Leavitt's newest is graceful but contrived

Title: "While England Sleeps"

Author: David Leavitt


Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 304 pages, $22 During the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, aspiring English novelist Brian Botsford was young, Cambridge-educated and vigorously homosexual. Forty years later, he's a has-been screenwriter living in West Hollywood and no longer vigorous. Diabetic, a victim of prostate cancer and cellulite, Botsford has become a "relic of prewar England washed ashore on the beaches of Malibu. A dinosaur."


We are told that the book we hold in our hands, "While England Sleeps," was actually written back in the 1950s. Having been blacklisted by McCarthy for his Communist past, Botsford dTC decided to exploit the free time afforded and write "the one story I could never publish in my lifetime." It's the tragic tale of a misspent youth. And like all historical, coming-of-age novels involving a left-leaning, would-be Hemingway, this one revolves around the Spanish Civil War.

But David Leavitt ("The Lost Language of Cranes," "Family Dancing") offers a refreshing twist in this novel. Bored with bluebloods and the anal repressiveness of mama's boys ("I longed for that rawness that had been bred out of me"), Botsford falls for the sensitive but libido-liberated working-class Edward Phelan, who quickly and gloriously becomes his sexual mate.

However, we shortly learn, the aristocratic Botsford suffers from a certain attention deficit. He is, after all, only 23. And sexually hyperactive boys just want to have fun -- especially the artsy, upper-crust ones. Having sated himself on Edward and his meat-and-potatoes family, young and restless Brian soon misses his more refined friends. Since it's time for the plot to thicken, poor Edward stumbles upon his fickle lover's journal (Mr. Leavitt can be as predictable as the next historical novelist) and has his heart broken.

What to do? Fortunately, there's a war raging across the Channel just made for spurned, idealistic working-class employees of the London Underground.

Mr. Leavitt goes on for pages about the novel the neophyte writer Botsford was working on before he ever met Phelan. Indeed, since early childhood, he'd "nurtured a passion for the underground." Not surprisingly, then, he considered his eventual encounter with Edward mystically significant."

The novel within the novel within the novel (isn't this what did in Arnold Schwarzenegger?) is eventually published as "The Train to Cockfosters."

Our callow hero suffers from writer's block. "His problem is that he cannot imagine Cockfosters," the more grown-up Botsford observes. "That was my problem as well. Nor did I ever, in all my years in London, dare to go there. Oh, I nearly did. I got as far as Southgate once, where the escalators have gleaming gold handrails. Then I got scared. I turned back. You see, I was afraid that if I actually went to Cockfosters, I would discover it was just a place, like any other place."

Fans of David Leavitt's oeuvre will be pleased to discover that his sexually confused, recently bereaved (Mom's been dead just six months), half-Jewish central character still comes from "an usually mixed-up family." But, sad to say, an effete cast of former Oxbridge acquaintances upstages the real stars of this ambitious drama.


But back to Botsford's tangled web. Just as quickly as he'd taken Edward for granted, he regrets it. But too late. Toting a copy of "The Communist Manifesto," Brian's jealous lover has impulsively run off to Spain to do battle. How our remorseful narrator tries to extricate his homesick soldier becomes the tale within the tale.

There's a reason David Leavitt is so acclaimed a young writer. It comes through even in the thin and often contrived narrative in "While England Sleeps." Take the novel's graceful opening:

"It began like this: a bird flying through the chambers of the underground, like a fly caught in a nautilus. No one noticed but me. First the wind blew -- that smoky, petro-smelling wind that presages the arrival of the train -- and then the twin lights pierced the darkness, and then there it was, gray and white, a dove, I think, chased by the train's smoking terror. It fluttered and hovered above my head for a moment, as if trying to figure out where the sky was, then sailed up the exit stairs and was gone."

It's lucid, lovely prose that foreshadows the narrator's fated relationship with his underground lover. Unfortunately, this promising start quickly gets derailed.

In the end, Botsford resurfaces to tell us that "Tonight, after I complete this little epilogue, I shall place the manuscript behind the cuckoo clock, never to be looked at again." It's a confident writer who would leave himself this wide open.

(James Gordon Bennett's second novel, "The Moon Stops Here," will be published in January 1994. A graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, he teaches at Louisiana State University.)