Ann Herendeen's Reviews > Hotel de Dream

Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
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Aug 19, 11

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You don't have to be a writer to love this book--but if you are a writer, you'll be entranced by what White does in Hotel de Dream, and horrified by the appropriate but depressing ending.

White imagines the last months of late-19th-century writer Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage) as he's dying, at age 28, of tuberculosis. Crane needs money to leave to his companion, Cora, a former prostitute whom he can't marry--because she's still legally married to her husband. He works doggedly at finishing a work of genre fiction that he knows will sell.

But like so many writers, Crane has another manuscript in the works, a labor of love, about a New York City street boy, a "ganymede" named Elliott. Crane has always been happiest among the city's underclass, the poor and dispossessed, and when he meets Elliott he's fascinated. Crane, unlike his friends and colleagues, is able to overcome his initial disgust at Elliott's syphilitic condition and the life that has led to it, and he begins a novel about a growing romance between Elliott and a client, a middle-aged, middle-class married man.

There's a basis in fact for this idea, rumors that Crane left an unfinished manuscript at his death. White calls this imaginary novel "The Painted Boy," and he does a beautiful, subtle job of recreating it for us, capturing both the mood of Crane's time and place, and the style of his writing.

For me, the most moving aspect of the story is the conflict in the mind of a dying artist, knowing his time is limited and that he can't do everything. For Crane, writing the genre novel is boring and tedious. He's so depleted by his illness that he doesn't have the mental or even physical strength to write both books, and he surreptitiously works on his passion, "The Painted Boy," whenever he has a moment alone.

After Crane's death, Cora knows that this manuscript is precious. It's the last product of a gifted writer, the work that inspired him to superhuman efforts even as his body failed. She approaches Crane's friends, including the famous writer Henry James, for help in publishing it. But of course they're appalled at the subject matter, and concerned with maintaining Crane's reputation.

Anybody who's ever written--or read--a controversial book on an unpopular or "disreputable" subject will be moved by this brilliant work of imagination from a great writer. And all readers will appreciate the contrast in standards between then and now. The details of what's acceptable may have changed, but the situation for unconventional artists is eternal.
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