The Lost Language of Cranes Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1986

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Family

Time of work: The mid-1980’s

Locale: New York City

Characters DiscussedPhilip Benjamin

Philip Lost Language of Cranes, TheBenjamin, a twenty-five-year-old gay man who works as an editor of romance novels. A solitary only child, Philip had lost himself in Derek Moulthorp’s children’s fantasies. At the beginning of the novel, Philip is in love with Eliot, who, by coincidence, is Moulthorp’s foster son. At Philip’s request, Eliot takes Philip to dinner at Moulthorp’s apartment. Philip questions Moulthorp’s partner, Geoffrey, about Eliot’s deceased parents. Believing that Philip has invaded his privacy, Eliot stops returning his calls. Eliot’s openness about his own sexuality, however, prompts Philip to tell his parents, with whom he has a rather distant relationship, that he is gay. His mother rejects him, but Philip and his father communicate honestly for the first time. Although Philip believes that he will never recover from losing Eliot, he and a college friend, Brad, ultimately become lovers.

Owen Benjamin

Owen Benjamin, Philip’s father, the dean of admissions at the Harte School, a private school for rich boys. At the outset, Owen faces two crises. First, he and his wife, Rose, must either purchase or vacate the rent-controlled apartment in which they have lived for many years. Second, Owen is no longer content with anonymous encounters in a pornographic movie theater or with hiding his homosexuality from his wife. When Philip “comes out” to his parents, Owen questions his son, hoping to find a model for an openly gay lifestyle. Owen invites to dinner Winston Penn, a coach at Harte whom he incorrectly believes is gay. Owen tells Philip that he is inviting Penn for his son’s benefit, but Owen is himself infatuated with his colleague. After watching Owen flirt with Penn at dinner, Rose asks her husband to leave. Owen takes refuge at Philip’s apartment, uncertain whether his separation from his wife will be permanent.

Rose Benjamin

Rose Benjamin, Philip’s mother, a copy editor for a literary publishing house. She edited Derek Moulthorpe’s novels and introduced them to her son. Although she has had affairs with other men, she accepts her polite but uncommunicative relationship with Owen. When their building goes co-op, Rose is profoundly distressed by having to choose between leaving the apartment that has been home for many years or using their life savings on a down payment. When she learns that both her son and husband are gay, Rose, overburdened already, rejects them both.

Eliot Abrams

Eliot Abrams, an independently wealthy young man who dabbles in freelance graphic design. When his parents were killed in an automobile accident, Eliot was adopted by Derek Moulthorp and his lover, Geoffrey. Accepting his foster parents’ homosexuality as the norm, Eliot suffers none of Philip’s sexual confusion. He is increasingly burdened by Philip’s dependency and eagerness to please. When Philip questions Geoffrey about Eliot’s parents, Eliot stops returning Philip’s calls. Eliot goes to Europe and begins an affair with a young Frenchman.

Jerene Parks

Jerene Parks, a six-foot-tall black woman who is Eliot’s roommate. Jerene is the adopted daughter of a black couple who have achieved a lonely affluence and impress upon their daughter the importance of preserving appearances. When Jerene tells them that she is a lesbian, they cease communicating with her. During research for her doctoral dissertation on lost languages, Jerene discovers “the crane child,” a neglected boy who created a private language to communicate with the cranes at a nearby construction project. This story becomes for her a metaphor for the way people model their identities on a chosen love object. Having found a measure of self-acceptance, Jerene leaves graduate school. She begins a relationship with Laura, a neurotically fearful but devoted young woman. Jerene volunteers for the Gay Hotline and talks anonymously to Owen when he calls, distraught, to discuss his own and his son’s homosexuality.

Derek Moulthorpe

Derek Moulthorpe, a writer of children’s fantasies and Eliot’s foster father. When Eliot and Philip come to dinner, Moulthorpe cooks a meal with all blue foods. Afterward, at Philip’s suggestion, Derek and Geoffrey, his partner of many years, accompany the young men to their favorite gay bar. Feeling old, they leave quickly.

Brad Robinson

Brad Robinson, a college friend of Philip who fantasizes about glamorous actors but has had few actual relationships. Brad’s analysis of Eliot’s selfish behavior helps the grieving Philip to put his lover’s rejection in perspective. Brad and Philip’s long friendship culminates in an honest, mutually supportive love relationship.

Winston Penn

Winston Penn, a handsome lacrosse coach at the Harte School. During dinner at the Benjamins’ apartment, Winston takes the family turmoil in stride. Penn plans eventually to return to Austin to get a Ph.D. and marry his fiancée, Nancy.

BibliographyHubbard, Kim. “The Lost Language of Cranes.” People Weekly 26 (November 3, 1986): 19-20. After a brief synopsis of the novel, Hubbard considers the humorlessness of the characters and their preoccupation with sexual identity. The reviewer also questions the novel’s lack of attention to AIDS.Jones, Adams-Mars. “The Lost Language of Cranes.” New Republic 195 (November 17, 1986): 43-46. A balanced appraisal of the novel on several levels. Jones examines the larger themes and metaphors and the use of pathos, irony, tone, and tempo. He criticizes Leavitt for underdevelopment of certain characters and the lack of a mature central protagonist.Leavitt, David. “The Way I Live Now.” The New York Times Magazine 138 (July 9, 1989): 28-32. Inspired by Susan Sontag’s story “The Way We Live Now,” Leavitt discusses AIDS with candor and conviction. He looks at AIDS in his own writing and reviews the history of AIDS activism. Includes criticism of society’s stereotypes in fighting the epidemic.Lo, Mun-Hou. “David Leavitt and the Etiological Maternal Body.” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (Fall/Winter, 1995): 439-465. Examines the correlation between mothers and homosexuality in Leavitt’s written works. Discusses excerpts of books with themes similar to Leavitt’s subjects, the influences of a maternal figure in the development of homosexuality, and the portrayal of acceptance by mothers of homosexual children. Offers a framework for a better understanding of the relationship between Philip and Rose.Lopate, Phillip. “Sexual Politics, Family Secrets.” The New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1986, 3. Lopate favorably reviews the novel, commending Leavitt’s female characters and the freshness and suspense of the story. He takes issue with the novel’s emphasis on sexual identity and politics. The review is accompanied by an interview box in which Barth Healey quotes Leavitt’s views on the novel.Staggs, Sam. “David Leavitt.” Publishers Weekly 237 (August 24, 1990): 47-48. An intimate article based on an interview with the author. Leavitt discusses his work from a dispassionate, objective viewpoint. He also comments on the challenges of youthful success, his popularity in Europe, and his responsibility as a gay writer in the AIDS era.Time. “A Family Reveals Its Secrets.” 139 (June 29, 1992): 85. Reviews the BBC adaptation of Levitt’s novel, noting the change in location from New York City to London. The reviewer praises the adaptation, but contends that “the change of locale distances the already remote characters and undercuts the work’s emotional force.”
Categories: Characters