Author Truman Capote is throwing a party in Portofino, Italy. Tennessee Williams and his love, Frank Merlo, want to go, though they're not quite ready to give up their lazy summers in Rome inventing lives for themselves. But travel to Portofino they do. There, amid the sultry flickering shadows, they stay in Truman's apartment a few steps from the harbor above the Delfino Restaurant, which Frank and Tennessee pass on their way up the hill to the Splendido. Frank's official job is as Tennessee's secretary, though he doesn't have a reason for being in Portofino other than to stop by Truman's party. There isn't much Frank knows about in the summer of 1953--least of all how long he and Tenn might last.
I'm addicted to the visual presentation of Portofino and Italy in the early 1950s. This makes me adore Frank and Tenn and their often ramshackle, shell-shocked relationship all the more. They also enhance the other characters: Jack Burns; his lover, Sandro; Anja Bloom, Visconti's fictional muse, a great beauty who befriends Frank in Portofino; and handsome Sandrino, who meets Anja thirty years later in New York. Sandrino forces Anja to document her story by pushing her to reveal the literary link to Tenn's past. Sandrino reflects Sandro's long-forgotten smile that comes to her all the way from Portofino in 1953. As Anja sees "Italy sitting across from her," she remembers how her mother brought her to Italy and how Italy brought her to Frank.
The cast of Leading Men is chiefly male. Castellano focuses mostly on Frank, who seethes with dissatisfaction at Tenn's inattention and penchant for picking up Italian street boys. The novel turns on Anja's recollections of her time on Portofino, where she made six new friends including the famous Tenn, who looked older and more distinguished than the man of letters he was born if not bred to become. The novel often rides on sexuality--Frank's daydreams and passion for Tenn after nights apart when they become lost in a parade of strangers and giddy acquaintances then are finally reunited, suddenly hungry for stories and kisses and gossip, their mutual rediscovery a constant a reminder of the lost opportunities and who, in the end, belongs to whom.
Much of the early sections center on an attack by a gang of local boys when the six of them cross Portofino's main square to a nameless bar for a nightcap that none of them need. In the aftermath, Castellani focuses on Anja's escape from Portofino to her impromptu audition with famous director Martin Hovland. On the dark, empty streets of Portofino's piazza, Anja, Frank and Tenn half expect to come upon yet another band of savage boys and carabinieri. After the incident in the Testa del Lupo, Frank and Tenn agree on one undeniable fact: Anja has "an icy exterior and an arresting chill" and will one day be a famous star.
Can Frank Merlo, the truck driver who loved Mara Callas, have really achieved the years of tenderness, hostility, competition and adoration he had with Tenn? Castellani explores the alchemy that produced the playwright's greatest works during the "Frankie years." Concealed in their otherwise happy French Quarter apartment, Frank finally realizes that he will never be a writer, nor much of an actor or dancer. Now that he will be none of those things, Frank recognizes that he "has no natural place in Tenn's world."
Castellani blitzes his novel with gorgeous scenes: the soft brush of Tenn's moustache on the back of Frank's neck; Tenn's body when Frank comes home; the beach, the country, the mountains and "the saltbox sunburns" of Frank's hometown in Jersey, all fertile ground for secrets , mysteries and for gossip and petty betrayals; and the Tennessee Williams Theater Festival in Provincetown. Here Anja becomes a partner, thought leader and coinventor in Tenn's artistic renaissance. The idea of the four men who formed the constellation of her life is a bit too romantic to admit to her astronomer husband, Pieter, and possibly too romantic even for Sandrino. She recalls Sando and Burns traveling to Firenze and Truman's parties, which drew all sorts of hangers-on, parasites and wannabes.
In the skillfully executed final big scene in a New York hospital in 1963, Frank lies dying after his life with Tenn has weakened. How astonishing that he still doesn't know that he's as much a stranger to himself on this last day as he was that night with Tenn on the porch of his home, the Atlantic House. Tenn is left alone, living with the curse of having once been great and the burden of the belief that "greatness is still possible." Castellani unfurls a beautiful, sensual saga that explores the high cost of artistry and one man's frustrating, mercurial love. Finally, it is left up to Anja, in the twilight of her own life, to bring back Frank and Tenn's relationship back into the light.