Straight to the heart of mat­ters

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam David­son

IT is just on 30 years since A Boy’s Own Story, a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­ing of age novel about grow­ing up gay in the 1950s, made Ed­mund White’s name as a writer. Much has hap­pened since to trans­form the land­scape of ho­mo­sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence and gay writ­ing in Amer­ica. White has never been far from its fore­front.

Jack Holmes and His Friend re­vis­its the pre-pride, PRE-AIDS days of 1960s New York and tracks the mon­u­men­tal at­ti­tu­di­nal shifts of the 70s and early 80s through an al­most tragic tale of yearn­ing and un­re­quited love of a gay man for his straight friend.

While not an overtly po­lit­i­cal novel, ex­cept in the sense that all writ­ing can be deemed po­lit­i­cal, White casts his acutely ob­ser­va­tional eye across the shift­ing strata of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety from its fading, dis­placed aris­toc­racy to its mid­west­ern con­ser­va­tives and the new, ide­al­is­tic gen­er­a­tion of liber- tines and hip­pies em­pow­ered by the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion.

Jack Holmes meets his friend Will Wright when they are both in their early 20s and work­ing for a staid but re­spectable New York jour­nal, The North­ern Re­view.

Jack is a mid­west­ern WASP from Detroit who re­jects the brash­ness of the male world of the sons of the ‘‘ au­to­mo­bil­ity’’ that shaped him in favour of a cul­ti­vated book­ish aloof­ness. There is a ram­pant in­evitabil­ity about his sex­ual awak­en­ing on the streets of Green­wich Vil­lage. He is sur­prised at the ca­sual way girls re­fer to dykes and fags as though it were just a du­bi­ous vari­a­tion of hu­man sex­u­al­ity rather than a vice or men­tal ill­ness. His pre­co­cious phys­i­cal­ity brings its own re­wards and White de­lights in de­tail­ing the size of his ap­pendage and the in­evitabil­ity it would end up in some ho­mo­sex­ual’s mouth, ‘‘ just as a nat­u­rally fast run­ner would end up a track star’’.

Will is a blue-blood Vir­ginian Catholic with the right con­nec­tions and lit­er­ary pre­ten­sions. His fam­ily are mem­bers of the hunt club that voted the Kennedys out on the grounds that they were the sons of boot­leg­gers and ‘‘ kind of pushy’’. With con­serva- tism that borders on dull­ness, Will’s aso­cial pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with his novel leaves him blithely un­aware of his sex­ual at­trac­tive­ness.

Un­for­tu­nately for Jack, who falls dev­as­tat­ingly in love with him, he is in­cor­ri­gi­bly straight and un­ad­ven­tur­ous. To com­pound is­sues, Jack sab­o­tages his chances by in­tro­duc­ing Will to Alexan­dra New­ton, the up­town so­ci­ety debu­tante with a freezer full of crab claws, who will be­come his wife and bear his chil­dren. As Will and Alex move pre­dictably to­ward monog­a­mous do­mes­tic­ity and even­tu­ally aban­don Man­hat­tan for ex­ur­bia, Jack con­soles him­self with ca­sual, of­ten sor­did, sex and a suc­ces­sion of short­lived re­la­tion­ships fu­elled by jeal­ousy and lust which soon give way to self-loathing and re­sent­ment for the lack of in­ti­macy he craves.

There’s a school of thought that readers are less in­ter­ested in the graphic de­tails of who put what where in a sex­ual en­counter than with emo­tional en­gage­ment and the power of sug­ges­tion a writer brings to it. White holds to no such view. Noth­ing is left to the imag­i­na­tion. Granted, his point might well be the lack of in­ti­macy and emo­tion in Jack’s ur­gent, of­ten bru­tal en­coun­ters, but there’s of­ten a gra­tu­itous pruri­ence about the anatom­i­cal de­tail pro­vided that readers might find shock­ing or tit­il­lat­ing at first. But it quickly be­comes tedious, es­pe­cially when tied to Jack’s in­creas­ingly maudlin self­pi­ty­ing and dis­gust.

This novel un­folds chrono­log­i­cally in three parts, two aligned with Jack while the mid­dle sec­tion is told in the first per­son from Will’s per­spec­tive. While Will’s tran­si­tion from bud­ding novelist to fam­ily man and plod­ding writer of cor­po­rate re­ports seems a lit­tle quick, it re­veals White’s re­mark­able abil­ity to write both fondly and con­vinc­ingly from out­side Jack’s per­spec­tive.

Safely en­sconced in the coun­try es­tate they are will­fully let­ting go in def­er­ence to na­ture, Will and Alex en­gage in oc­ca­sional dull sex, sur­round them­selves with Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture and in­tro­duce the chil­dren to dres­sage. Will has the in­sight to recog­nise his life choices as some­thing of a coward’s al­ibi, ac­knowl­edg­ing that gays have cho­sen their sex­u­al­ity over all the com­forts of home. ‘‘ Bravely ob­ses­sional, but at a cost.’’

Jack, mean­while, vac­il­lates be­tween li­cen­tious­ness and guilt-wracked psy­chi­atric ses­sions to cure him of who he is while never los­ing his af­fec­tion for Will.

His con­so­la­tion now is that while be­ing queer could cost you your job when he first ar­rived in Man­hat­tan, ‘‘ be­ing a fag­got is no longer a li­a­bil­ity’’. In fact know­ing a gay is ‘‘ like know­ing a Ne­gro’’ with the fash­ion­able aris­to­cratic set. When their paths in­evitably re-cross, Jack again plays Cyrano to Will’s de­sire for the sex­u­ally charged Pia, the Ital­ian lib­er­tine who will bring his mar­riage to the brink. White proves he can write hetero sex as graph­i­cally as gay, but it’s the yearn­ing for some­thing more last­ing and sub­stan­tial than sex that lends the novel the pathos that el­e­vates it be­yond so­cial com­men­tary or tit­il­la­tion to a con­tri­bu­tion to the lit­er­a­ture of de­sire.

While this novel is charged with White’s char­ac­ter­is­tic wit and hu­mour, there is some­thing im­mensely sad about Jack’s un­re­quited love and his ac­cep­tance that ‘‘ af­ter a cer­tain age, fags re­placed sex with so­cial am­bi­tions’’. Liam Dav­i­son is a Melbourne based novelist and critic

This novel strad­dles the pe­riod from the Stonewall ri­ots to gay pride pa­rades

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