FEBRUARY 20, 2012
ONE DETECTS A CERTAIN DEFERENCE in the air when Edmund White is mentioned, a tip of the hat, a suggestion of reflexive admiration about to be voiced. He has become an icon, as in “the iconic gay novelist, Edmund White.” One catches the construction “important but”: important but narrow, important but reductive, important but so singularly obsessed with the exigencies of a marginal population — the homosexual as repressed martyr, the homosexual as ghettoized identity, the homosexual as maverick of sexual politics — that he has given up the pursuit of the universal altogether. Increasingly now he is recognized in this role as progenitor of the gay novel, the elder statesman, the man who gave a literary voice to homosexual liberation in all its hair-raisingly carnal manifestations. His latest effort, Jack Holmes and His Friend, does little to complicate that reputation, relying on the canonical White tropes and storytelling methods for a more or less rote rehashing of the same concerns White has always had.
It is time, after all, and not White himself that has transformed so drastically. Time, working forward from the years in which the author came to prominence, has absorbed his concerns. Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, a Guggenheim fellow, a limb of Princeton’s professoriate, Edmund White is no longer the establishment outsider that he once was, no longer the heir to Jean Genet’s subversive indulgences, no longer the homosexual denied. Homo, as Mary Doty never wrote, has inherited. Today, White is establishment and establishment is White. That this dispatch has apparently not reached White himself is perhaps the defining disability under which Jack Holmes and His Friend begins to hobble.
Speaking of the position of homosexual writers in the 1970s, White has said that “every artistic decision we made had its political aspect. Should we write gay fiction at all? At that time there was no known market for our work, few bookstores that would carry it, precious few editors who would read our manuscripts.” And considering broadly Edmund White’s work, the writer’s sense of this particular duty seems to be the overriding moral impulse: how to project a history that dare not speak its name?
Having been among the first to answer the question, White is freer than most to claim an instrumental role in helping to bring about the very idea of a gay literature. He has done so, duly, in interviews and essays, and surely few writers have written so voluminously on the iconic sights of gay history — the Stonewall riots of 1969, and the dawning of the AIDS crisis in 1981 — as Edmund White. He has quite literally written the book on gay sex. (As the co-author of 1977’s The Joy of Gay Sex, his mission had been to craft “a book that attempted to assuage fears, diminish guilt, combat puritanism, sanction sex,” but which, following the AIDS outbreak, he agonized over until it could be revised for safer-sex practices.) His body of work then, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflects an obsession with these pre- and post-lapsarian eras of modern gay civilization.
White’s novels and essays are inclined toward the historical preservation of not only undimmed sexual energies, bathhouses, and truck-stop dalliances, but also of disease, profound fear, and ultimately death; and in his unusual dedication to these historical moments, he is something of a pioneer. In his States of Desire essays, White explores every last kinky nuance of homosexual copulation; in the story collection Skinned Alive, the impermanence of romance and the endurance of friendship rise thematically from his portraits of post-AIDS lives; and in The Farewell Symphony, the end of free love in the gay community is mourned as the end of an “American utopian experiment.” White has returned to the gay experience in America time and time again to study another facet, as if to say, “But I forgot to tell you …”
And with his latest novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend, White has returned once again to tell the story of a friendship, spanning decades, between a heterosexual and a homosexual man. It is certainly one of the few unexamined corners in White’s rigorous documentation of gay life in the 1970s, and as his oeuvre works by accumulation and repetition, by circling his subject and examining its every aspect, we might have expected the inevitable coming of a buddy novel. Jack Holmes and His Friend plays a long, epistemological game with the psychologies of the gay and straight man, introducing within its opening paragraphs — before Jack’s titular friend has even stepped on stage — an instructional reading of the larger novel. Consider this short exchange between Jack and his college friend Howard:
Jack knew that Howard, as a New York Jew, was studying him with amusement as a type, a Midwestern WASP. Jack realized that each of them thought of himself as something usual, standard, and considered the other one to be exotic, a deviation.
