You've seen the ad on the el.
A mysterious Latin title: Sine Die. A garish cartoon book cover with a clown's head springing out of a capitol dome, its mouth drooling blood. A grainy photo of author Matthew J. Levin, whose gum-cracking sneer demands, "Throw that copy of The Lovely Bones out the window and read a book with some balls."
When a writer's first novel is rejected, he comes to one of two conclusions: (a) I ain't got it, or (b) the literary establishment doesn't have the 'nads to publish my work. Matt Levin, a self-confident young man, chose (b). Sine Die, he says, is a combination "coming-out story and political thriller" about a young gay Democrat who gets caught up in a plot to assassinate Michigan's speaker of the house and blow up the capitol. Levin, who's spent several years as a legislative staffer in Lansing, originally had an agent, but the combination of political intrigue and all-male orgies might have been too much for the man to handle.
Sine Die's hero, Josh Brisco, is a failed political candidate living in the basement of his parents' Grand Rapids house and searching for his sexual identity in gay bars when he meets Adam Van Anders, a playground basketball player with minty-fresh breath:
The boys' lips meet, forming a bridge to their tongues. They kiss deep and passionately for minutes, until Josh pulls away dizzy, his heart racing at a frantic rate."I've never made love with a man before," he says.
As Josh digs deeper into a murder and the capital's gay scene, Levin's characters spill blood and semen in equal amounts.
"My agent said it was too controversial, so he backed off," Levin says. "He thought it was too disturbing. He said, 'You've got great characters, your prose is beautiful, but I don't feel comfortable representing it. It's not my cup of tea.'"
So Levin published the book himself. "I felt like when I finished the story I had a golden egg, and I had to get it out for people to read," he says. He decided to advertise on the el.
"Every time I rode the el to work, everyone's always reading," he says. "It's just a natural. If someone's reading a book and it's a real drag, and they look up and see a placard, they might want to try something that's different and exciting."
In January, 200 placards promoting Sine Die as the book that would "make reading fun again" went up on the Red, Brown, and Blue lines. So far, Levin's sold 500 books--two-thirds of them to Chicagoans.
So why did he choose Chicago as the test market for his roman a clef on Michigan politics? "Chicago is a very cosmopolitan town," he says. It's the kind of place that should love a story about a young man fleeing the provinces.
Levin, 33, spent his first years in the suburbs of Chicago, but when he was a boy his family moved to Grand Rapids. He still isn't over it. He wasn't openly gay in high school, but he was Jewish, which made him an oddball in a culture where the Buicks sport bumper stickers declaring "If You Ain't Dutch, You Ain't Much" and the three most revered institutions are the Christian Reformed Church, the Republican Party, and Amway.
"I hated reading the editorial pages," he says. "Everything was Jesus this and the Bible that."
Wendy Van Prooyen, Levin's English teacher at Forest Hills High School, remembers him as a wisecracking free spirit, "a student who realized there was a big old world outside this nice little conservative high school."
When Van Prooyen assigned an essay on the poem "Richard Cory," Levin wrote that Cory shot himself because he was leading a secret life involving raves and drugs. It was a jab at Grand Rapids's conformity, and perhaps a hint at Levin's homosexuality. Van Prooyen was thrilled to find a student who expressed "divergent thought." They still keep in touch, and she helped edit Sine Die. (The title is a parliamentary term for the final day of a legislative session.)
"There were parts of it I enjoyed," she says, sounding like a Grand Rapidian, though a liberal. "I'll be honest with you. I'm his former English teacher, and Matt's lifestyle is not exactly my lifestyle. But I can appreciate it."
Dissing your native soil is an old literary tradition. Levin lampoons west Michigan's Dutch politicians--its "tulip caucus." One of Sine Die's many villains is Wayne Van Anders--the father of Josh's paramour and a Republican power broker--who is obviously modeled on Amway founder Jay Van Andel.
