The friend in the title of Edmund White’s new novel is a writer called Will Wright, a straight man with bad skin but a sterling pedigree. What little we learn about Will’s first novel – a metafictional romance about a man, the heiress he loves and an anthropomorphic cat – comes from Jack Holmes, a handsome, closeted editorial assistant who works with him at a literary quarterly in Manhattan. Jack is in love with Will, but his ardent affection and oversized penis fail to bend Will’s heterosexuality. Jack holds out hope that Will’s novel may betray affection for him, or at least an openness to sexual experimentation. Novelists, Jack believes, are under a professional obligation to be ‘odd’. And if Will’s novel turns out to be a hit and makes him a celebrity, he’ll need someone around to give him unconditional support. Who better than Jack? But then he reads a galley of Will’s book and his hopes are dashed. The novel is ‘sentimental horseshit’, ‘tepid’ and ‘gooey-sweet’, and he’s offended by the cartoon on the cover, an attempt to be ‘argotic and contemporary’, he thinks, that seems flimsy and ‘toothless’.
Kirkus disagrees, and gives the novel a starred review, praising its ‘charming’ recombination of the styles of Thomas Pynchon and Boris Vian and its ‘tender’, ‘childlike’ depiction of heterosexual love. Jack figures the Kirkus reviewer must be a woman, probably studying French, unduly influenced by Will’s touched-up author photo. Then comes a review in the New York Times, which begins by commending the novel for its ‘exact’ and ‘shimmering’ prose and its ‘well-observed’ characters, but adds that ‘some readers may break out in hives after such a prolonged exposure to whimsy.’ Still, the reviewer concedes that Will has talent and that ‘his very next book could easily be a roaring (and not another treacly) success.’
Will’s next book never arrives. He marries an heiress, moves to Westchester, and takes a job writing annual reports for corporations. As his prospects sag, so does the narrative, which gets mired in the details of Will’s unhappy marriage. Will starts having affairs, and gets back in touch with Jack, who has graduated from the desperation of the closet to the glamour of life as a gay high society tag-along. For a time, Will moves in with Jack as each tends to a much younger lover. Their experiment in inter-generational living falters, however, when the Aids epidemic sweeps them both back into stable monogamy.
White’s memoir City Boy closely tracks the events of Jack Holmes and His Friend. Like Jack, White is born in Ohio, attends boarding school outside Detroit, graduates from the University of Michigan and moves to New York. Both study Chinese and pass up the chance to start a PhD at Harvard in order to seek bohemian liberation in the big city. Each takes a junior job with a publisher – in White’s case, an ‘imagination-killing’ job at Time Life Books. Each prowls downtown Manhattan for men. Neither has difficulty finding takers. As the novel puts it: ‘You’re the universal ball, Jack Holmes. Everyone at that party wanted you.’ And the memoir: ‘Ed White, everyone wants you, you’re the universal ball.’
Some less happy aspects of White’s early days in New York also resemble the experiences of Will Wright. The humiliations Will suffers after his novel comes out parallel the difficulties White encountered with the publication of his own experimental first book, Forgetting Elena, a postmodern comedy narrated by an amnesiac who wakes up on a surrealist version of Fire Island and is forced to contend with the locals’ blend of Byzantine formality and sexual transgression. White started writing Forgetting Elena in 1966, but it didn’t appear until 1973. It might never have been published at all had it not been for the intercession of the poet and translator Richard Howard, who was introduced to White by a friend who had met Howard at a West Village pick-up bar. Howard liked White’s manuscript, suggested revisions and eventually persuaded Random House to publish it. The publisher demanded that the ending be changed so that the book could be marketed as a ‘mystery’.
By the time the book appeared White had decamped to California. As in Jack Holmes and His Friend, there was a problem with the cover: ‘The cover art arrived in the mail for my “approval”,’ White writes in City Boy. ‘I disapproved of it – a colour drawing of a seashell weeping a single tacky tear – but that made no difference.’ White wanted to be taken seriously: no need to arm the critics by making the jacket campily bathetic. He was nervous about the book’s reception, though it had already been read appreciatively by eminent friends, including Ashbery and Nabokov, who once listed it as one of the few contemporary novels he liked.
