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David Leavitt's Martin Bauman

By Julia Hanna

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000: 

The brouhaha surrounding the 1993 publication of David Leavitt's While England Sleeps made for prime media fodder. The novel, which used Stephen Spender's 1951 memoir World Within World as an uncredited source for the story of a gay relationship between a writer and a working-class Welshman, even included a few sentences that bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Spender's. Where Leavitt seems to have used his imagination most exuberantly was in the depiction of sex between the two characters. Furious with the "fantasy accretions to my autobiography, which I find pornographic," Spender threatened legal action. A settlement was reached out of court, the book was pulped, and in 1995 a revised version was published.

In Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, Leavitt sticks closer to home, chronicling the psychological drama of a nakedly ambitious young man who journeys east for college -- a locale removed enough from his family to allow Bauman the freedom to explore his homosexuality, define himself as a writer, and at the age of 20 publish an unprecedented coming-out story in "the magazine" (easily recognizable as the New Yorker). Leavitt, in other words, tells the story of himself, as he enters territory that should prove the most revealing and libelous of all for any artist.

After graduation, Bauman moves to Manhattan, in his mind the only acceptable destination for a writer seeking fame and fortune. It's the early 1980s, and Leavitt has a jeweler's eye for the fine details and social nuances of the decade of AIDS, Reaganomics, and the sort of unbridled greed and consumerism that made Tom Wolfe rub his hands in glee. Leavitt's looping, lapidarian sentences suggest a 19th-century stylist, but he hits the target of a publishing party for a "hot young writer" dead on: "[I gazed] out at the little islets of furniture that punctuated this seascape, and upon which the party guests, like exotic marine specimens, were writhing and feeding, as in those rock pools that the ebbing of the tide brings into view."

The same level of hyper-acuity is brought to Bauman's interactions with the many denizens of New York he encounters along the road to his own success. Roommates, a roommate's mother, passing infatuations, a mugger, co-workers from the publishing company of "Hudson & Terrier" -- each, no matter how minor, is a distinct presence. The swirling current of humanity is depicted with all the eager, impressionable energy a twentysomething brings to establishing himself in an adult world. It's a remarkable feat on Leavitt's part, but as the novel progresses, dozens of characters disappear into Bauman's all-consuming funnel of experience, leaving little or no impression behind. It's as if it were enough for this narrator to relate his perceptions about a particular moment, then pass through it to the next, with no worries of how a reader might assemble a satisfying, lasting whole from these transitory, if engaging, parts.

A few characters inhabit a more permanent place in the narrative. Bauman's lover Eli and their mutual friend Liza are co-conspirators in negotiating the sometimes rarefied, inbred world of literary New York. The three freely share gossip, apartments, and an uneasy sense of competition as each struggles for the first book contract, the most glowing reviews, the coveted invitations to A-list parties. The triangle's shifting allegiances and jealousies are realistically claustrophobic, so much so that it's unfortunately all too easy to wish these tiresome twerps would stop their kvetching and leave the reader in peace.

Towering over them all is the formidable presence of Stanley Flint, whom Bauman first encounters as his instructor for an exclusive writing seminar in college: "Tall and limping, with wild dark hair and a careful, gray-edged beard, he carried a whiff of New York into the room, a scent of steam rising through subway grates which made me shudder with longing." Famous for his uncompromising standards, marathon lectures, and disdain for the marketplace's role in the making of art, Flint (clearly modeled after the real-life writer/editor/teacher terrible Gordon Lish) and his place in Bauman's consciousness provide the most interesting tension in the novel. Aware of the truth behind his classmates' assessment of his character -- that he's always "ready to pounce on a sure thing" -- Bauman is haunted by Flint's unvarnished predictions for his future as a writer: "You are eminently corruptible . . . I'm sorry to say it, but it's easy for me to imagine you turning into a hack, settling for cheap success, not because you're greedy, but because you desire too desperately to please."

This sort of conflict is worthy of a novel. The scenes in which Flint pops up have a vivid tautness that is welcome after pages of Bauman's long-winded if intelligent analyses of what it was like to navigate a literary career in New York as a young, gay writer. Not that such a subject couldn't make for an interesting book. Allan Gurganus's Plays Well with Others is a marvelous example of how emotionally rich such material can be when channeled through a narrator with more insight, humor, and perspective than Leavitt's Martin Bauman.

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