DAVID LEAVITT, in dialogue with Michael Winter, Saturday (October 21), 3 pm, Brigantine Room; and reading with Anita Desai and Hikaru Okuizumi, Sunday (October 22), 8 pm, Premiere Dance Theatre.Martin Bauman; Or, A Sure Thing, by David Leavitt (Houghton Mifflin), 387 pages, $38.75 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
David Leavitt's Martin Bauman; Or, A Sure Thing should get literary Manhattan's phones and e-mails burning up. A roman à clef about the 80s publishing scene, it revisits that decade's famed writing workshops, publishing houses and cocktail parties and devotes a chapter to a magazine based on the New Yorker. Leavitt himself achieved notoriety after publishing that weekly's first openly gay-themed story while still a Yale undergrad.
But he hopes the book amounts to more than just a literary guessing game.
"That sort of gossip dissipates quickly," he says on the phone from the University of Florida, where he's teaching. "The thing that should compel people to continue reading is the book itself."
It does. Unlike many of his peers in the so-called 80s literary brat pack (Tama Janowitz, where are you now?) Leavitt has survived and matured, his prose always impeccable but his themes deepening with age and experience. He even survived the near-destruction of his career after poet Stephen Spender sued him for allegedly plagiarizing from his autobiography.
In Martin Bauman, Leavitt places the world of the glitterati in the context of Reagan-era excess. Betrayal, greed and cheating -- professional and personal -- loom large in the book.
"Even back then I realized the economic boom seemed false and likely to end," he says. "What's curious is that today there's another boom, and the literary scene is even scarier. Young writers are encouraged to send photographs with their manuscripts. Marketing is everything."
It was this kind of craziness that forced him to leave Manhattan, first for East Hampton and then for Europe, where he's lived for the past decade.
"I had to be away from New York in order to write about it," he says.
And the maxim about early success being a curse?
"The good outweighed the bad," he laughs. "The danger of success is that people hate you for it. They assume you're having your 15 minutes and that everything else will be an afterthought.
"Early success gave me a reputation, a career, that I'm grateful for. But it also made me arrogant. It encouraged me to take myself more seriously than I should have."