The author explores the real-life relationship between Tennessee Williams and his romantic partner of 15 years, Frank Merlo, through the lens of the couple's imaginary encounter with a beautiful young Swedish woman named Anja, whom they take under their wing and turn into a star.
... 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.