When Nathan “Babe” Leopold, 19, and Richard “Dickie” Loeb, 18, were put on trial in 1924, it was ostensibly because they committed a murder that was as heinous as it was unusual. On May 21st of that year, the Chicago teenagers kidnapped 14-year-old Bobby Franks, bludgeoned him with a chisel until he died, undressed him, melted his face and circumcised his penis with hydrochloric acid and then dumped him in a culvert in a swamp. Monstrous, tragic and especially “perverse,” per the language of the time, Franks’ murder was, on its own, still not the stuff of which the “Crime of the Century” could be made. For that, something far fouler was necessary.
Fortunately for the rapt American public, the strange relationship between the two accused murderers provided just that. Leopold and Loeb — boy geniuses; heirs to Jewish fortunes; egghead intellectuals; convenient examples of Modernism’s effete, ethnic and degenerate manliness — were also, worst of all, lovers. For almost 100 years, this queer duo has reliably reappeared in American culture, altering the course of homosexuality’s public perception. According to scholar Paul B. Franklin, their trial set into motion the scholarly chain reaction that ultimately led to homosexuality being enshrined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (it was nominally removed in 1973).
More importantly for our purposes, Leopold and Loeb set a template that writers have regularly used since 1929 to tell dark stories about angry young men in some kind of love. The incarnation most recognizable today is the 2002 film Murder by Numbers, in which a possibly queer and definitely sociopathic Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling plot a perfect murder, only to be undone by Sandra Bullock’s scrappy gumshoe character. But 18 years later — and in an irrecognizable cultural context where gay marriage is the law of the land (for now) — the Leopold and Loeb story is back in the form of the recently released novel, These Violent Delights.
The book is writer Micah Nemerever’s literary debut and also the debut of a different reading of this dark American story. Unlike previous incarnations, this one isn’t a coming-out story, a Gothic horror about “homosexual panic” or a celebration of being gay and doing crimes (although it’s that, too). Instead, These Violent Delights focuses on the erotic power games waged between two boys who here stand in for Leopold and Loeb, Paul Fleischer and Julian Fromme, and follows their titular violent delights to their tragic ends. Yet, beneath its surface as a gay Romeo and Juliet (the source text for the title), Nemerever’s novel does difficult, critical work in confronting the ritualized violence that so often characterizes male relationships, gay or straight. Nemerever tries to imagine a different kind of love between men, one in which there is no longer “any danger in being gentle with one another.”
To create the conditions in which such a love could become not only possible but necessary, Nemerever shifts the historical context of the Leopold and Loeb story from 1920s Chicago to 1970s Pittsburgh, a place and time in which American masculinity was on the brink of irreversible disruption. Of course, that day was still far off in January 1973, when the book begins, and when steel was still king in the Steel City, and jobs in manufacturing were aspirational, attainable and a path to lifelong security. But by the next decade, “Ronald Reagan [had] destroyed the working man in this country,” according to my father, a man from Pittsburgh who, like much of his generation, took steady manufacturing jobs in the mid-1970s with no doubt that the future would continue to look like the past. It didn’t, however, and by the mid-1980s, the unions were broken, the mills started to close and the Steelers started to lose.
And so, it’s not for nothing that one of These Violent Delights literary taproots, Michael Chabon’s 1988 novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, takes its name from the city. A story about a straight post-grad who falls in love with a gay man, Chabon’s novel imagines Pittsburgh as a place where boys can become men on their own terms, overthrow their tyrannical fathers and discover a new kind of masculinity through queerness.
This version of Pittsburgh as a place of post-industrial masculinity dovetails neatly with Nemerever’s overarching argument for a masculinity not built on extractive sacrifices. In fact, These Violent Delights seems to be located in Pittsburgh primarily to put it into conversation with Chabon’s novel and other texts set in the city. Another is the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, in which a dreary Pittsburgh is the place where the American Dream of an earlier generation of ethnic immigrants dies from the Vietnam War and Watergate. It was an era of disillusionment and anger for men, one that generated a curiously high number of implicitly queer “buddy films,” according to scholar Robin Wood’s Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond. Nemerever, who studied film, knew exactly what he was doing in choosing this time and place for Paul and Julian.
The boys first meet as 17-year-old freshmen at a Pittsburgh university in 1973, when they come to each other’s defense during a class discussion of Stanley Milgram’s notorious electric-shock experiment. Paul and Julian both praise Milgram’s brutal revelation of what they believe to be an unforgivable human capacity for cruelty. They strike up a friendship on the basis of their evenly matched intellects and black-and-white ethics, to say nothing of their sexual tension. In fact, the boys never come out to one another explicitly, bypassing the ritual entirely on the way to sex, sparing us extended ruminations on how being gay will affect their lives, etc. Nemerever’s choice to sidestep the customary coming-out narrative allows him to train his energies instead on the desires and delusions that make Paul and Julian “monstrous together, merciless, twins conjoined at the teeth.”
