Leading Men

Written by Christopher Castellani
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

Leading Men achieves what historical fiction does best. Taking the spotlight from the famous protagonists in history, the novel projects its luminous beam onto the supporting cast and proves that the role played by lovers, partners—enablers and disablers—is infinitely more significant and complicated than we might think. Thus, a man, whose role in life is to sustain a mentally unstable author, could turn out to be his murderer, while another self-destructs when he is unable to reconcile his desire for fame with his role as muse to a world-renown playwright.

The story opens at one of Truman Capote’s 1953 Portofino parties, where Frank Merlo and his lover Tennessee Williams form a friendship with Anja Blomgren, a young Swedish actress, who harbors a secret passion for Merlo. The threesome are joined by Jack Burns and Sandro Nancini, whose troubled relationship—Burns is an abusive alcoholic, while Nancini takes care of him—uncannily mirrors the twisted tie that binds Merlo and Williams. After a gruesome attack interrupts their sunny sojourn, and one member of their group suffers a fateful injury, their happy summer comes to an abrupt end.

Fast forward to 1963, when Frank Merlo, estranged from Williams, lies in a hospital bed, dying and waiting to reconcile with his lover. Years later, Blomgren receives a visit from Nancini’s college-age son, who persuades her to mount the play Williams dedicated to her before his death. As she relinquishes her part in the drama to his friend, she breaks a lifelong habit of selfishness and isolation. An artist’s novel that contains heart-stirring contemplations on the nature of love, volatility, and responsibility, Leading Men is highly recommended.