Chris Castellani's Latest Novel, "Leading Men," about Tennessee Williams and his Lover, Frank Merlo, Was Inspired by an Endangered Resource of the Instagram Age: People's Personal Letters and Journals

Chris Castellani presented a slide show of “real and imagined'“ characters in his latest novel ,   Leading Men

Chris Castellani presented a slide show of “real and imagined'“ characters in his latest novel, Leading Men

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Prize-winning novelist and South End resident, Chris Castellani, returned to the South End library on April 9 to read from his widely praised latest novel, Leading Men, about the relationship between playwright Tennessee Williams and his lover and muse Frank Merlo, as it may have played out in Portofino, Italy, in the early 1950s. The novel, for which Castellani researched the personal letters and journals of the playwright, received stellar reviews from the New York Times and and the Boston Globe, among other publications. The Boston Globe calls it a “seductive, steaming novel.” The New York Times book reviewer, Dwight Garner, describes it as a novel that casts "a spell right from the start” and “vividly reimagines” the relationship between Williams and Merlo, while offering “intricate thoughts about the nature of fidelity, the artistic impulse, and estrangement.” 

Aaron Lecklider, Professor of American Studies at UMass, and author of Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture, introduced Castellani and remarked upon the unique richess of personal archives the novelist drew upon. Lecklider described how, when doing research himself in a trove of personal letters in an archive in Delaware, he found a feather hidden between some pages. The feather, placed there by someone many decades before, erased for him the distance between past and present, an experience that he suggested in our age of instant communications and Instagram may be lost forever. Lecklider, also a South End resident, described Castellani as a novelist who writes about “emotional truths and competing desires,” and someone who also is the “unstoppable force” who reinvented writing in the city of Boston as the artistic director of Grub Street, the independent creative writing center on Boylston Street.

Chris Castellani reading from Leading Men to a full house, including the author who introduced him, Aaron Lecklider, who wrote  Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture.

Chris Castellani reading from Leading Men to a full house, including the author who introduced him, Aaron Lecklider, who wrote Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture.

In going through the personal letters and journals of Williams, Castellani discovered there was a gap in journal entries from the end of July until August 11 of 1953. He knew Truman Capote had invited Williams and Merlo to visit him in Portofino in 1953, by which time Williams had established his reputation with A Streetcar Named Desire, but he and Merlo were going through a rough time in their four-year relationship. Castellani wondered what might have taken place during the time of that hiatus in the journal when other characters also visited Portofino. These included John Horne Burns, the bestselling author of the first great post-war novel The Gallery, an alcoholic who passed away on August 11, the last day of the “gap’ in the Williams journal. Imagining what the answers to those questions might be formed the spine of the plot in which Castellani explored the emotional turbulence and shifting social undercurrents experienced by a post-war generation of mostly gay men in the seaside town of Portofino.

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Playwright Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, the subjects of Chris Castellani’s  Leading Men.

Playwright Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, the subjects of Chris Castellani’s Leading Men.

For his library talk, Castellani presented a slide show of real and imagined characters who inhabited the Portofino of his novel, which he described as “an idyllic place fraught with peril.” One of them, part of a Swedish mother/daughter team that always dressed alike, reminded him of he actress Liv Ullman. Castellani asked himself, “what if Williams was writing a play just for her?” This is how Castellani ended up writing a one-act play in the style of Tennessee Williams embedded in Leading Men. The author also used that literary maneuver to try and get at the relationship between Williams and Merlo, and the guilt Williams felt after Merlo died of lung cancer in his early forties. Williams, who had become estranged from Merlo, did not visit him until the day he died, although he paid for Merlo’s care. After Merlo’s death, Williams, who had been at the peak of his career, fell into a long depression and did not write any more hit plays, a relief for Castellani who read the less-than-stellar late plays to fortify himself trying to write a Tennessee Williams-inspired play for Leading Men.

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Castellani said he was “in love with the character of Frank Merlo,” a working-class Italian-American truck driver who was the beating heart of the relationship, where Williams was more mercurial and sardonic. He was Williams’s muse, Castellani said, someone who organized Williams’s life and got him to where he needed to go. “He brought him down to earth and created space for him so he could write.” But, Castellani found out, he was never able to tell Tennessee Williams, “I love you.”

Castellani received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council to write Leading Men. He is on the faculty and academic board of the Warren Wilson MFA program and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. His previous work includes All This Talk of Love, part of a trilogy of an Italian-American immigrant family and The Art of Perspective: Who tells the Story.