The New York bookstore Three Lives was incorrectly identified in a story about writer David Leavitt in Tuesday's Style section. It is a neighborhood literary bookstore specializing in fiction and the fine arts.
They approached him tentatively, clutching his book. Would he mind? The guests at the PEN/Faulkner Awards ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library this weekend offered a pen to David Leavitt, the gawky, grinning author and nominee. And, as always happens to him, strangers stared and asked the persistent question.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-three," he said, smiling and looking nervous, but only because he always looks a little nervous.
For Leavitt, the awards, the attention and the question are all familiar When "Family Dancing," a collection of his short stories, was released last fall, it received adulatory reviews. It has been nominated for several national awards and listed as one of the most notable books of the year by The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Leavitt is the most recent version of a particular sort of New York literary phenomenon. From The New Yorker to Knopf to The New York Times to Esquire, the cogs of the New York literary machine have been spinning. A kid from Yale was chosen, a few wheels whirled, a few levers cranked, and now David Leavitt's name seems to be everywhere.
"It was extraordinarily disorienting," he says of the cyclone of attention that has whirled around him in the last six months. "I feel like I've become an adult prematurely."
He sold a story to The New Yorker before he finished his junior year at Yale, where I knew him. An editor at the magazine had seen his work in a campus publication and asked him to submit something. He signed a two-book contract with Knopf soon after he graduated. It has since sold almost 15,000 copies, a remarkable number for a book of stories by what the publishing world calls "an unknown."
The Washington Post gave the collection a warm review. The New York Times seemed to adopt Leavitt, reviewing "Family Dancing" in both the daily and Sunday paper, running a quote from the book in the Sunday feature "Noted with Pleasure," advising its readers to "Bear in Mind" the book. And his essay on the concerns of young writers appeared on the front page of last Sunday's Book Review.
He wrote an essay that appears in the May Esquire called "My Generation," a periodic feature written by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Styron. He was chatted up and airbrushed for Interview magazine. He was approached by producers at PBS about a television adaptation of one of his stories. He won a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His stories have been included in various "Best of the Year" collections, including the prestigious O. Henry collection, and were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
With each new success, phones jangled as those of us who knew Leavitt kept track, following the trail before anyone else even noticed there was a trail to follow.
"The book's out."
"He's sold the paperback rights."
"He's going on a book tour of England."
"The book's in its seventh printing."
"Vogue is sending him to Italy to write about anything he wants."
"How did this happen?"
Leavitt did not win the Book Critics award or the PEN/Faulkner -- Louise Erdich won the first and Tobias Wolff the second -- but even to be nominated, especially at his age, was a coup. From the beginning, his career has been distinctive.
When Leavitt's story "Territory" appeared in The New Yorker in 1982, it was the first story in the magazine's history whose main characters were gay. For the author, who had written a story about a young man bringing his male lover home to meet his mother, "Territory" was something of a first, too.
"You can quote my old joke," he says. "I told my parents, 'I'm coming out in The New Yorker in more ways than one.' "
It was another year before The New Yorker accepted his second story, a year spent in writing classes where fellow students took a certain jealous pleasure in criticizing each new attempt until the plots and metaphors fell lifeless on the seminar room table. Within the small world of seminars and cheap restaurants where would-be authors compare their rejection letters, getting a story printed in any magazine with a vaguely recognizable name is the equivalent of making an Olympic team. To publish in The New Yorker is like winning the gold.
And once Leavitt's second story appeared there, things started to happen very quickly.
"I think there's no question but that every so often, the wheel turns and seems to elect this one or that," says Gordon Lish, a writer and Knopf editor who taught Leavitt in a creative writing class at Yale. "I think there's a natural cathexis in human beings to applaud. If we did not every so often elect persons of the younger generation to a kind of seniority, we would never progress.
"I think it's actually quite grand that someone who's deserving is getting the attention."
But there are other talented writers around whose arrival is not greeted with the same rush of enthusiasm. Leavitt is, as one friend puts it, "well connected in New York." He took classes at Yale with author John Hersey, as well as Lish, met editors and authors while working part time at Viking Press after he graduated and sought out other young authors he admired.
