In the summer of 1949, Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo were meeting with a Hollywood studio exec when the exec politely asked Merlo what he did for a living. In a clear and ringing voice, Merlo answered, “I sleep with Mr. Williams.”
The comment suggests a degree of sexual freedom unusual for that era, but it also gets at the fraught relationship between artists and their support systems. Who, in the end, supports the systems? Or, as Christopher Castellani asks in the opening pages of the novel “Leading Men”: “Other than sleep with Mr. Williams, what had Frank Merlo done with his life?”
Judging by this touching but diffuse novel, it was a lot and maybe not enough. When next we meet them, Williams and Merlo are peregrinating through 1953 Italy. Tenn has been tasked with writing English dialogue for Luchino Visconti’s new film. Plagued as usual by self-doubt, he fights off his “blue devils” with whiskey and pills but still goes to work every morning “like a stonemason to a cathedral,” carving out the fragments of what will become “Orpheus Descending”and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
As for Frank, the largehearted figure who has “floated from the Marines to the stage to the film set, from women to men, from man to man, from driving a truck in Jersey to ironing shirts for the greatest playwright of the twentieth century” . . . well, lacking an obvious career path of his own, he chooses to expend his life force on the people he meets — most notably Anja, a young Swedish woman “short on joy and long on complaints” who is trying to escape her mother’s death grip.
Other people climb on board. Squabbles break out, alliances are tested, acting careers are broken and made. And as the characters wander from Portofino to Rome and Venice — eating and flirting and getting drunk and getting sunburned — the book becomes, by its own inclination, a seriocomic picaresque. Narrative tension may flag at times, but some zesty real-life figure is always rushing forth to distract us: Paul Bowles to get high, Anna Magnani to make lunch, Truman Capote to toss another bon mot on the fire. (“Italian men prefer their wives fat and their mistresses fatter.” “Obscurity is a disease soon cured by mediocrity.”) The most surprising figure is the now-obscure John Horne Burns, a briefly lionized postwar American author whom we find spiraling into alcoholic decline.
Once, just once, Castellani gives us a view of something harrowing: an army of feral boys setting upon a group of tourists, “slicing into their thighs and backswith their sharp raccoon nails, digging under the skin as if trying to scoop out chunks of flesh.” Yet even this bare moment is clothed by prefigurement: We grasp, even as we read, that Williams will turn it into the cannibalistic climax of “Suddenly, Last Summer.”
Castellani knows his people, though, and he knows this world: How the sun sets on an overgrown sculpture garden, how prostitutes congregate in the roadside parking lots outside Rome, the “military precision” of an Italian beach and the overweening vanity of an Italian film director: “You listened to him go on about his colors. You didn’t throw all your attention on the leading lady you knew he considered second-rate. You did praise him for getting so much blood out of that particular stone, and then you showed a barely restrained pity for the stone herself.”
Where Castellani errs, I think, is in transferring so much of his narrative to the invented character of Anja, who matures (improbably) into a legendary movie actress. We reconnect with her decades later, a staid and Garboesque figure whose isolation is cracked open by the son of an old friend and by the previously unknown Tennessee Williams play that she may or may not be harboring in her home. By the time her story thread is played out, “Leading Men” has acquired a few too many leads and a superfluous climax or two.
Castellani recovers in time for a poignant finale that puts the focus back where it belongs: on Tenn and Frank, trying to figure out, perhaps too late, what they mean to each other. “It still had no name, the nature of their long association, their fifteen years — a lifetime! — of trips and plans and nightingales and cautious public affections. Maybe it never would. Maybe they invented it.”