Straight to the heart of matters
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