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David Leavitt's Arkansas

By Blake de Pastino

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  You just have to admire a book that causes problems. Especially when, in the end, it proves to be worth all the trouble. Esquire magazine learned that the hard way this spring, when it refused at the last minute to publish a story called "The Term Paper Artist" by David Leavitt. One of America's most prominent gay writers, Leavitt had been deadlocked by writer's block in recent years, and "Term Paper" was seen by some as his comeback breakthrough. But the powers that be at Esquire decided that the piece was sex- ually "inappropriate," which caused the editor-in-chief to renege on the deal--which in turn caused the literary editor to resign in protest. Suffice it to say, it was a messy affair. But by the time "Term Paper" appeared in Leavitt's latest volume, Arkansas, the magazine's loss--and Leavitt's gain--was quite clear. Because on the whole, Arkansas marks not only a great awakening for David Leavitt, but also unveils some of his most lucid, imaginative and conceited work yet.

I mean that in a good way. The key to the book's success, you see, is a single but extremely difficult literary motif: self-mythology. And the height of its perfection is the controversial novella "The Term Paper Artist," controversial not just because it's overflowing with gay lust, but because the main character is a novelist named David Leavitt, who is suffering from a creative breakdown. You get the idea: Leavitt has fashioned a fictional doppelgänger for himself, a double through whom he has found a new life. With a casual self-centeredness not seen since Philip Roth, David Leavitt has turned himself into one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction.

But here's where it gets hairy. Because this Leavitt is no ordinary guy. While crashing at his dad's house outside of L.A., he develops a racket to get himself writing again: He begins scamming local college boys for sex. Targeting straight frat kids at UCLA, Leavitt arranges to write term papers for them in exchange for a blow job or a quick hump in the back of a jeep. "I don't know what came over me," Leavitt's evil twin writes. "A lustful malevolence, you might call it." Soon he's in big demand, and he is finally writing: about Henry James, WWII, the true identity of Jack the Ripper. The essence of being an artist, he finds, is being able to exploit whatever presents itself. And through it all we are treated to some incredibly clean prose ("He smiled, his mouth some orthodontist's pride"), some real-time dialogue ("The thing was, I fell in love with an idea.") and some characters--especially Leavitt--who are as slippery as any of us.

What turns this trick into a full-fledged conceit is that Leavitt uses it again, in the novella "Saturn Street." Here the narrator is, once more, a big-time writer with the same urbane wit and penchant for porn. Only this time, he (interestingly enough, named Roth) volunteers for an AIDS service, delivering meals to homebound patients. Soon Roth falls for one of his customers, and he gets caught in a tangle of unrealized promises and dangerous hopes. The action here is utterly natural--as opposed to the softcore histrionics of "Term Paper"--and it's a testament to Leavitt's skill that he can be poignant without getting maudlin.

The only outright failure in Arkansas, though, is an obvious one: "Wooden Anniversary," a rehash of some of Leavitt's earlier characters. The plot is not worth repeating, except to say that it's about three rich white people sitting around a villa, talking about who's fucking whom. A lot is said but nothing is achieved, and each of the characters is about as dimensional as a police mug shot. Returning to old characters was probably another one of Leavitt's tactics to get the ball rolling. But ironically, he did much better by venturing out to where he'd never been before.

In the last analysis, the key to Leavitt's literary conceit is the risk. Esquire obviously didn't think it was a risk worth taking. And for that matter, neither have the publishers of Leavitt's other, earlier works that also mixed fact and fiction. But controversy has its due, and Arkansas is a near-perfect instance of a dangerous experiment meeting with success. How can you tell it succeeds? In the end, it was all worth the trouble. (Houghton Mifflin, cloth, $23)

--Blake de Pastino

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