Apr 12, 12
Read in April, 2012
No matter what your sexual orientation, if you’re close with someone, there is a sense of love and attraction. You may not find the person sexually attractive, but you understand why others would, and there is something about this person’s aura, intelligence, company, personality, need, something…that makes you fall in love.
Edmund White has written a novel about whether a gay man and a straight man can be close friends. In that sense this book is a little odd, because of course they can! But what if the gay man is sexually obsessed with the straight man? This makes the weight of their long-term friendship more perilous.
In this case handsome Midwesterner Jack Holmes may be sexually gifted, but it is his pimply, Catholic and Southern friend Will who attracts Jack. God know what it is about Will. It seems to be Will’s gallantry combined with an easy but none-too-serious masculinity. Together, they traverse New York City’s history between the early 1960s up until the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. (This is also the height of sexual awakening for America.) Both Jack and Will write for journals and magazines, but Will dreams of being a novelist, and Jack never had any firm plans.
In the first part, Jack slowly comes out in a way that seems natural to the times. He’s at first ashamed and then resigned, never too political about it. e is comfortable with the fact that he may be desirable, but still very staid in his soul. Gothic Catholicism, on the other hand, has hemmed in heterosexual Will; he marries Jack’s debutante friend Alexandra and then spends years trying to shake off his piousness in Penthouse-like fantasies, and then feckless affairs, and finally advancing to all-out orgies. This also seems to mirror to sexual revolution that slowly built speed to the late 1970s.
Sex. So much of White’s book here is about sex and sexual politic. So much is spent in describing bodies and acts, smells, dress, gesture, technique. It’s a weirdly myopic but also fascinating. Does all this mindless sex get a little stale? Sure, sometimes, but it’s also easy to read. (In fact, it only took me two days to devour all 400 pages.)
Is this a good book? I don’t know. It’s well written, but the long passages of gay-versus-straight talk felt canned and even self-hating on both sides. Yet, I understand what Jack and Will tells us about sexual politics informs us more about themselves then it ever does about all gays versus all heterosexuals. Jack and Will are products of their time, but they are also distinct characters (if a little bland). These two could never give Universal truths, because these two are blinded by their own experiences. Yet, Jack and Will are accurate, because what they describe is irrefutably true to their own souls. Their sense of their places in history may not be clear to them, but it is to us.
Did I like the long-winded dialogues comparing homosexuality and heterosexuality both physically and emotionally? Not really. It got boring.
Was there anything else that bothered me? Yes, the first part of the book is about Jack, told in third person. Then Will takes over the second half. Then it switches to third person, and in the last 30 pages, Will takes over again.
Then, somewhere in those last pages, the trick of the book dawned on me, who actually wrote the whole shebang, who’s narrating!
I know it’s a little hard to follow, but here it is: White – who is a very talented writer – lived a life much like Jack’s: from the Midwest, studying Chinese art, gay in 1960s NYC, falling into writing. The fictional Will – whoever he is – wanted to be a novelist, but he seemed to lack the talent; he also knew something about his own life and the people around him would actually make a serviceable novel. Maybe it’s not a perfect novel, but somehow gay White (who is a lot like Jack) wrote a book from fictional, straight Will’s perspective. Now I’m wondering who the real Will is – if there is one – and how he feels about his story finally being told by the real-life Jack instead of himself. It’s very meta, but it makes for a cool structure. It requires White to make a fictional version of himself (Jack) and then write about Jack from his straight friend’s perspective. Wow! Gimmicky, but my mind is blown!