Mutual observation of this kind is the dominant critical mode in the novel, the characters themselves being too obtuse or frightened to engage in any serious self-scrutiny. Jack Holmes is a blank slate of a man, a “classic ‘good guy,’ ” a college student and sexually inexperienced young man who has yet to acknowledge — or even recognize — his homosexuality. The only logical direction for the novel to go, then, is toward defining Jack Holmes. Convinced that his “big cock” has barred him from the pleasures of heterosexual intercourse, Jack wades on a whim — “just to tempt the devil” — into an abundantly accessible community of gay intercourse once he arrives in New York. It is a community where one cruises, one bags “tricks,” one unsentimentally notches his bedpost, but where one cannot expect courtship, where courtship is annihilated, where the very idea of courtship has never existed. After his first same-sex dalliance, we find our classic good guy meditating on that very absence and struggling against it:
He decided he wasn’t going to let another man blow him; that was too easy, much simpler than seducing a woman and just as pleasurable. It could become addictive. Of course, with a woman you could have a real relationship conducted in the sunlight, whereas this homo thing was just slithering around in the shadows.
Jack Holmes’s trajectory will be familiar to even the most casual reader of White; he has established the ur-path of the homosexual so solidly that to read Jack Holmes and His Friend is to feel a nagging sense of familiarity, of having trod this ground before, of having witnessed these confessions on previous occasions. Jack’s journey into sexual experimentation is so perfectly the image of what White has taught us to understand as gay liberation that it throws Jack into a kind of crisis of certainty. And while the underbelly of easy sexual access has not entirely escaped his purview in previous works, nowhere is his commitment to investigating its ramifications so scrupulous as in Jack Holmes and His Friend.
Amid the exuberance of self-discovery in his casual and often anonymous flings, a maddeningly sensible part of Jack’s brain reflects:
The worst of it was that Jack never felt any affection for his so-called partners. He never wanted to crack a joke with one of them or cook him a midnight hamburger. He wouldn’t have lent one ten dollars. He could afford to have chilly, inflexible principles where there was no affection.
In the name of locating a more meaningful relationship with a man, a more sustaining one, one less hollow, Jack determines that what he wants and needs specifically is a buddy: “a guy his own age, a masculine guy who didn’t look at you penetratingly and size you up.” And so enters Will Wright: Virginia blue blood, aspiring novelist, and Jack’s newest co-worker at the highbrow Northern Review magazine. Jack Holmes and His Friend is constructed as a narrative in four parts, told in turns by one man and then the other. In a prepublication interview, White offers:
I think that because this book is partly about the difference between straight life and gay life, I felt like I could write the beginning and end of it from the point of view of Jack — who’s the gay character — though it’s in the third person, though it’s closely allied to his point of view, and then write the middle section in the first person from the straight guy — Will is what I call him now — Will’s point of view.
With the result that the book has a markedly anthropological feel about it. The mutual bafflement each character displays toward the other’s way of life is our – and also, one suspects, White’s – principal source of amusement. Jack and Will are forever attempting to decode one another, forever straining their images of the other through indigenous biases. One observes in the splitting of the narrative voice an attempt to address and diagnose two distinct cultural types as their lives intertwine, their ways of life collide, and their persons are inevitably transformed.
All the initial movements of their budding friendship are tracked in Jack’s close third, lending his inner life more than a passing resemblance to that of Austin Smith, the protagonist of White’s The Married Man, who fetishizes the married man of the title as “a man, a married man, not corrupted by gay life”; as Austin Smith is drawn to the married man, so Jack Holmes is drawn to Will Wright as a traditional antidote to the “brutalities of gay life.” Of course, Jack’s definition of a friend crumbles spectacularly, and he becomes the buddy who penetratingly stares, who sizes up the other with lust. Haunting Jack is the dream of living with Will, “that he, Jack, should make Will dinner and suck his cock every night, that he should listen to Will’s novel once a week and praise him every time.” He places “all his hopes of seducing Will on Will’s destiny as a novelist … If his novel was a success, Will would be free of his family. If he was free of his family and Virginia and Catholicism, Will might realize he loved Jack as much as Jack loved him.”
Jack’s reverence for Will borders on the adulatory, and even after the latter’s debut novel, The Truth About Sergeant Tavel, is pronounced a “fey” failure by the Times, he retains the piety of a man who has seen his God crumble. And of course, it must be said, his love is for naught. Will does not love — that is to say, desire — Jack, and he never will. Like Howard, the “New York Jew” from earlier, he looks at Jack as a type, no matter how specific Jack may be to him as his buddy; he sees himself as the standard, and Jack Holmes as the deviant:
It seemed odd that he, a faggot, should be so much more experienced than a normal guy like me, but was it real experience? Men and women played for keeps, for babies, for money, and they let the law govern their union and disunion. God and nature had made their bodies fit together. But what permanence or public acknowledgement could two fairies count on?
