The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This is his first novel (previously he’d written a collection of short stories) and deals primarily with the difficulties a young gay man, Philip Benjamin, 25, has in coming out to his parents: Rose, a copy editor and Owen, director of admissions at a private boys’ school (52 years old, married for 27) and with their subsequent reactions.

The title comes from an article read by Jerene about a child who emulates cranes as this was the only thing he would see out of his window from his cot, and his parents weren’t about. He was then sent to a psychaitric ward.

The novel is divided into four sections: “Voyages,” “Myths of Origin,” “The Crane Child,” and “Father and Son”

It is set in the 1980s against the backdrop of a swiftly gentrifying Manhattan. Philip, realizes that he must come out to his parents after falling in love for the first time with a man. Philip’s parents are facing their own crisis: pressure from developers and the loss of their long-time home to a housing co-operative. But the real threat to this family is Philip’s father’s own struggle with his latent homosexuality – on Sunday afternoon he visits gay porn theatres. Philip’s admission to his parents and his father’s hidden life provoke changes that forever alter the landscape of their worlds

Rose visits her son, who lives in a shabby neighbourhood. He says he likes to go to the East Village. One Sunday she takes a walk, goes to a launderette and bumps into her husband. Owen then goes to a gay pornographic cinema, where a man leaves him his number.

Philip and Eliot are in bed; Philip gets up to do the dishes. He thinks back to how they met through Sally. Owen gets back to his apartment, soaked through. Philip and Eliot then wake up; Philip seems keen on flatmate Jerene’s research on lost languages. There is then an account of Jerene’s childhood up to her coming out to her parents and being spurned by them. Philip and Eliot then talk about their experiences with men. Philip goes on to remember the way he would masturbate a lot and how he tried to ask girls out – and they refused. Finally, he recalls going to a gay pornographic cinema when he was seventeen.

Owen calls Alex Melchor but it’s a wrong number. Philip asks Eliot to introduce him to Derek and Geoffrey. Later, he goes to his parents’ flat to look at Derek’s books. Jerene is getting ready for a date. Philip meets Eliot’s foster parents for dinner, then they go to a gay bar where Philip meets his old acquaintance Alex Kamarov. Outside, Eliot admits to being unsure about their relationship; nevertheless they return to Eliot’s, where he teaches Philip how to shave properly.

Philip eventually comes out to his parents. His mother is tersely averse; his father says it is fine, though he starts weeping as soon as the young man has left.

Eliot doesn’t return Philip’s calls; when Jerene meets Philip for a drink, she admits there is not much that can be done. Later, Philip talks to his friend Brad. He then gets really drunk out on the town to forget. A few days later, he meets Rob in a bar and they return to the boy’s dorm room where they have sex. Subsequently, Philip does not return his calls.

Owen calls a gay hotline, then hangs up and calls Alex Melchor, who tells him to call someone else, and then Philip, hanging up before they can talk. Later, Philip runs into his parents and tells them he’s broken up with Eliot.

Rose says to Philip that she needs more time to ruminate. Owen calls a gay sex phone-line and starts sobbing. He then goes to a gay bar and meets another man named Frank; they go to Frank’s flat and have sex. When he gets home, it’s half past two in the morning, and Rose is hurt.

Owen invites Winston Penn to dinner, and attempts to fix him up with Philip. That night, Rose finally realizes that Owen is gay too. While Philip and Brad get into bed together, Rose and Owen have a big argument. Owen goes off to a Burger King until he calls his son asking for a place to stay for the night. Before Philip goes to find his father, he passionately kisses Brad. Upon Philip’s arrival Owen confesses to being gay, and they settle in for a sleepless night in Philip’s disorderly apartment.

It has been said that ‘the novel sums up the history of gay books themselves’: that is, from the pangs of opprobrium (Owen) to self-acceptance (Philip)

TLLOC 2Quotations:

”He moved like a crane, made the noises of a crane, and although the doctors showed him many pictures and toys, he only responded to the pictures of cranes, only played with the toy cranes. Only cranes made him happy. He came to be known as the ‘crane-child.’ ”

”How wondrous, how grand those cranes must have seemed to Michel, compared to the small and clumsy creatures who surrounded him. For each, in his own way, she believed, finds what it is he must love, and loves it; the window becomes a mirror; whatever it is that we love, that is who we are.”

“Hope had stolen into his life just as he was growing comfortable with despair.”

“Cautiously his foot explored, wiggled as it could, and finally felt warm flesh under the pants leg.”

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