But Leavitt had other things going for him as well.
"His youth has a lot to do with it," says Thomas Steele, editor of the gay magazine Christopher Street, which featured Leavitt on its cover several months before his book was released. "That someone that young wrote so many good stories and that they were published by the 'best house,' Knopf, and by the 'best magazine,' The New Yorker -- it's like David and Goliath."
In publishing, as in every field, youth gives off a neon glimmer. "You read it here first!" always adds flash to book flaps and editor's notes.
"Nothing pleases this magazine more than the sound -- that crunch -- of new ground being broken," proclaimed Esquire when introducing Leavitt to its readers. "It happens when a writer steps out of the shadows and, in a voice that's clear and new, unearths fresh ideas."
And in a society where everyone is eager to label their times and experiences -- you're a preppie or a product of the me-generation or a baby boomer or a yuppie -- a young author interested in dissecting and defining the traits of his time is welcomed joyously.
"It's not a title I'd put on my business card -- David Leavitt, Spokesman for My Generation. Nobody can be that. It's really a sort of memoir," says Leavitt of the Esquire piece, which is titled "The New Lost Generation." "Much of it is made of things I haven't been able to use yet in stories.
"I feel I have three hats I can wear. My 'Mr. Family' hat -- the boy who writes about families. The other is my 'Homosexual' hat. Then there's my 'Spokesman for My Generation' hat. I don't feel comfortable with any of them. They've been lumped on me. I think it happens when a work of fiction is such a spontaneous success."
Whether or not Leavitt likes the process, being identifiably something -- whether "Mr. Family" or "that young gay writer" -- is useful for the beginning author. Such labels tell potential readers what to expect and provide a sort of mnemonic device to draw on at the bookstore. And judging from the sales and reviews, his book is popular not only with "the short story reader," "the yuppie reader" or even "the gay reader."
"It's a book that dealt with homosexuality frankly and unapologetically," Leavitt says, "and it wasn't written from inside the gay literary ghetto. Those writers write for and are published by and are read by their friends -- it's a gay readership and a very narrow gay readership."
But if Leavitt's stories are candid, they are also unthreatening to the average heterosexual reader.
He considers himself "one of the writers for whom rampant promiscuity wasn't taken for granted, and the bathhouses weren't the scene for every third chapter. AIDS has had a lot to do with it. Those earlier books -- it's New York in the '70s and weird sex things and lots and lots of Fire Island. I think those writers have done a lot of good work, but they're getting dated. Their vision of the gay world is just outmoded."
He avoids images of homosexual life that might make a heterosexual reader uneasy. There are, for example, few references to sex. A mere " . . . this is the first time that they have made love outdoors" is as graphic as he gets.
"I don't think that's contrived," says Peter Hayes, an editorial assistant at Knopf who rents Leavitt's old apartment. "He sees gays have entered society to a great extent and no longer feel the need to proclaim themselves aggressively."
The novel he is now finishing, Leavitt says, which is about a gay son who learns his father is also gay, will be different. There will be sex. It is not, he has said again and again, autobiographical. It's a question that always arises in interviews.
"They want to know, 'Is it true? Is it true?' " he says. "I guess because there are certain recurring, obsessive subjects, because they're subjects that tantalize and are material for gossip."
As with the joke about coming out in The New Yorker, he has crafted a standard reply to satisfy. "My old line," he calls it: "Well, you know there are elements of reality . . ."
Yes, like many of his characters, he grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., where his father is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford and his mother "a housewife, and occasionally a political activist." Yes, like many of his characters, he is gay. Yes, like several of his characters, his mother has had cancer. No, none of the stories is autobiographical, at least not in detail.
While reviewers and interviewers speculate about the truth behind the fiction in print, readers respond more directly. Perhaps because he is so young, perhaps because the upper-middle-class families struggling with love, divorce and death he writes about are not too distant from his readers' families, he seems approachable, a potential confidant.
"I never wanted to have an unlisted number," he says. "I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world."
But the phone was ringing and ringing, and the number at his new apartment is unlisted.
