In this, his first novel, David Leavitt treats several themes found in his widely praised collection of short stories, Family Dancing (1984). Among these themes are homosexuality, family relationships, and the sense of personal isolation characteristic of modern urban life.
Structurally, the book is divided into four sections. In the first section, “Voyage,” the reader is introduced to the principal characters and their lives. The story centers on Owen and Rose Benjamin, a solid, middle-class couple, and their adult son, Philip. Owen Benjamin is the first character introduced, although he is not named at the time. He is seen as a nameless, shadowy figure on an anonymous, faintly sinister errand that takes him through the deserted streets of Manhattan. In contrast, Rose, his wife, is introduced clearly and is seen in the warmth and coziness of their apartment. Philip, their twenty-five-year-old son, is barely mentioned at first although he is a catalyst for much of the action.
Ostensibly, the Benjamins are threatened by outside forces. The apartment in which they have lived for more than twenty years is going co-op, and they must either use most of their savings to purchase the apartment or move to another location. This problem, however, only serves to divert the reader’s attention from the real threat to their security. All three of the Benjamins have been harboring secrets, but it is Owen’s and Philip’s homosexuality which will endanger their basic family relationships.
Even at twenty-five, Philip is portrayed as rather callow. He is openly gay and for the first time in his life has a lover, Eliot Abrams. Yet this affair is doomed by Philip’s adolescent clinging and need for reassurance. His almost puppylike affection and enthusiasm make him seem much younger than he really is. Philip also seems to be somewhat superficial and thoughtless. In his self-centered view that his sexuality is the central thing in his life and therefore should be revealed to his parents, he gives little thought for their feelings or reactions.
In contrast to Philip’s openness, Owen has hidden his homosexuality for twenty-seven years of marriage. His one guilty concession to his obsession has been regular, furtive trips to a pornographic-film theater each Sunday. Owen, representative of an earlier, closeted generation of homosexuals, believes that his shameful secret must be kept hidden, but he is balancing on a thinner and thinner edge as he realizes that his Sundays no longer satisfy him.
“Myths of Origin,” the second section of the novel, further explores the natures and backgrounds of the characters. Throughout the section there is an emphasis on personal distance and alienation and the keeping of secrets. This is especially true in the descriptions of the father-son relationship of Owen and Philip. Owen purposely has kept a distance between Philip and himself, fearful that his unnamed obsession will be transmitted to his son like a disease.
Leavitt again presents a contrast to the Benjamins’ closed, secretive life-style as he introduces Philip into the open atmosphere of Eliot’s “family.” Orphaned as a child, Eliot was reared by a gay couple in an accepting, supportive atmosphere. It is shortly after meeting this family that Philip finally tells his parents of his own sexual orientation. The section closes with Owen’s devastation at the news and Rose’s immediate rejection of her first acknowledgment of Owen’s potentially more damaging secret.
The novel’s third section, “The Crane-Child,” is the briefest, covering only three pages, but it presents an allegory of the central motif. The story is, in fact, a report of a psychoanalytic case study of a neglected child, who, in the absence of human models, began to imitate the sound and actions of construction cranes, which he could see from his window. When the boy was found by authorities, the screeching and whirring of the cranes was his only language. For Leavitt, the story shows how one does not necessarily choose whom or what to love and how one becomes like whatever is loved. A basic tragedy and alienating factor of life is the inability to find a common language to communicate these different kinds of love. The languages are lost to all but those who already understand them.
The final section, “Father and Son,” is the longest of the four divisions of the book. Philip, Owen, and Rose all must deal with their personal crises. Their decisions and actions are made in isolation but continue to have great impact on the others.
Philip is floundering, set adrift when Eliot suddenly leaves him and goes to Europe. Having just begun to feel the security of being part of a couple and enjoying the freedom of having “come out,” he is stunned and overwhelmed by Eliot’s defection, although he has feared that just such a thing would happen. In a sense, being without Eliot forces Philip to grow up. He...