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Book Review

In Leavitt's Fiction, It's All About Him

MARTIN BAUMAN; OR, A SURE THING A Novel by David Leavitt; Houghton Mifflin $26, 388 pages

September 25, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The world of David Leavitt's fiction is urban, articulate and largely though not exclusively homosexual. Like most modern realists, Leavitt generally follows the injunction to write of what he knows best: himself. Although this dictum may have resulted in an oversupply of novels that read like memoirs and memoirs more fictional than factual, it is still true that a writer who writes honestly and insightfully of his or her own experience may well produce a book with universal (or, at least, wider) resonance.

"Martin Bauman; Or, A Sure Thing" offers a portrait of the artist as a young man. It is a portrait additionally shaded and deepened by the perspective of hindsight: not only self-conscious, but self-critical. When we first meet the eponymous narrator, it is 1980 and he is a 19-year-old college student taking a writing course with the "legendary" Stanley Flint, who, indeed, preaches that the true artist finds the seeds of the universal in the particular.

Young Bauman is a rather shifty character, hungry for approval and willing to take shortcuts: a young man destined to do well in the 1980s. A shrewd classmate describes him as eager to pounce on a sure thing, and the great Flint warns him he is just the sort of facile writer who risks being ruined by success. Looking back from the vantage point of 20 years later, an older Bauman readily confesses his flaws: "For all my awkwardness . . . I was (and am) both ambitious and competitive. What I craved, more than anything else, was success, a word . . . I took to be synonymous with 'approval' . . . [A]s early as my freshman year, I had a reputation among my peers for being both arrogant and opportunistic: a reputation . . . which . . . could not have been more at odds with the image that I cultivated of myself, as sincere, generous, and above all guileless."

Our hero has the good fortune to have his story of a gay man coming out to his parents published in "the" magazine (presumably the New Yorker). Soon he is immersed in the glib, catty world of publishing, signings, agents and cocktail parties. Instead of reading a book, he scans its acknowledgments for evidence of the author's connections. Instead of discussing ideas, he and his friends gossip about advances.

As befits a young gay man who has "come out" in print, Bauman is eager to acquire a suitable mate: an intelligent, well-mannered paragon with so many virtues that Bauman's parents, on meeting him, will simply have to overlook the single tiny defect of his being of the "wrong" gender. In his eagerness to achieve perfect coupledom, Bauman manages not only to bypass his own sexual and emotional needs but also to view his new partner as a stage prop instead of a man with problems and needs of his own.

In one revealing scene, Bauman and his boyfriend, Eli, are living out the former's long-cherished dream of lying in bed and watching reruns of "I Love Lucy." Poor Eli commits the fatal error of taking Bauman's hand and putting it on his penis. Angrily, Bauman pulls away: Anything sexual would "ruin" the atmosphere of infantile coziness he is trying to create. He is even more peeved when Eli, proclaiming "I don't even like Lucy," gets out of bed and switches on his computer to work. "But you have to watch!" wails Bauman. "It's not the same alone."

Bauman tells the story against himself, mocking his own youthful callowness. This does not prevent him, however, from getting in plenty of spiteful digs against Eli and various other associates from his shallow, misguided past. Leavitt has a wonderfully sharp eye for the significant details of the world he depicts, and an equally keen ear not only for the idiom of his characters' speech, but for the peculiar rhythms of self-deception and self-justification. But, although he peppers this novel with allusions to "In Search of Lost Time," he is a long way from managing, as Proust did, to transform a chronicle of pettiness, vanity and envy into something more generous and grand. Still, the accuracy and acuity of Leavitt's rendition of his experience make this a compelling book.

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