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Book Review: Arkansas by David Leavitt


Drew Payne

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Arkansas is a collection of three novellas that show David Leavitt at his best, exploring the lives and emotions of his characters.

The first story is The Term Paper Artist, which is the closest he has come to writing a sex comedy. The narrator is a disgraced novelist who is hiding at the home of his professor father. He soon becomes involved in accepting sexual favours from jock-students in return for writing English literary essays for them. Soon, word spreads, and he has several jocks and essays on the go at the same time. This being a David Leavitt story, it isn't a fun, rushed tale of sexed-up jocks and Eng. Lit. essays; rather the story is about a writer with writer's block and the strange course of events that releases it.

Next is The Wooden Anniversary. Here, David Leavitt revisits two characters, Celia and Nathan, who have been featured in his previous short story collections. Celia is now living in Italy and running an Italian Cookery School for Americans. Nathan is visiting her with an old friend, Lizzy, a narrator who is always the last person to know anything. The reunion is not a happy one. Celia is married, but her husband prefers to spend most of his time with his mistress, and Nathan is still desperately searching for a lover, which he has been doing his entire adult life. The friends go sightseeing in the local area, there's a little holiday romance, and then the fireworks erupt. In typical David Leavitt style, this is a slow-burn story that only explodes at the end. This next Celia and Nathan story can feel like one is revisiting old friends or perhaps witnessing an unwelcome soap opera, depending on how one warms to them. Personally, I find them fascinating as they illustrate David Leavitt's take on the disasters of human relationships. You don’t have to had read any of the other stories featuring these characters to enjoy this one.

The last novella is Saturn Street. Out of all the novellas, this one is the strongest, carrying its narrator on a greater emotional journey than the previous two. Jerry Roth, a writer lost in Hollywood, narrates Saturn Street. He has come to Hollywood to work on his screenplay, but instead, he sits around his apartment watching Dr Delia (a TV psychotherapist he never calls) and formalist gay porn videos (which he doesn’t find erotic). To break the monotony, he volunteers with Angels, a charity that supplies daily meals to people with Aids in LA. His regular round takes in a mixed bag of people, including a man who only wears orange sneakers and an IV. One of the characters he visits is Phil, a handsome ex-carpenter. Soon, Jerry falls in quiet, unrequited love with Phil. This isn’t the world of grand passions; Jerry and Phil don’t end up rolling across the carpet in hot sex, nor do they end together as a couple. Instead, Jerry quietly and secretly loves Phil as Phil’s health deteriorates. This is the territory where David Leavitt excels, with the small passions of everyday life. He carefully and empathetically charts Jerry’s unrequited love and how this moves him on in his life, but more sensitively, he describes the physical downward spiral of Phil’s health. This story shows David Leavitt’s great strength, charting modern-day gay life, and though this story has no great plot, the emotional journey of it more than carried me along.

Arkansas shows David Leavitt’s power in mapping the emotional life of urban gay men and all the highs and lows that come with that. Though no grand passions, the emotions here have that sharp taste of reality. Don’t be put off by this book being made up of three novellas; David Leavitt packs much more into each one than lesser writers do into whole novels.

Edited by Drew Payne

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