fluttered away and the eggy firework smell wore off and the yachts cut their radios, couple by couple staggered back up the steep narrow inclines, men in each other’s arms, men with women, packs of friends, their songs and shouts and laughter bouncing off the stone in hollow echoes.”
His second achievement is to pry this milieu open and pour a series of intricate themes into it — not merely the nature of fidelity and of the artistic impulse but also the manifold variety of estrangements and humiliations that come with being the lover of a much more famous and talented man.
Williams and Merlo drift aimlessly around Europe. Williams writes intensely (he had a fierce work ethic) and enjoys himself nearly as fulsomely.
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.
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.
Williams and Merlo were not monogamous. Williams once called crab lice his “occupational disease.” Merlo cheated, too, sometimes in revenge. He grew distant and moody over time.
Men like Merlo were often scorned, even by other gay men. (Truman Capote once asked the poet James Merrill’s lover, the writer and artist David Jackson, “Tell me, David, how much do you get a throw?”)
The love Merlo and others felt for the great men in their lives was not recognized by society. Among this book’s characters is the writer John Horne Burns (1916-1953). Burns’s unanticipated death in this novel leaves his longtime male lover with this painful realization: “His name would never appear beside Jack’s anywhere but private letters and the backs of photographs.”
“Leading Men” has a few dead nodes in it and the subplot, involving the reclusive actress and a production of Williams’s final play, generates fewer sparks than does the account of Williams and Merlo’s dazzled propinquity.
But this is an alert, serious, sweeping novel. To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket.