The Body of Jonah Boyd
David Leavitt has had an immense influence on me, as a reader, a writer and as a gay man. His incredible novel The Lost Language of Cranes was one of the books that helped me to come out as a young man. Released back when I was 16, for some reason it made its way into the collection of the local library in the small North Queensland town where I grew up, and it was discovered in there by one of my friends. "You have to read this book," she whispered to me one day at school. "It's got gays in it!" And so I dutifully checked it out as soon as she'd finished it, terrified in case the librarian knew about its content.
Leavitt's hyper-real style is frequently employed to describe bizarre situations, and as a result his books are quite compulsively readable. At university I was much taken with his book of short stories, Family Dancing, and his little book on Florence is one of the most unusual, and most fascinating, works of literary and cultural history I've encountered.
The Body of Jonah Boyd is a difficult novel to review because it hinges so much on particular plot developments, and I simply don't want to give those away. There is actually quite a pacy development in this story, one which keeps the reader guessing and turning the pages.
It is very much a book about writing and the creative process, and it examines the complexities of celebrity, ego and pretension in the literary world. Being a Leavitt novel, there is also a fascinating sub-plot surrounding sexuality, more specifically the sexual attraction of the seemingly unattractive. Leavitt is always deft at weaving in these kinds of potentially controversial elements, and it is part of the reason I love his work. Denny, the novel's narrator, is a plump, unfashionable and ungraceful woman who manages to attract men like crazy and lead a fulfilling, if unconventional, sex life. Indeed, it is her extraordinary libido (a quality counterpointed by her involvement with a Freudian analyst throughout most of the novel) that wins out even in the end, when the plain woman triumphs.
It is also an account of how the lonely and friendless navigate their way through a world filled with families, couples and good companions. Leavitt's loners are grasping, guileful and desperate for attention. They are also artists and writers, lonely sometimes despite their wives and lovers.
Ultimately, I think this novel is a kind of wandering love-letter to his own craft. The Body of Jonah Boyd is populated with writers of all types - from the profoundly gifted romantics like Jonah Boyd himself, to painfully precious teenage poets and inflatedly confident academics. Each of the writers seems to represent an element of every author, and describe moods and processes that we all encounter at one stage or another.
I liked The Body of Jonah Boyd very much, and read it quickly and easily. Leavitt is a consummate stylist, and a fascinating thinker. There is the occasional clumsiness, mostly because of the artificial narrative requirements of having a first-person author, but these are minimal and quickly forgotten. It is a book for writers, readers, and anyone who has felt the urge to re-invent themselves and leave their past behind.