For today’s featured fiction, we present an excerpt from chapter two of Christopher Castellani’s fourth novel Leading Men, out today from Viking. The title received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called the book “[s]pectacular…moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner.”
Frank seldom got the chance to watch Tenn work, as he was doing now. Back home, Tenn had a separate office with a door he kept closed even when he was alone. He’d come out for another cup of black coffee, nod dazedly in Frank’s direction, then retreat back into his world of silent voices and invisible companions.
He watched Tenn stick a pencil in his mouth, tip his chair back, prop his bare foot on the desk, and close his eyes. His pants were rolled up below his knees, his hair a mess of matted curls. He sat that way a long while, his hands folded at his waist, unmoving, deep in thought. In profile like this, without both of his baby-boyish cheeks visible, he looked older and more distinguished, the man of letters he was born, if not bred, to become. An artist should paint him from this angle, in this soft morning light. They should put him on a postage stamp. Tenn shook his head vigorously, as if eavesdropping on Frank’s thoughts. Then his lips softened into a faint smile over the pencil. They remained there in a long moment of self-satisfaction. Of peace. Confidence. To witness such a moment was like catching a wild animal taking a sunbath.
Frank should have told him then and there that he loved him and would never leave him. Not how much he loved him, which was very much, but that he loved him at all, a fact Frank took for granted but Tenn claimed not to know. He should have told Tenn that he admired his stonemason life, that he was in awe of the churches he’d built and was building, their beauty and permanence, the sacred hearts that blazed within them. He should have said, I’m grateful for all you’ve brought to me, and for all you’ve brought me to, for all that you bring out of me. But Frank had never said anything of this sort to Tenn. He had never spoken the word “love.” The time was never right. He didn’t want to disturb him. His bad poetry embarrassed him. Frank was a tough guy from Jersey who worked construction, fought for his country, and imagined he might still have a kid or two someday, not to mention a woman to go along with those kids. He was afraid that once you gave something a name, it would turn on you. And maybe he knew, even then, that love was a currency he hadn’t spent all of yet, while Tenn had gone broke on Frank the first moment he saw him.
The sun forced itself on the windows. Up from the town came the clamor of church bells, and Tenn lunged for his desk. His chair dropped behind him with a thud. He stood and riffled through the stack of pages next to the typewriter and scribbled something, unaware that Frank was out of bed and walking naked in front of him.
Was this lunging the lightning strike of the new title, Orpheus
Descending? The first lines of Cat? Or just a scrap of dialogue he threw on the heap a minute later? Frank knew only as much of Tenn’s draft pages as he’d tell him, which some days was a lot—a character’s buried shame, a third-act revelation—and other days was nothing. Frank learned fast that to ask was to be denied, that the less interested he acted, the more likely Tenn was to pull a page from his typewriter, walk it out to the porch, and read it aloud to him. Mostly what he told Frank was that his writing was shit, that he was washed up, that he didn’t have another Streetcar in him and even Streetcar wasn’t the masterwork everyone thought it was, that no one worth a fig would finance another one of his plays, that he’d die poor and forgotten and not even Frank would come to his funeral, glad—giddy, in fact, relieved, ecstatic!—to be free of him. He’d fly into a rage at Frank for betraying him so heartlessly, for his secret wish to abandon him, and then, minutes later, he’d beg Frank’s forgiveness, remind him through tears of their many good years together—of Mr. Moon, of Duncan Street, of stepping off the boat in Genoa—and how many more of the good years awaited them if only he’d grant him one last reprieve. Please, Frank, please, he’d plead. Find it in your heart . . .
Frank was the palm tree in the hurricane, slashed and bent by the wind, pushed to the point of splitting, as he waited for the calm of the inevitable eye. This life with Tenn, though far from tranquil, taught him patience. Like Tenn, he fixed his hopes on the greatness of whatever tomorrow might bring—the next knockout, the next trip abroad, the next party, the next boy—and dismissed or distrusted what came before simply for belonging to the black-and-white past. Their future together promised color in bright bursts: an orange house in Liguria to return to next summer, the costumes on the set of Senso in the fall, one day the green rooftops of Marrakech, the turquoise water off the coast of Key West when they finally made it home.
“Let’s not make our new friends wait,” Frank called from the bathroom.
“You go on ahead,” said Tenn. “I’ll meet you on the beach.”
“I don’t want to go alone.”
To this Tenn offered no response. He was hunched over his desk again, biting his lip as he crossed out lines and wrote between them in his mad scrawl. Another lightning bolt. Frank gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head and stood another moment at his side, the only sound now their breathing and the shushing of pencil on paper. How lucky he was, Frank thought, to have another world to tunnel into. No matter that it couldn’t hold him or love him back. It was far more real to him, more urgent, more alive, than the world in which Frank buttoned his shirt, took one last look in the mirror, opened the door to the hallway, and shouted back, “Don’t be long.”
Adapted from Leading Men by Christopher Castellani. Published on February 12, 2019 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Christopher Castellani, 2019.