If Will does not make this position abundantly clear upon first meeting Jack, he certainly does with the release of his first novel. The Truth About Sergeant Tavel makes clear that Will Wright is an avowed heterosexual, a Catholic, and, it must be said, a middling novelist. Jack calls it a “patchwork of rehashed stories, filched readings from other books, speculations of the what-if sort, and improvisations in reverse,” underneath all of which is “a pure, almost childlike love” between the protagonist and his love interest. It is narrated in part, as Pynchon’s Bennie Profane narrated V, from the sewers of New York, but with none of Pynchon’s inventiveness. Indeed, Will has hardly fabricated his love interest at all, but has stolen wholesale from the life of Jack’s friend Alex, a society girl who, in due time, will become Will’s wife.
Enter the forces of transformation: by the time he is saddled with wife and family, Will Wright seems to have grown tired of the pure and childlike model of love. When, after an extended pause in their friendship, he meets Jack in New York one day, he seizes on the opportunity to invite him out to the suburbs, where Will and Alex live almost chastely on their overgrown, back-to-nature estate.
Here is White’s suburban prelude to the fall. Shadowing paradise are all the frustrated ambitions and cooled hearts that so reliably propel suburbanites into tragedy. Where, in Cheever, any given character may replace divorce with gin, Will Wright accepts the declensions of his ambitions as a novelist, of his higher faculties, and of his sex life, the latter of which is slow, he admits: “Over the years I’d learned how to curb my appetite and bathe every horny move in romance.” He has, in short, mastered the performance of the Provider and the Good Husband, has contented himself to an advertising job: nothing grand, nothing ambitious.
So still repressed and still pure, Will Wright is alternately amused and infuriated that his old friend is still, as Jack calls himself, “a libertine.” And that libertine brings, sashaying into Will and Alex’s home, the beautiful and tempting Pia, playing the classic Other Woman. With Jack as an interlocutor, Will begins the affair that will help him shed puritanism from his soul, will distance him from the expectations of his family:
This is where I start all over, I thought. I thought that ten years of marital fidelity had been criminal and a mistake, a sacrifice to some pointless, cowardly ideal … and I suddenly hated Catholicism. The coward’s excuse. The lazy man’s alibi.
Where we eventually arrive, post-revelation, looks something like college dorm life. After things go sour with Pia, Will moves in with Jack, the two of them separately going at their pert young lovers. Will begins attending orgies. He experiences, as Jack had, his own version of the sexual revolution. His sexual liberation begins to mirror the history of homosexual liberation, up to and including visits to a gay health clinic to be checked for sexually transmitted infections. And this — their shared libertinism — brings Jack and Will together like nothing else before has. Both free of the anxieties of expectation and identity, the two men begin to resemble something like a thesis statement half written: something about freedom, something about consequence.
Of course, libertinism is all a part of White’s celebratory attitude toward irresponsibility, which is as serious as it is given with a wink. In none of White’s post-AIDS novels, nor even in his most uncompromisingly gay fiction, does it entirely escape the author’s purview that libertinism, too, is not all that it seems and must inevitably crumble.
In Jack Holmes and His Friend, Edmund White attempts to move beyond the narrowness of his calcified historical interests by gifting the confessional first-person narrative to Will rather than Jack; and so Will Wright drifts, nearer and nearer, to Jack’s romantic model and away from the standard heterosexual structure, where people “play for keeps” and a relationship can be conducted in the light of day. None of this means anything, however, because White does not make the drifting complete or necessary. The novel strings together scenarios of no moral or intellectual consequence, and where the incomprehensibly swift transformations occur, the author justifies them by chalking them up to the irresistible tendency of human nature to someday resist the puritan impulse. All the gears and levers of Jack Holmes and His Friend are expertly polished, but this is in part because White leans heavily on the literary parallel: that the heroine of Will’s novel will becomes his wife, and like his “fey” novel will represent only failure; that Will’s youngest son must, because the novel wills it, turn out to be homosexual: the perfect apotheosis. And what becomes of Jack Holmes, conflicted lothario? Hold on to your seats. Though he has long tossed bodies around his bed like so many sacks of potatoes, he is really a romantic!
