cover image Leading Men

Leading Men

Christopher Castellani. Viking, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-55905-4

Castellani’s spectacular fourth novel (after 2013’s All This Talk of Love) imagines the relationships between Tennessee Williams, his lover Frank Merlo, and a young actress named Anja Bloom, whom they take under their wing. In 1953 Italy, Tenn and Frank make the acquaintance of faltering writer Jack Burns, an alcoholic who’s emotionally abusive to his doting lover, Sandro Nencini. Frank finds a foil in Sandro, who recognizes Frank’s devotion and loneliness as Tenn writes, ignores him, and has brief dalliances with other men. While Tenn’s also inspired by Frank to write plays and helps him pursue his dream of acting, Sandro’s dedication goes largely unappreciated. Frank is beloved by Anja, a 17-year-old who flees her mother and finds fame with director Martin Hovland. The ’50s scenes are interspersed with chapters set a decade later as Frank lays dying in a cancer ward, having been all but abandoned by Tenn, and a present-day period when Sandro’s college-aged son Sandrino befriends Anja. Anja reveals that Tenn wrote an awful final play in which he didn’t do Frank justice; she waffles as Sandro tries to convince her to produce it instead of destroying it. Castellani’s novel hits the trifecta of being moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner. This is a wonderful examination of artists and the people who love them and change their work in large and imperceptible ways. (Feb.)