Some of the people who called wanted dates.
"After I gave my reading at Three Lives a gay bookstore in New York , someone called and said, 'Hello, I'm that person who told you how well you read.' I had no idea who that was. What could I say?"
Some wanted to do business.
"There's one guy who calls me every two weeks. 'Hey kiddo, just want you to know whenever you want to do a screenplay, I'm here.' "
And some, especially after his Esquire piece came out, simply wanted to talk, to compare experiences. They are still calling his old listed number, but only reach his former roommates.
"They want my sister's number," Leavitt said in disbelief as he hung up the phone in his newly purchased Greenwich Village apartment with a view of the Empire State Building. He had just spoken to an Esquire fact-checker working on his "My Generation" piece. "In my article, I said, 'After many different kinds of therapy, she has settled into marriage and a career as a social worker that almost fulfills her old ideals,' and they have to check with her that it's true she was in therapy so she won't sue."
Leavitt's sister and brother are a good deal older than he, and as a child he mimicked their political involvement, an activism already belated in the mid-'70s of his youth. Later, at college, he still seemed something of the younger sibling, attaching himself to friends and their girlfriends, "falling in love with couples," as he calls it.
But now he is part of a couple himself.
"If I hadn't had other things to think about, it would have been much harder," he says of the fuss surrounding his success. "My falling in love -- I completely focused on that."
Other things haven't changed. Unlike the pensive young artist who has appeared in the glossy magazine photographs, Leavitt in real life still looks like a jumpy, thin kid who's just on the verge of something. In the new apartment, which he bought with a combination of his earnings and some help from his parents, sits an impressive IBM typewriter -- the kind that makes the most casually typed note look like Knopf printed it -- but he had that in college when everyone else was banging away on Smith-Coronas.
The circle of young novel-reading friends has largely dissolved, only to be replaced by a circle of young novel-writing friends. Instead of the English majors who sipped bad coffee as he read them each version of a story, he now spends much of his time with writers also in their twenties, people like Amy Hempel, whose first collection of short stories has just been released by Knopf, and Meg Wolitzer, who has published a novel and a children's book.
He still theorizes constantly. Senior year he soliloquized in the dining hall on the decay of the nuclear family. Now he has become a theoretician of what he calls "a nebulous generation."
"We really are too young to be yuppies," he says. "They're in their thirties. Really, everyone else can identify with something about their youth, something that reaches maturity as they do. The only thing that came to maturity with us was punk rock, which in itself is very interesting, but strikes me as being very fringy. It doesn't have the universality of the '60s phenomenon."
Television, and specifically "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," provides his generation's common experience, Leavitt argues in his Esquire piece. Between the receptions and lunches surrounding the PEN/Faulkner Awards last weekend, he and his boyfriend, writer Gary Glickman, went to the National Air and Space Museum. "We saw the Star Trek display," Leavitt said with delight. "The Enterprise is there!" said Glickman.
Whether Leavitt's piece, with its description of life in the Ivy League-New York corridor, is an essay on his generation or just on his group of friends, it looks like it may inspire more mail than any other article in the magazine this year. Most of that mail is positive, according to Esquire editor Adam Moss, who assigned the "My Generation" piece to Leavitt.
"What problems people have with it -- when they have a problem -- is that they feel he is speaking for himself and not his generation," says Moss. "I think the remarkable thing is the extent to which his situation -- which is all, of course, he can know about -- how much resonance that had with other people of different environments, different classes, even different ages."
But, as Moss says, "America, in its quest for novelty, robs the cradle looking for new talent." Leavitt is now to some extent established. His novel will not be, as many are, lost in the publisher's catalogue.
And the New York machine grinds on. Mention Leavitt to the machine's tenders now, and many of them will ask if you've read "Less Than Zero," a Simon and Schuster novel published this month by a 20-year-old college student named Bret Easton Ellis.
"People are calling it the same thing they called 'Family Dancing,' " says Moss. " 'The Great New Voice of a New Generation.' "
Can the inevitable book blurb be far off?
"Bret Easton Ellis. The new David Leavitt."