The book was reviewed in the New York Times by Alan Friedman, the author of a forgotten novel called Hermaphrodeity, who described it as ‘a nearly inscrutable mystery’ powered by ‘camp, vamp and very damp wit’. He praised White’s ‘poetic brilliance’ and ‘hard, gem-like style’ but backhandedly compared his writing to self-satirising chinoiserie. ‘Forgetting Elena is a masterful piece of work, I have no doubt of that,’ Friedman wrote. ‘The trouble lies in the contrivance.’ Though the language at times was ‘uncannily beautiful’, the narrator was ‘unfailingly petty’ and the narrative ‘obsessively fussy’. White was devastated. The reviewers, he writes in City Boy, were ‘genuinely uncomprehending’. He was terrified of ‘being silenced again, of not being allowed to go on writing for publication’. Writing for an audience was like making love; writing in obscurity was just masturbation. He was now burdened with ‘horrible, nearly paralysing doubt’.
Will Wright gives up his writing career after the mainstream critics’ hostility. So, in a sense, did White: after his second novel, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, got even worse reviews, he abandoned experimentation. The imaginary straight author Will Wright flees to the suburbs and domesticity; the real gay author Edmund White fled to realism and domestic fiction. The literary world may have claimed to revere the modernists, but these models had not served White well.
In City Boy, White frames his flight to the mainstream as an arrival at literary maturity, the end point of his own Bildungsroman. Shedding his childish preoccupation with ‘major writers’, White turned against ‘avant-garde tricksters’, leaving behind Mallarmé’s obfuscations and Proust’s longueurs to join dependable storytellers like Robert Stone and Joyce Carol Oates. He got mugged by realism. He realised that Elizabeth Bowen is just as good as Virginia Woolf but without the ‘affected prose style’, and that the selling of high art is ‘just one more form of commercialism’. The break came when he was assigned to review a collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer. The gripping narratives, ‘telling details’ and ‘humanity’ made him yearn for a time before the ‘classy jugglers’ of modernism vandalised the ‘tradition of Tolstoy and Chekhov’. By this point, White was trying to get a deal to write a book of criticism on John Barth, Robert Coover, Rudolph Wurlitzer and Donald Barthelme. The proposal was rejected. Though ‘crushed at the time’, White was later glad, because metafiction ‘no longer intrigues’ him ‘or anyone else’. It’s ‘the sort of storytelling,’ he writes in City Boy, that is ‘hyperconscious of its status as an artefact and that constantly draws attention to its own devices’. White learned, he says, to stop ‘being Beckett and become Updike’.
These Damascene moments led to A Boy’s Own Story, the straightforwardly autobiographical novel that marked the turning point in White’s career. As he explains in City Boy,
As I was slowly moving away from communism, I also stepped back from the avant-garde. My first two novels to be published had been experimental, but by the time I got to A Boy’s Own Story I’d acknowledged that life had handed me a brand-new subject and that my job was to present it in the clearest, least wavering light. A straight writer, condemned to show nothing but marriage, divorce and childbirth, might need a new formal approach or an exotic use of language. But a gay writer, free to record for the first time so many vivid and previously uncharted experiences, needed no tricks.
Jack Holmes and His Friend, White’s 29th book, is arguably his most sentimental. The novel and its characters are focused on sex and the things that go with it, and while White is always explicit, he’s rarely what you might call erotic. The novel is propelled by nostalgia. There’s nostalgia for college, and for the closet, but most of all for a world where people care about writers and their patrons. These are all really forms of nostalgia for different varieties of American masculinity.
White draws a world of 1960s New York professionals where everyone is ‘smoking Kents’ and ‘seriously drunk on Drambuie’ and the name Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, still elicits reverence. C.G., a colleague of Jack’s, gives him a tutorial on ‘tracking’ which becomes a celebration of the rule-bound toughness of the mid-century male:
We want everything to flow, to track. You’ll see. Gephardt will write ‘Huh?’ in the margin if he doesn’t get your point, or ‘Make it track.’ Or he’ll think you need more facts or more ‘colour’; that’s the lush descriptive prose you’re so good at, but these old macho journalists like what they call ‘nuts and bolts’. Sometimes they’ll think you’re long-winded and they’ll say, ‘Green 20 characters.’ ‘Greening’ is cutting. Oh, and by the way, don’t use words like ‘therefore’ and ‘thus’ and ‘aforesaid’ and ‘latter’ – sounds like school. I suppose the main thing is speed – saying the most in the fewest words. And be sure to identify every place name and foreign word without sounding pedantic, and don’t ever be lofty and say, ‘The well-known such and such’, because it may not be well known to the reader.
