David Leavitt Short Fiction Analysis
David Leavitt is one of a number of openly homosexual young writers whose work began to appear in the 1970’s and 1980’s but who, in spite of their declared homosexuality, have achieved a far wider audience than that normally restricted to “gay writers.” While Leavitt (and other writers) may deal in their fiction with the topic of homosexuality and the difficulties posed by heterosexual society for those who are gay or are so perceived, that theme is not the entire focus of his fiction, and his handling of the homosexual experience is not of some isolated, hidden world (as gay and lesbian writing tended to be in the decades of the 1940’s and 1950’s). Instead, the homosexual experience in Leavitt’s work is directly related to the family experience of which parents, brothers, sisters, and relatives are an integral everyday part. Thus, there is little homosexual eroticism present and no homosexual exoticism; homosexuals are present, everyday, and all around, rather as earlier homosexual activists liked to say: “We are everywhere.” To that generalization, Leavitt’s characters add the generalization, “and we are just like you, for the most part.” To this homosexual theme which is found in Leavitt’s fiction can be added two other areas that are sometimes linked (but sometimes unrelated) to homosexuality. One is the recurring fragility of human life and the threat to it by terminal illness such as cancer, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), or even a sudden fatal allergy. Another discernible theme is the fragility of the American family and the pressures on it in contemporary life, particularly the fragmenting effect of divorce.
Leavitt’s systematic return to certain themes—homosexuality, sexual infidelity, the family, terminal illness—in his short fiction certainly is a vivid portrayal of contemporary American social mores, rendered all the more acute by the author’s ability to select situations and details that become metaphors for his stories’ issues. Leavitt, in a discussion of other contemporary fiction writers whom he admires, has suggested that a number of contemporary fiction writers are concerned with the shattering of the familial, or parental, edifice. Many today write of a world “where very little can be taken for granted or counted on, where potentially dangerous change looms around every corner, and where marriages and families, rather than providing havens, are themselves the fulcrum of the most sweeping upheavals.” His comment about the works of a number of other contemporary fiction writers could, quite easily, be applied to his own work.
Several stories in Leavitt’s collections deal with the complications resulting from the confrontations of heterosexual and homosexual lives. This difficult relationship is seen particularly in a group of stories involving the characters of Celia, Nathan, and Andrew from their initial encounters as college students to their later lives, as their sexual relationships change, new ones are developed, and the later loves affect their friendships.
In “Dedicated,” the final story in the Family Dancing collection, the trio of Nathan (dark and Jewish, from a wealthy family), Andrew (blond and the definitive WASP), and Celia (attracted to and friends with both Nathan and Andrew) is introduced at the residence of Nathan’s parents while they are spending a leisurely weekend away from their Manhattan jobs. In a story seen primarily from Celia’s point of view, the contentious sexual relationship between Nathan and Andrew is explored in the present-time setting of the story and also in flashbacks to college, to scenes in New York, and to scenes recalled from a European trip, when Nathan and Andrew became lovers in Florence. The story centers on Celia’s somewhat frustrated attempts to comprehend her attraction to homosexual men, which she sees not as an accident but as what she terms “a career.”
Celia is a confidant to both Andrew, who professes not to love Nathan, and Nathan, who likes talking endlessly and analytically with her. While Nathan and Andrew constantly attempt to define for her their conflicting affair, Celia tries to determine why she is attracted only to men who, ultimately, can be attracted only to one another. Additionally, there are discussions among the trio in which issues such as whether one should be a gay activist or whether to discuss one’s homosexuality with one’s parents are argued. The complexities of Nathan’s and Andrew’s lives are further explored in scenes in which both Nathan and Andrew tell Celia of their first night of love together, and she becomes aware of the discrepancy of their points of view while experiencing her own ongoing sense of isolation from the men and their lives. She finally realizes that her happiness with each results in part from their unhappiness with each other. She also notices how much of her awareness comes from her repeated partings with the two young men.
“A Place I’ve Never Been”
In Leavitt’s second collection, A Place I’ve Never Been, he again deals with the trio in several stories. In the book’s title story, Nathan returns from a lengthy trip to Europe to find his apartment in shambles and immediately calls upon Celia, who continues to be for him a dependable prop in his life. Nathan’s former lover, Martin, has tested positive for HIV, and Nathan has vowed to give up sex entirely. In Nathan’s absence, Celia has discovered her own sense of being and has come to understand her own beauty and appeal. She also knows that as long as she is the only solace in Nathan’s life, she cannot have a life of her own, and Nathan now is paralyzed by his fear of getting AIDS—or worse, giving AIDS to someone he loves.
“When You Grow to Adultery”
In “When You Grow to Adultery,” Andrew resurfaces, having long been separated from Nathan and Celia, the friends of his college years. Andrew momentarily is suspended between his relationship with his established lover, Allen, and his new attraction to an architect named Jack Seldon. Andrew thus is torn between his love for Allen (who needs Andrew) and his need for Jack, a need that is underscored by the story’s final scene, where, as he and Allen make love at the house of Allen’s parents, Andrew traces Jack’s name on Allen’s back.
“I See London, I See France”
In the story “I See London, I See France,” Celia goes to Europe with Seth, a man she has met through a telephone dating service, and she discovers on their first date that they share a love of Italy. At the heart of Celia’s life is an essential unhappiness about what her life is and has been and the impossibility of ever making it anything truly different. That realization comes to her vividly as she and Seth visit a “beautiful” couple—Alex and Sylvie Foster and their two daughters, Adriana and Francesca, at the Foster’s Italian farmhouse, Il Mestolo. Yet, after an idyllic afternoon at the Italian house, Celia Hoberman, who grew up with her mother, Rose, and her grandmother, Lena, in an apartment in Queens, also comes to know that she, too, can change her life and live...
(The entire section is 2959 words.)