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Love, Sex and All That

Leavitt short stories up to his usual standard

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David Leavitt once said, "Sex isn't of any inherent interest unless it provides a way of revealing something not only about people but about the way they interact." In his early career, Leavitt was often criticized for his restrained sex scenes and the bourgeois elements of his work. But ironically, his novels of the late 1990s came under fire for too much sexual explicitness. In The Marble Quilt, he achieves a balance, using sex scenes when they are not only about sex, but psychology as well. In this follow-up to his critically acclaimed novel, Martin Bauman, Or a Sure Thing, Leavitt delivers nine beautifully crafted and emotionally complex stories. Ranging in setting from Rome to San Francisco to Florida, from fin de siecle London to Hollywood in the early 1960s, Leavitt, with his usual straightforward style, explores the complicated terrain of sexual and non-sexual human relationships, both in the present and the past. These stories explore such varied topics as the tragedy of a plane crash off the Atlantic Coast, the collapse of a professional relationship via e-mail, and the murder of an ex-lover.

In one of his most beautifully rendered stories, "The Infection Scene," Leavitt weaves the past and the present, paralleling the incidents in the lives of a young gay couple living in mid-1990s San Francisco, with that of Oscar Wilde's former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Leavitt juxtaposes the freewheeling escapades of Lord Alfred with the struggles of a modern day gay couple facing the realities of HIV. The modern couple is "powerfully in love, each convinced that he has found in the other, the great, the only true friend he will ever know, the friend without whom his life can have no purpose." Because one of the men is HIV positive, they decide to share the disease as the ultimate act of selflessness by having unsafe sex. But their unprotected coupling results in a surprising outcome for both.

Originally published in The Paris Review, "Crossing St. Gottard," proves to be one of the collection's most stylistically coherent pieces. Employing a gay sensibility similar to that of E.M. Forster, Leavitt addresses the repression of homosexual desires at the turn of the 20th century. The story details the sexually obsessive musings of a tutor, Harold, hired by his widowed American aunt to travel with her and his younger cousins across Europe. As they plunge into a long train tunnel in Switzerland, Harold is secretly tormented by his attraction to other males while the other characters find themselves confronting their own mortalities. With grace and intelligence, the author explores two of his favorite subjects: homosexuality and divided families.

Of particular poignancy and bite are "Black Box" and "The Marble Quilt," both exploring the period following a lover's death, not by AIDS, but through acts of violence. In "Black Box," the partner of a man killed in a plane crash is drawn into an unholy alliance with a fellow "crash widow," when a conman comes to New York with a video he wants to sell to networks, scandal programs, or whoever may be the highest bidder. He enlists the help of a native New Yorker whose lover was also killed in the crash. What transpires between the two of them shows "what happens when the libido continues to make demands, but the soul's incapable of actual intimacy."

In the title story, a man named Vincent reflects upon the life of his murdered ex-lover, Tom, an English professor, who had developed a lifetime obsession with hand-cut marble. Vincent muses over what may have transpired during the murder. Perhaps Tom had picked up a hustler.

"Sex then a beating, or perhaps sex that included a beating, followed by a blunt object smashed against his skull."

After an interrogation by Italian police about the circumstances surrounding Tom's death, Vincent finds himself reliving their past in San Francisco. Through Vincent's examination of the "what if's" and missteps of their relationship, Leavitt reveals to the reader that what is most important, is not how Tom had died, but how he had lived.

Leavitt's collection should please both gay and straight readers, further establishing his reputation as one of the most innovative voices in contemporary fiction. The stories explore fascinating fictional terrains peopled with characters that will linger in the reader's memory.

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