C.G.’s assessment of Jack’s writing could substitute for our assessment of White’s: ‘These descriptions of the azalea pots are very good, and I like the loafers as soft as chocolate bars left out in the sun. I suspect you have a real writing talent.’
Another of White’s obsessions is class, from the ‘rumpled’ prep school sons of Detroit auto executives to the gentility of the Upper East Side, where voices vibrate with accents ‘drilled in’ by private schools like Brearley and eyes open wide to reveal ‘their fine Chippendale blue’. Although Jack Holmes and His Friend isn’t a ‘research novel’, it does include an elaborate fox-hunting scene. (A friend is thanked in the acknowledgments for correcting fox-related errors.) White clearly finds beauty in class markers, but since he never gives them symbolic weight, they serve, as they did for Emma Bovary, as fetish objects. White’s search for an American aristocracy is unceasing, but his literary embellishments don’t do much to make the Wasp ruling class interesting. Towards the end of Jack Holmes, Will speaks of his desire for ‘something elevated in my life, something beyond my sexual obsession’. White’s reader feels the same way.
In Jack Holmes, White splits the authorial subject into a promiscuous homosexual and a straight, buttoned-up novelist. This is a good way to think about the significance of White himself, whose cosmopolitan life has been far more interesting than the suburban one of John Updike, but whose prose style lags far behind. White wants to make Will the pretentious, failed novelist he might have become had he not broken from the avant-garde. But really Will is the small, domestic writer that White became when he decided to be the gay Updike.
One of the more puzzling features of the postwar literary era has been the collapse of the gay novelist, as the novel, especially in America, shifted its focus from outsiders to the suburban everyman. It’s not enough to say that the modernist canon is well stocked with homosexuals; between Proust, Mann, Gide, Genet, Forster, Woolf, Stein, Langston Hughes, Djuna Barnes and Henry James, it may be more accurate to say that the modernist novel is a queer invention with a smattering of heterosexual imitators, many of them notably preoccupied with queer concerns. After the war, the mantle was passed from Vidal, Isherwood, Baldwin and Capote to White, and, more recently, to Cunningham, Hollinghurst and Tóibín. One is hard-pressed to name a significant gay novelist under the age of fifty.
One might object – as White does – that the ‘gay greats’ of literary modernism, great or not, weren’t really gay: they were mostly married and closeted. In City Boy, White gives a list of ‘blue-chip artists’ – among them Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey and Robert Wilson – who kept their sexuality hidden from public view, something White views with antipathy: ‘We openly gay artists had to deal with the dismissive or condescending judgments all around us – “Of course since I’m not gay myself your work seems so exotic to me” – while the Blue Chips sailed serenely on, universal and eternal. It paid to stay in the closet, obviously.’ To White’s credit, his fiction tells gay stories and directly challenges its readers, straight and gay alike, to rethink these suppressed histories, to switch ‘all the minuses to pluses’, as he puts it. White was one of the first prominent novelists to depict gay lives without apology; even openly gay intellectuals like Richard Howard were appalled at the intrusion of identity politics into a form prized for its ‘universalism’. Yet for all White’s gayness, and his sceptical indifference to modernism’s universalist claims, he has spent the better part of his professional life suppressing his weirdness. In City Boy, he writes with incomprehension about Howard’s penchant for wearing red capes, for glorying ‘in the strange, both in himself and others’. Ashbery too is called out for his ‘esoteric tastes’. White may be a gay writer, but he is not a queer one. There is nothing bent, nothing warped or subversive about his friendly embrace of the world as is. But it’s not surprising that people would rather read a queer novel by Genet or Woolf than a gay one by White or Cunningham, or a straight Updike novel rather than an Updike novel with gay characters. The gay experience that’s of interest to a general audience is the marginal, queer experience. White’s masculine turn after he broke from the avant-garde, ironically, is what marks his prose as fey and brittle.
It’s tempting to speculate about the creative energies unleashed – or kept in – by the closet, and something about literary modernism and closeted homosexuality produced a particular electricity. But any explanation of the gay novel’s postwar collapse has to contend with a glaring problem: in virtually every other artistic field, whether dance, music, painting, drama or, indeed, poetry, homosexuals continued to dominate in the late 20th century, and their influence in the upper reaches of those forms, as in popular culture, is still cresting. Somehow the novel got left out.