He seductively persuades you that no two people have ever been so unlike everyone in exactly the same ways as each other as Paul and Julian — except, perhaps, for Leopold and Loeb. Like their prototypes, Paul and Julian are both enormously intelligent, nominally Jewish and have skipped grades. As with Loeb, Julian is “a half-shiksa trust fund baby who’s never had to work for anything” and has access to the WASP-y networks that gatekeep elite careers. His father is an assimilated Jew who works for the State Department, and his mother is the Catholic daughter of a French retail magnate (like Loeb’s mother). Cultivated at the finest prep schools and groomed to guarantee his family’s legacy, Julian has for most of his life been a pawn for other people’s interests, and for the most part, he hates everyone for it.
He hides the bitterness well, though: Popular, playfully bitchy and always doing a bit, he’s irresistible to everyone and can have his pick of beautiful boys. He is, to be blunt, the most dangerous kind of charmer — an adroit liar and a naturally talented actor able to assume the character of anyone he meets after only a few minutes of observation. It’s an extraordinary power that Paul, who may be autistic, fears as much as he admires. Paul is, per Julian, “just about the worst liar I’ve ever met,” a “compulsive working-class hero” and submissive to the point of being pathetic. Like Leopold, Paul is lanky, swishy and spectacled, the photonegative of Julian’s sturdy, patrician Ganymede; he’s more effeminate and more at risk of taking desperate measures to be loved. Nemerever here sets us up to think that, for this reason, Julian will be the domineering mastermind, the sadistic one, and, one day, when he demands that Paul punch him to the point of drawing blood, such an outcome seems inevitable.
Nemerever coyly troubles our expectations, however, almost imperceptibly revealing that the real villain here is as hard to identify as it is to pinpoint the moment when love turns into obsession. It’s especially difficult to do so in a toxic relationship like Paul and Julian’s, where insecurity is constantly modulating into idolatry and back. Paul hangs on to Julian’s every word, only to then doubt and resent it. Trust — which can never really be conditional, only absolute — is therefore impossible between them. Both are aware of this fact, and both do their best to act like they aren’t. It’s a dynamic that turns their relationship into something like a contest of wits; or, as the novel symbolizes it, like the legendary chess match, Kaslauskas v. Kaplan, that Julian geeks out over on one of his first dates with Paul and which serves as the book’s spiritual skeleton key.
The details of the chess match are critical to unlocking the book’s critique of men’s relationships, and it’s unfortunate that it’s an entirely fictional event. Set in 1970, Kaslauskas v. Kaplan (which roughly translates, it’s worth pointing out, to “goat” and “priest”) was an impromptu match between chess titans that ended in a gobsmacking maneuver called a “queen sacrifice.” Without going too far into the nuances of chess, the queen sacrifice is a risky tactic that can potentially make or break a player’s chances at winning. It’s often discussed in terms of “sham” and “real” sacrifices, where the sham one has immediate benefits for the person who sacrifices, while the real ones materialize much later. Sham sacrifices are calculated risks, whereas real sacrifices are true leaps of faith. Relationships between men, Nemerever seems to argue, too often rely on sham sacrifices, or strategic displays of vulnerability that don’t trouble what we understand masculinity to be.
Throughout the book, Paul and Julian sacrifice aspects of themselves to one another in the hopes of proving that their love is real — to themselves, as much as to each other — to little effect. Paul stays dumbstruck that he could be lucky enough to make it with someone like Julian, and Julian stays frustrated with Paul’s distrust of the love he has to give him. However “real” these sacrifices might be, both boys are incapable of seeing them as anything other than shams. Lies pile upon lies until Paul and Julian turn on each other after an explosive argument with Julian’s homophobic parents. The fight brings the boys to the brink of separation, but not before it helps them realize that what their relationship needs is a little violence.
Huddling together in Julian’s bedroom, they fantasize about burning down the Fromme house and roasting the clan alive. They stop short of carrying it out, but they don’t really have to: The pleasure of the fantasy itself ignites a depraved, desperate passion between them that powers the novel forward. “The fantasy of the house fire had brought them to an impossible truth,” Nemerever writes. “They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.” In time, they discover that that thing is murder, and as such, they soon set in motion the events that are teased in the book’s prologue — a factory worker and Vietnam vet named Charles Stepanek, drugged in the backseat of a car; Paul and Julian upfront, driving him into the night. One of them won’t live to remember it.
The tragedy of this sacrifice is that it doesn’t purchase the peace it was supposed to. Ecstatic violence and its shared trauma aren’t the everlasting bonds that Paul and Julian hope it will be. Which serves as a poignant indictment of the limited vocabulary men have for making their feelings for one another apparent without fear of feeling emasculated. That said, the shortfall of These Violent Delights is that it doesn’t go as deep or as dark as it could when Paul and Julian’s sacrifice fails to fuse them together forever. So much happens so fast, and Nemerever works so hard to tie up loose ends that the tectonic shifts inside the characters don’t register clearly. Partially, this is a problem of structure: It takes Nemerever too long to build up to the several peaks that compete for space at the end of the novel.
The result is a book that’s not plot-driven enough in the first half, and too plot-driven in the second, separating the story of Paul and Julian’s relationship from the story of the crime they plan and commit together. But while it never adds up to the sum of its parts, These Violent Delights is still an impressive, ambitious debut that raises the right questions about what we talk about when we talk about love between men. Some of its answers may miss the mark, but by and large, this novel hits where it hurts.