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Arkansas By David Leavitt

In 1993 David Leavitt published his novel While England Sleeps and it was to lead him into a storm of controversy and a lawsuit for slander. This affected him so much he didn't publish anything for four years. The breaking of his writerís block was this collection of three novellas, Arkansas.


First story in Arkansas is The Term Paper Artist, which I think 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 (The narrator has published a novel which has caused him to be sued). The narrator soon becomes involved in selling blowjobs to jock-students in return for writing English Literary essays for them. Soon word spreads around 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 story of sexed-up jocks and Eng. Lit. Essays. The story is about a writer with writer's block and the strange cause of events that releases it. My enjoyment of this story was marred by the repeating question of how autobiographical it was - the narrator of the story having being so easily identified with David Leavitt himself.


Next is The Wooden Anniversary. Here David Leavitt revisits two characters, Celia and Nathan, who have featured in other short stories in his all previous 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). But this isn't a happy reunion. Celia is married but her husband prefers to spend most of his time away from her with his mistress. Nathan is still desperately searching for a lover, which he has been doing all his adult life. The friends sight see the local area, there's a little holiday romance and then the fireworks. In typical David Leavitt style this is one of those slow burn stories that only explode at the end. Another Celia and Nathan story can feel like revisiting old friends or an unwelcome soap opera, depending to how you warm to them. Personally I find them fascinating, illustrating David Leavitt's take on the disasters of human relationships (Don't worry if you have never read any of the other stories featuring them, you don't need to, to enjoy this one).


The last novella is Saturn Street. Out of all the novellas this one is the strongest, carrying its narrator on an emotional journey far more reaching then the previous two. Jerry Roth, a writer lost in the world of Hollywood, narrates Saturn Street. He has come to Hollywood to work on his screenplay: in reality he sits around his apartment watching Dr. Delia on television (a TV psychotherapist he never calls) and formalist gay porn (which he doesnít find erotic). To break his monotony he volunteers with Angels, a charity that supplies daily meals to People With Aids in LA. His daily round takes in a mixed bag of people, including a man who only wears orange sneakers and an IV. One of the people he visits is Phil, a handsome ex-carpenter. Soon Jerry falls into quiet, unrequited love with Phil. This isnít the world of grand passions, Jerry and Phil donít 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 Philís health deteriorates with Aids. This is the territory were David Leavitt excels, the small passions of everyday life. He carefully and sensitively charts Jerryís unrequited love and how this actually moves on in his life, but more sensitively he describes the physical down spiral of Philís health. This story shows David Leavittís great strength, charting modern day gay life, and though this story has no great plot the emotional journey of it more then carried me along.


Arkansas shows David Leavittís strength, mapping the emotional life of urban gay men and all the highs and lows that comes with that. Though no grand passions here, the emotions here have that sharp taste of reality. Donít be put off by this book being made up of three novellas, David Leavitt packs into them more then lesser writers do into a whole novel.