My husband used to quip that homicidal duo Leopold and Loeb became his first gay role models after he saw the 1959 movie inspired by them, “Compulsion,” while still in his teens. (Not to worry: He became a film critic rather than a murderer.)
Since then, the story of two wealthy University of Chicago students who treated killing as a vaguely Darwinian intellectual exercise has retained a strong hold on the popular imagination.
It gets an extraordinary reinvention in Seattle writer Micah Nemerever’s debut novel, “These Violent Delights.” Nemerever’s version of the tale is set in 1973 Pittsburgh rather than 1924 Chicago, and the victim is a Vietnam War veteran rather than a 14-year-old schoolboy. Nemerever also draws inspiration from the New Zealand murder depicted in Peter Jackson’s early film masterpiece, “Heavenly Creatures.”
In his author’s note, Nemerever spells out what drew him to these two stories: “Along with many other members of the post-Columbine generation, I spent my childhood being told by the culture at large … that the alienation and sense of grievance living inside me could erupt at any moment into monstrosity.” Tapping deep into the malaise of his “queer, Jewish, isolated” teenage self, Nemerever creates a twisting tale tracing the ever-fluctuating psychological and behavioral dynamics between two budding sociopaths.
After a prologue in which the pair tell their drugged, bewildered victim-to-be why they’re doing what they’re doing (“We’ve read all about you … We know exactly what you are”), Nemerever backtracks to the young men’s first meeting at an unnamed Pittsburgh university.
Paul Fleischer still lives at home with his recently widowed mother and two sisters. The circumstances surrounding the death of his father, a policeman, are too painful to be addressed head-on by anyone in the family — especially Paul. When his grandfather asks how he’s coping, he’s wryly frank: “Everyone’s treating me like a time bomb … So there’s that.”
Enter Julian Fromme, a classmate who seems drawn to Paul’s time-bomb volatility. In a class discussion of “ethical issues in the sciences,” they realize they’re on the same skeptical-nihilistic wavelength. They take a while to act on their mutual attraction, with Paul reluctant even to identify what eventually happens between them as sex “because it wasn’t about anything so shallow as physical desire. They wanted each other in the way of flesh wanting to knit itself together over a wound.”
Their shared certainty that they’re superior in character and intelligence to their peers and the adults in their lives, however, is instantaneous.
In family background, they differ sharply. Paul’s extended family is a tightknit Jewish clan, deeply immersed in one another’s lives. Julian’s wealthy and more cosmopolitan parents, by contrast, do everything they can to manipulate and stifle their son.
While Paul ties himself in knots to impress Julian, Julian provokes something in Paul that may be more than either of them can handle. Each sees any expression of concern or vulnerability in the other as a possible trick or underhanded bid for pity.
Nemerever occasionally overexplains the ecstasies, spats and incongruities governing this relationship. More often, though, his lithe summaries of what’s transpiring between them are absolutely necessary, especially when it comes to parsing the sadomasochistic streak in their charmed connection.
“[E]ven his affection felt dangerous,” Paul thinks about Julian early on, “as if it might curdle at any moment into derision.” Ardent in their belief that what they have together “shouldn’t share a reality with the world outside,” they egg each other deeper and deeper into transgressive territory. A comment that Julian’s brother makes to Paul sums up the situation concisely: “I can’t tell whether he’s done a number on you or if it’s the other way around.”
Nemerever’s pacing as he traces the evolution of their scheme is close to perfect. His powers of analysis are impressive, especially when it comes to the elements of performance and disguise in the duo’s presentation of their outward selves. (“He practiced neutral expressions,” he says of Paul, “until he finally found a version of his own face that he thought he might be able to keep steady.”)
A welcome thread of dark humor informs the novel as well.
“Do I look normal?” Paul asks. “I can’t tell if I look normal.”
Julian’s reply: “You never do.”
On a personal note, it’s eerie how Nemerever captures the era of my own late teens so persuasively when he’s 30-odd years my junior.
In short, this is a startling debut by a heady talent whose vision of what youthful arrogance and delusion can lead to feels completely on the mark.
“People,” Julian says late in the book, “talk themselves into the strangest things when they want to look impressive.”
In the world that Nemerever creates, that’s a considerable understatement.
“These Violent Delights” by Micah Nemerever, Harper, 465 pp., $27.99