Book review: Wilde in the media room

Arkansas by David Leavitt, Abacus pounds 14.99
David Leavitt is the author of two quite good novels, whose dignity consisted in their subject and how he dealt with it; he may be responsible for more middle-class families having come to terms with their sons' homosexuality than are some contemporary gay authors. These two novels, Family Dancing and The Lost Language of Cranes, were studies in tolerance that combined a certain daring with a canny cosiness. His third novel was to a considerable extent addled by the blandness of celebrity and of American prosperity.

Recently, his trajectory has been occluded by a novel called While England Sleeps, which is a barely disguised translation of the life of Stephen Spender through Leavitt's own understanding of the subtle- ties of sex, war, society and this country, whose language he perhaps accidentally shares and whose sardonic emotional wardrobe - not to say closet - he is, on the evidence, barely able to open. There was an ugly court case about this book, and sides were taken.

Arkansas adduces Oscar Wilde as its sponsor, prefaced by his poetic, allusive, and "attributed" remark: "I should like to flee like a wounded hart into Arkansas." It's the best thing about the book, apart from three intelligent animadversions, which come to the reader late on. This thin but well-produced book is advertised as consisting of three novellas. Only if ring doughnuts are buns are these empty hoops novellas.

The first story concerns a well-known writer, young, homosexual, of affluent academic family with whom he is staying ("This house, which originally belonged to a movie producer, includes a 'media room', the electronic controls of which are so complex that even after five years neither [parent] has figured them out: a lighting system more various and subtle than that of most Broadway theatres; a burglar alarm they can never quite explain to Guadalupe, the cleaning lady, who seems always to be tripping it accidentally." It's entertaining to compare this lush account with the exact evocation of a North Oxford don's sitting-room in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love). This well-known young writer - hell, let's call him DL - doesn't baulk at drawing attention to his low-wattage apercus by remarking "had she lived in our age, George Eliot might have said that".

Leavitt could, if he were not playing a game of double bluff - vanity acknowledged in order to minimise its overweeningness - be fairly sound on the competitiveness of writers and their insecurity. As it is, he, or rather his "I", suspects they play "a more singular role in most writers' lives than they would care to admit". At this point, it's bracing to recall the acidic certainness of Gore Vidal's pleasure at his colleagues' failures, the doughty unmodesty of Martin Amis. Leavitt compounds his gaucherie by name-dropping Forster, whose name will always, evasively, intelligently, refuse to land.

So, this guy, who is blocked and must anyhow be pretty much whacked-out by his onanistic private life, meets a guy, who is straight, but prepared to exchange physical favours for term-papers. This gets about, and so does our hero. It's rather an interesting subject, since all sedentary solitaries - that is most writers - are faced with the problem of how to have some life at first hand; and the idea of writing for love is good.

But repeatedly in Leavitt's writing one bumps into the sad gap between the ability to apprehend and that of expression. There is the occasional neat phrase: the telephone is "coy as a cat". The words are stroked the wrong way, though, by the introductory "smug on its perch". Is the phone a cat, or is it a mynah? There is quite a bit of by-play over the Cleveland Street affair - a homosexual scandal involving more than one nobleman, surprising to learn - and Jack the Ripper. Leavitt, for it is indeed he who is our hero, shows a want of grasp of more than genitalia that sets the teeth on edge, as no doubt my cavil will his: no more is Lord Arthur Somerset to be described as Lord Somerset than is his sister-in-law as Lady Somerset. As the author says, "I grow impatient with facts." You bet. But they make a knot in our belief before we begin to try to balance upon it.

The Wooden Anniversary is set in Italy, a country that has evidently of late enjoyed the presence of the author, and is bothersomely heterosexual in appearance though not perhaps in essence. There is some reasonable greedy stuff about food which is quite sexy. Much the best story, Saturn Street, has as its subject Aids and the appalled care a well man offers a sick one. It is very well done, light of touch, fully and movingly open to America and to popular culture, and wonderfully, paradoxically fuller of life as the dying man nears his quietus not, though the narrator wishes it to be, sexually but mortally induced.

Perhaps David Leavitt should simply leave Europe alone. In his own vast land, his voice stops straining and rings true. The three good bits are, by the way, to be found in this last story, which makes a nice point about the difficulty of "distinguishing the genuine from the counterfeit". Readers of this book won't have too much trouble.