Book Review: Arkansas by David Leavitt


This collection of three novellas by David Leavitt was the perfect book to follow my re-read of the bleak and rather depressing, but brilliant As For Me and My House.

The title Arkansas doesn’t have much to do with any of them but rather refers to an Oscar Wilde quip quoted at the start of the book. But the book is chock a block with references to E.M. Forster. I don’t think they would get in the way for those unfamiliar with Forster’s work but they are fun to spot for those of us who are.

The first, and by far the best novella in the collection, The Term Paper Artist is a hilarious send up of Leavitt’s own problems with plagiarism. For those who are familiar with Leavitt’s better known works (like The Lost Language of Cranes) you are probably aware that Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagiarizing parts of Spender’s memoir in his novel While England Slept. The hero of the novella (written in the first person) is Leavitt himself. He has moved in with his father in LA temporarily to escape from all the hoopla over the plagiarism case. Not quite able to focus on his next novel he ends up wasting a lot of time purportedly doing research in the UCLA library. I think my favorite laugh out loud moment is when he goes to the literature section, finds his books on the shelves, and autographs them. Leavitt eventually ends up writing term papers for good looking, straight, male undergraduates in exchange for sex. The novella is not without its steamy sex scenes but it is ultimately more humorous and even sweet than it is sexy.

The second novella, The Wooden Anniversary, takes place in Tuscany and has a kind of Will and Grace quality to it. You know, those episodes of W&G where their relationship was creepily co-dependent with gay Will unable to have healthy relationships with gay men because of his dependence on Grace. I hated those parts of W&G because the underlying message seemed to be that gay men can only expect fulfillment by aping the constructs of straight relationships–and with a straight woman no less. In the case of this novella, the straight girl who never gets over being in love with her gay best friend.  Not unenjoyable to read, but nothing to write home about.

The third novella, Saturn Street, is a late 80s AIDS story is not without poignancy, and better than The Wooden Anniversary, but ultimately forgettable.

Overall, this collection was an enjoyable quick read, but the first novella is the only one really worth seeking out.

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