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    Literary barbs and brats

    By GINA VIVINETTO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000


    After reading David Leavitt's Martin Bauman; Or, A Sure Thing, I'd swear he attended the Truman Capote School of Catty and Cathartic Writing. The controversial Leavitt's brilliant new autobiographical novel is a thinly disguised roman a clef detailing the author's early days stumbling out of the closet and into New York's whirlwind literary life.

    It reminds one of Capote's scathing, sensational unfinished "masterpiece" Answered Prayers. And like that book, Leavitt's is already outraging readers with its behind-the-scenes details.

    It isn't the first time Leavitt has run into problems of dipping into other people's lives in his fiction. In 1993 his novel While England Sleeps, which was based on poet Stephen Spender's memoirs, was withdrawn from publication when Spender accused of Leavitt of "plagiarizing my life." A revised version of the novel was eventually published after Spender's death in 1995.

    In Martin Bauman, he does dish on himself, but he also again chronicles the lives of other writers -- this time those he was running around with in the 1980s. Not to mention a few editors. And publishers.

    There's fellow writer Eli, the gay lover of narrator Martin Bauman, and Eli's best friend Liza, a young female writer struggling with her own lesbianism. All three are bright and furiously competitive with each other, both in matters of the heart and the written word.

    Aficionadoes of Manhattan's 1980s "Brat Pack" literary scene can nudge and whisper about the (not so) secret identities of these characters, but even those only remotely plugged in can figure out others. For example, the prestigious unnamed magazine that Martin and his mother reverentially refer to as "The Magazine" is none other than The New Yorker, which in reality published its first gay-themed short story by Leavitt in 1982, an achievement of Martin's detailed in this novel.

    Martin's mentor, Stanley Flint, an enigmatic and barbarically frank professor and editor, is almost certainly a fictional substitute for maverick editor Gordon Lish. (So, you see, when Martin confesses an obsessive love for Stanley, many real-life eyebrows may raise.)

    Now, here's where things get messy. Though Leavitt's prose is rich, lyrical and Proustian in its density, what Leavitt has to say about these people is not very nice. To his credit, Leavitt's cold analysis of Martin is most harsh. Martin is a young man whose need for approval and craving for fame -- in short, his preference for a "sure thing," according to Stanley Flint -- threatens to turn him into a hack.

    Martin is egomaniacal, immature, cruel and severely disconnected from himself. Martin scores a relationship with Eli -- who comes from money and privilege and is, simply put, Alice B. Toklas to his lover's Gertrude Stein. But soon after settling into the domestic bliss he so craves, Martin begins a secret life of infidelity, visiting bath houses and sex clubs during the chaotic years of AIDS' initial onslaught.

    If there's little to like about Martin, Eli and Liza come off worse. Where Martin and Liza enjoy success only to suffer comeuppance, the embittered, spoiled Eli miserably rots in their shadows.

    Leavitt's task is a daunting one, casting light on a small, snobby group of bratty, talented people who let success stunt their growth. Martin's recollecting now from his clear perspective as a man in his 40s, his shame and embarrassment, as well as his honesty, prevent us from wanting to poke his youthful self in the eye.

    Luckily, Leavitt, like Capote, has a fluid way with words. His writing is eloquent, gorgeous for stretches. He's also perceptive; he writes lines that bristle with self-reflection so brutal it stings. Chatty, candid and, yes, catty, Martin Bauman will engage you, even when Martin Bauman and his friends don't.

    - Gina Vivinetto is a Times staff writer.

    MARTIN BAUMAN; OR, A SURE THING

    By David Leavitt

    Houghton Mifflin, $26

    Festival author

    David Leavitt will be among the speakers at the Times Festival of Reading held Nov. 11-12 on the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The author of eight volumes of fiction, including Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing and co-editor of The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, Leavitt is currently teaching in the creative writing program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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