Least convincing of all is that which has organized the novel in the first place: the friendship between Jack and Will, and the fatuous conceit that they can really diagnose, as White indicates, “the difference between straight life and gay life.” No doubt the impulse itself stems from what White has taken as his writerly mission: to project the personal as the political and, in turn, as the artistic. The problem is that an individual’s sexual history is not, even if he is homosexual, entirely a political one. And not all of the oppressions of life, it might be fair to add, necessarily stem from the groin. There is, after all, a difference between the idea that one is repressed and a predilection to focus and act exclusively based on repression. Why don’t Jack or Will ever probe the exigencies that lead them to pursue libertinism? Or approach those exigencies with measured reactions? Must there always be such spectacular rebellion?
Why their golden era of sexual freedom is so remote, so unconvincing, so obviously an authorial pretense is that its surface is an attempt to universalize psychologies, precisely the way White’s venomously portrayed Freudians had done before him. The foundational repressions against which Jack and Will struggle are instrumental in understanding their motivations as characters, but White does not sufficiently reveal them; their identifying details are generalized and vague, afterthoughts to their primary function as cultural signifiers – and one suspects that Jack Holmes and Will Wright are themselves simply interchangeable signifiers, place holders that do not in the end hold much water.
“Perhaps the least obvious but most telling political decision was to address a sophisticated gay reader,” Edmund White wrote in his 1994 essay “The Personal Is Political: Queer Fiction and Criticism.” “If previously I’d written for an older European woman, an ideal reader who helped me screen out in-jokes and preaching to the converted, I now picture my reader as another gay man.” But who has not suspected as much? To whom was this not obvious? Compared with works of such high ambition as Forgetting Elena and A Boy’s Own Story, Jack Holmes and His Friend is a lesser addition to the White canon. One can read it with admiration for White’s undiminished sense of irony, his perfectly tuned ear for humor, his admirable attempts to project history as he has seen it; but nowhere does one feel the author struggling with his material, nor any incandescent passion in the prose. It is quite obviously meant for a readership dedicated to White’s vision of history, and White appears to be satisfied in his position as a sort of gay spokesperson in the world of letters.
Curious then to come across a passage such as this, from the aforementioned essay:
The notion of a canon implies that we belong to something called Western Civilization that is built on a small sacred library and that that library is eternal and universal and important in the way no individual reader can ever be. I would say that every part of such an assumption is misguided.
And this last statement includes, one presumes, the charge against communicating on a universal level, of being part of a universal history. White finds there to be something suspicious in even the presumption of doing so. (Among the menagerie of pleasures he provides is the flamboyance of a provocateur.) That White has thrown up his hands on the universal is perhaps what deflates the very promise of the novel.
One might be tempted to consider White alongside Philip Roth: both have explicitly blurred the line between author and narrator, both have been asked, at times, to speak for entire populations, and both have refused to concede to conventional squeamishness when it comes to plunging into the erotic; refused with the disarming conviction that sex, and the hunger for sex, and the willingness to sacrifice oneself and be marginalized for sex, is part and parcel with the human condition. In his exploration of sexual repression, Roth has not only aroused, but also jousted with, investigated, and pressed the erotic instinct for its broader significance, and it is this sense of urgency that is mostly lacking in Jack Holmes and His Friend. The mere fact of homosexual sex is no longer shocking or novel enough to suffice as intellectual reflection. Nor is marital infidelity. The operating notion behind Jack Holmes and His Friend is that the reader does not belong to “something called Western Civilization,” but is duly dedicated to something called Sexual Civilization, which is built on the singular goal of liberating the individual from his prudish society. Which may prompt one to ask in the twenty-first century: what prudish society?
Jack Holmes and His Friend ends in comic recurrence (literally, with a new generation of gay man to consider), accepting unselfconsciously the unlikely parallelisms that are only possible in fiction. And it’s precisely within Jack Holmes and His Friend‘s proclivity toward the easy explanation that the occasion for shouting “Phooey!” arrives: with character (Can they really be so thin?), with carnal desire (Is there nothing else significant in a person’s life?), and with friendship itself (Where is there any evidence, other than in the title, that these are genuine friends?). At face value alone, even, so narrow in its scope, so specific in its exploration of relationship, Jack Holmes and His Friend is pitched to the faithful. The unfaithful, however, may still ask: how long before a literary novel is written in which the homosexual protagonist is presented as a human being, and is not defined singularly by repression, or otherness, or sexual desire, or, worst of all, the history of a people?