... blazing ... Writing fiction is to no small degree a confidence game, and Leading Men casts a spell right from the start ... What you’ve yet to learn is how reliably tender and evocative Castellani’s onrushing prose can be. His first achievement in Leading Men is to create a world, one inhabited largely by young, charming gay men, that seems to be comprised almost entirely of late nights and last cigarettes and picnics on good blankets and linen suits with the trousers rolled to the knees. This writer’s scenes glitter, and they have a strong sexual pulse ... [Castellani’s] second achievement is to pry this milieu open and pour a series of intricate themes into it ... This book is a kind of poem in praise of pleasure, and those pleasures are sometimes stern. Its author knows a great deal about life; better, he knows how to express what he knows ... Leading Men has a few dead nodes in it and the subplot, involving the reclusive actress and a production of Williams’s final play, generates fewer sparks than does the account of Williams and Merlo’s dazzled propinquity. But this is an alert, serious, sweeping novel. To hold it in your hands is like holding, to crib a line from Castellani, a front-row opera ticket.
Castellani’s quiet portrait of Merlo has a deep, aching appeal, and while his invented story of Anja’s legendary career and reclusive later years has its moments, it doesn’t match the passages where he plunges directly into the give-and-take of Merlo and Williams’s loving if volatile relationship. Castellani’s prose has a beguiling lilt and color, whether he’s evoking his characters’ evasive or erratic emotions, or conjuring the far-flung locales where these globe-hoppers touch down ... Leading Men doesn’t deliver answers — but it’s seductive in the way it raises its questions.
... touching but diffuse ... the book becomes, by its own inclination, a seriocomic picaresque. Narrative tension may flag at times, but some zesty real-life figure is always rushing forth to distract us: Paul Bowles to get high, Anna Magnani to make lunch, Truman Capote to toss another bon mot on the fire ... Castellani knows his people, though, and he knows this world ... Where Castellani errs, I think, is in transferring so much of his narrative to the invented character of Anja, who matures (improbably) into a legendary movie actress ... By the time her story thread is played out, Leading Men has acquired a few too many leads and a superfluous climax or two ... Castellani recovers in time for a poignant finale.
... audacious ... In its construction, Leading Men is as intricately designed as a Lego kit. The pieces from which the novel is built snap together into a whole so redoubtably sound that by the time I finished reading it I almost believed John Horne Burns really had met Tennessee Williams in Portofino, that Anja Bloom really existed and that 'Call It Joy' really was written by Williams rather than cannibalized from a 'flawed short story' left over from Castellani’s days as an M.F.A. student. Engineering may be the aspect of novel writing that deserves the most praise and gets the least, and Castellani is a first-rate engineer. At its best, his novel not only exults in the historical synchronicities and proximities he has discovered but catches the reader up in its rapture. I only wish he had been bold enough to go further ... More problematically, when the time comes to carry through on his boldest inventions, the Testa del Lupo episode and 'Call It Joy,' Castellani lets Williams get the better of him ... A worse misstep, I think, is his decision to incorporate 'Call It Joy' into the novel, only to have his characters trash it.
Merlo is a sturdy focal point for Leading Men, his last days and his memory of better days imbued with a slick, glittering emotional pull. But the book stiffens as its meditations on fame and artistry increasingly dictate the narrative, rather than the organic tension between Merlo and Williams. The prominence of Anja... becomes a bit of a drag ... Castellani has a lot on his mind, and generously employs the craft necessary to convey it. Leading Men is unafraid to expand beyond its glitzy hook into something deeper, sharper. But like Merlo and company, until the novel’s enormously moving final chapter, we’re gradually left in the haze of a steamier, drunker time, where two men’s passionate romance, doomed to fate, could find new life — briefly and unforgettably — in a single longing glance.
Leading Men is a finely-rendered narrative based upon some of the twentieth century’s most compelling artistic figures. It is broad in scope and lush in detail, without every tipping into sentimentality ... The novel is also a fascinating examination of the early years of international celebrity culture ... Real life characters like Paul Bowles and Anna Magnani breathe again in theses pages, bringing back a time when to be famous was often coupled with great accomplishment. The novel is a compassionate snapshot of a bygone era and a beautiful, if tragic, story of love and remembrance.
Castellani straddles a literary high-wire act, writing believable dialogue not only for Williams and Merlo, but other celebrities ... Williams’ readers will revel in Castellani’s stylish period atmospherics and arch dialogue of the celebrities in Willliams’ orbit—even though Williams careens from believable to vaporous in key moments. Meanwhile, the novel sweeps you up in its wry prose, particularly the fully dimensional portrait of Merlo ... Less successful are depictions of Williams in late life and the fate of Anja, now a retired film star, haunted by the past and her relationship with Williams and Frank. She is talked into staging Williams’ final unpublished play, which brings in new characters and some forced plot devises that start to grind. But past those forced storylines, Castellani delivers a touching, and often eloquent dramatization of one of the most legendary gay couples in theatrical history.
Characterizations and mood drive this novel. While historical details about Tenn[essee Williams], his work, and his world bolster the story, it primarily belongs to Frank ... With imagination and feeling, Castellani reconjures history to reveal the intricate dynamics—loving and passionate, selfless and devastating—among artists and those who nurture them.
... Leading Men is expansive and also intimate, timeless, and intensely rooted in an era of film and literary celebrity that has today disappeared, not because we don’t read as much as we used to but conversely, because we read too much ... Leading Men is both a throwback to an earlier era of celebrity and also a reminder that this tension between the private and public self has not been resolved—it has only found new avenues in which to proliferate. Likewise, Castellani’s choice to shuttle between narrative past and present not only imbues this book with a pacing that plays on this celebrated notion of incremental reveals, but also bestows the story with the tragic reminder that our dreams for the future very often remain just that ... [the characters contain a] kind of complexity that remains utterly real to readers, that mix of ambition and ambivalence that so often suggests the self who remains unknown to us, the parts of us which we ourselves cannot account for ... [the book contains an] endearing exploration of the temporary pleasures of a life, of the particular permanence of a work of art, of the in-between fraught with apprehension and liminality, of the looking-back-on-a-life while one is in the midst of it...
...intriguing ... In an ambitious act of ventriloquism, Castellani includes the entire script of [a] play here. There are only a few missteps in the novel; it is not clear, for example, why anyone would fall in love with the petty and cantankerous writer John Horne Burns. Humane, witty, and bold, this novel imagines the life of a loving but tortured couple.
Castellani’s spectacular fourth novel ... hits the trifecta of being moving, beautifully written, and a bona fide page-turner. This is a wonderful examination of artists and the people who love them and change their work in large and imperceptible ways.