Leading Men: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Grace Talusan


In 2019, I published my first book, The Body Papers, and while visiting bookstores, book fairs, festivals, and colleges, I met other authors on the road accompanying their newly published books to panels and readings and salons. I bought their books and they bought mine. A book or three, even hardcovers, fit easily into my bag and I would drop them off at home in between trips. Because it was such a special treat to have so many Filipinx books available, I filled a suitcase of books from the Filipino American International Book Festival with authors such as Jose Antonio Vargas, Walter Ang, Randy Ribay, Cecilia Brainard, Elizabeth Ann Besa-Quirino, Sarge Lacuesta, Eugene Gloria, EJR David, Alfred A. Yuson, Criselda Yabes, and dozens more. By then, I didn’t have any more space in my bookshelves so I stacked my souvenirs in the dining room.

I usually pass
books onto students and friends after I’ve read them, but I had not read these
yet. And the ones I did pull out of the pile to read, I loved so much that I
wanted to keep them. It wasn’t until I saw my husband almost trip multiple
times as he tried to make his way through the obstacle course that I knew that
I had a problem.

I burned through some graphic memoirs in one sitting, such as Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream, AJ Dungo’s In Waves, and Good Talk by Mira Jacob, all of which I loved and have given away multiple copies as gifts. While on the road, standing in lines and waiting in boarding areas, my companions were the essayists in anthologies such as Burn It Down, edited by Lilly Dancyger, and What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, edited by Michele Filgate. As for the rest of the books, I stack them and they fall down and I stack them again.

I am in two
writing groups and I will highlight the books from those members published this

One of my groups is an online accountability group. For several years, we’ve emailed weekly reports of where we’ve submitted our writing. We wanted to counteract the imbalance of women’s writing in the pages of literary magazines and book review pages by encouraging each other to submit more often. This year, two of the women in that group published books, which made my very happy and proud. Novelist Beth Castrodale’s In This Ground follows Ben, a cemetery worker, as he turns 50 and his once stable, quiet life is threatened. Once an indie-rocker who almost made it, Ben has spent the past few decades putting his musical dreams behind him while also at his job at the cemetery, constantly reminded of the death of his band’s former lead singer. If you’re going to check out her work, I also recommend Marion Hatley, about a young woman in 1931, who, while running from her past, invents the an alternative to the corset, which is a relief for all women who suffer privately from the hidden constriction of their torsos. Beth is a compassionate writer whose novels are immersive, totally engrossing reading experiences. I was also overjoyed when Gilmore Tamny’s HAIKU4U was published. I’ve been listening to Gilmore perform these poems for years and to have these nuggets of the absurdity, mundane, and transcendent bound in a book was such a joy. Daniel Clowes, author of Ghost World, writes, “In these apocalyptic end-times, I recommend reading twenty of Ms. Tamny’s haikus every day to remind yourself that humankind is still, in certain rare instances, redeemable.”

My other writing group, The Chunky Monkeys, more of a traditional feedback group, also had a big year. Six of us published books. First, Whitney Scharer published her first novel, The Age of Light, which is now out in paperback. The launch for her first novel was so crowded with fans and supporters that they snaked through the aisles of the bookstore and listened to her reading over the sound system. The novel is beautiful in so many ways and the writing sparks joy for me. But the book will also be a souvenir of a wonderful evening and a reminder of how important it is to trust our creative instincts. That night, Whitney talked about how the idea for the book, the life of artist Lee Miller, came to her as she walked through an art museum, pushing her daughter’s stroller. She could have ignored the idea or forgotten it, but instead she followed her curiosity and conviction and now Whitney was standing in front of us, her daughter in the front row, reading from a work of art that came out of that chance moment with another work of art.

I spent the first months of 2019 very ill with pneumonia and Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men was the first book I was able to read. I was so grateful to leave my sick bed for Portofino in 1953 and hang out in the fabulous world of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and his lover Frank Merlo. The novel is meticulously researched and yet I didn’t see the research. Rather, I felt the aliveness of the characters and their complicated, loving relationships with each other. I’ve loved Castellani’s fiction since his first novel, A Kiss from Maddalena, his several novels in between, and was overjoyed to have another book to read. While recuperating, I also read his book from Graywolf’s “Art of” series, The Art of Perspective. I’ve been lucky to hear Chris lecture on perspective and was glad to be able to return to his ideas more closely in this book.

Later that spring, on the day Chip Cheek’s Cape May was published, I rushed to a bookstore and when I found his novel on the shelf, I jumped and clapped with joy. I was so happy to hold it in my hands, this beautiful, heartbreaking story that forced me to stay up later than I should have that night. I could not stop reading it. Somehow, I simultaneously rooted for the honeymooning couple to have a long and loving marriage while also wanting them both to misbehave and betray each other immediately. In May 2019, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere came out in paperback. I had already read and loved this novel in hardcover, but the paperback served a different purpose. I was often alone and even lonely on book tour, so whenever I spotted Celeste’s novel, which was prominently displayed in almost every airport bookstore I walked past, it was like glimpsing the face of a dear friend, cheering me on.

At the close of 2019, the sixth book published from our group is Calvin Hennick’s Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. A few years ago, Calvin sent to me what became this book in daily accountability emails. He told me not to read his emails, but I could not help myself. I was riveted by his candor, humor, and the beautiful, complicated, loving relationship unfolding between a father and son on a road trip. I was certain this would become a book even if the author sometimes doubted it would reach an audience larger than us. Already, the pre-publication response has been overwhelmingly positive and the memoir has appeared on “best” lists.

2019 was a great year of reading and I have so many in 2020 that I look forward to. From my writing group, Jennifer De Leon’s Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From in May. Meredith Talusan’s Fairest, Matthew Salesses’s Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and so many more. But first, before one of us sprains an ankle, I need to hit the books.

‘Leading Men’: Featured Fiction by Christopher Castellani


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.”
Leading Men
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.


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