Levin had a lot of political scores to settle when he wrote Sine Die. He started working in the legislature as a student at Michigan State, composing letters to constituents and answering the phone for a Detroit-area senator. He was also coming out as a gay man at the time--it was easier in East Lansing, with its tolerant university scene--and he discovered that this made him far from a freak in the political world. The legislature has only one openly gay member, Representative Chris Kolb of (where else?) Ann Arbor. But Levin saw legislators in the capital's gay bars, and after he graduated he met one personally.
"This state senator called me up and asked me for an interview at his home in East Lansing," he says. "It was the most god-awful bizarre interview I've ever had. It started with me showing up at his door and him waving his hands and talking in French. Then he took me for a walk around his neighborhood and was trying to grab my arm and asking me if I liked the ballet. I told him
I liked rock. He said, 'You're so macho.' Finally I asked him, 'What about the job?' He said, 'What you need to do is schedule another interview.' I never followed up. There are so many closeted legislators on both sides of the aisle. It's disproportionate."
Levin landed a job with Detroit representative Buzz Thomas right after Michigan voters slapped term limits on the house in 1992. Politicians who once would have settled into long careers there now had only six years to achieve their ambitions. Levin's boss struggled for the Democratic leadership with Representative Kwame Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick won. Within a few weeks Levin lost his job on the Democratic staff.
He wound up back in Grand Rapids, where he managed a friend's successful campaign for the legislature. Then, soured on politics, Levin moved to Chicago. He lived three years in Boys Town, worked for the Canadian consulate, and scribbled away at his book. But he started dating a man from Michigan, they fell in love, and in January he landed another political job--legislative director for Michigan state senator Gilda Jacobs. Levin and his boyfriend just bought a house in a rural township south of Lansing.
He hasn't forgiven Kwame Kilpatrick, though. For Sine Die, Levin created a character named Kalumba "Sonny Boy" King. King is a state representative. So was Kilpatrick. King is the son of a politically ambitious mother. Kilpatrick is the son of Democratic congressman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. There the resemblances end, because King loves to snort cocaine and party in hot tubs with male prostitutes.
Yet Mother's protectionism couldn't shelter Kalumba from his obesity and homosexuality....As a state legislator, he is able to keep himself relatively camouflaged, decorating himself in oversized, tailored suits and limiting his sexual liaisons to private frolics with hired whores.
King's mother is even viler: she's Chinita McCloud Clapton King-Hyde, a political dragon lady who drinks blood, stomps on mice, and schemes to assassinate rivals standing between her son and the speakership. (Why would anyone want to run the Michigan House of Representatives that badly?)
"I'm not worried about him reading it," Levin says, even though Kilpatrick weighs over 250 pounds and is now mayor of Detroit. "If he's going to read it and say that charac-ter's him, he's crazy. He's definitely not gay. He said something in the paper about not wanting his kids to grow up around gay people."
The book is being read under the capitol dome. Levin has sold nearly 100 copies from his office. Kathleen Calati, a senate policy analyst from Grand Rapids, thinks Levin was "courageous" to lampoon a culture that most political grunts just grumble about. Figuring out the real-life models for the characters has become a game among legislative staffers.
Levin skewers every faction in Michigan politics: black Detroiters, blue-collar bigots from Macomb County, pious right-wing Grand Rapidians. "They're all saying,
'Who do you think this is?' says Calati. "It's kind of like when Primary Colors came out."
Even Levin's boss, Senator Jacobs, is in on it. "The characters are really a composite of the 148 personalities in the legislature," she says. "Clearly, there were people that stood out, where you thought, 'That was the mayor of Detroit,' or 'That was [Governor] Jennifer Granholm.'"
Only one politician has felt that Sine Die might hurt his career--the state representative whose campaign Levin managed. He's now running for a judgeship, and was worried the book would portray him as a homo-sexual. It doesn't, but his fears are one reason Levin won't write another political thriller. "I'm very proud of the book, but I'll never write something so close to home, where the characters can be mistaken for someone else," he says.
So now he's working on a collection of horror stories. Kathleen Calati is looking forward to reading it. "I think Sine Die was kind of a cathartic novel," she says. "I think sometimes first novels are self-indulgent. I hope he keeps writing."
For more on gays and politicians in Lansing see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.