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Christopher Glazek

Jack Holmes and His Friend


by Edmund White.
Bloomsbury, 390 pp., 18.99, January, 978 1 4088 0579 4

he friend in the title of Edmund


Whites new novel is a writer called
Will Wright, a straight man with bad
skin but a sterling pedigree. What little
we learn about Wills 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 Wills heterosexuality. Jack holds out hope that Wills
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
Wills novel turns out to be a hit and makes
him a celebrity, hell need someone around
to give him unconditional support. Who
better than Jack? But then he reads a
galley of Wills book and his hopes are
dashed. The novel is sentimental horseshit,
tepid and gooey-sweet, and hes 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 star-

red 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 Wills
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.
Wills next book never arrives. He marries the 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 Wills 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-

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generational living falters, however, when


the Aids epidemic sweeps them both back
into stable monogamy.
Whites 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
Whites 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: Youre
the universal ball, Jack Holmes. Everyone
at that party wanted you. And the memoir:
Ed White, everyone wants you, youre the
universal ball.
Some less happy aspects of Whites 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 didnt 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 Whites manuscript, sug-

gested 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 books 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 Whites 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

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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 avantgarde tricksters, leaving behind Mallarms
obfuscations and Prousts 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. Its 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 Boys
Own Story, the straightforwardly autobiographical novel that marked the turning
point of Whites 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 Boys
Own Story Id 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, Whites 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, hes rarely what you
might call erotic. The novel is propelled
by nostalgia. Theres 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

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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 Jacks, 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. Youll
see. Gephardt will write Huh? in the margin
if he doesnt get your point, or Make it track.
Or hell think you need more facts or more
colour; thats the lush descriptive prose
youre so good at, but these old macho journalists like what they call nuts and bolts.
Sometimes theyll think youre long-winded
and theyll say, Green 20 characters. Greening is cutting. Oh, and by the way, dont 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 dont 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 Jacks writing could


substitute for our assessment of Whites:
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 Whites 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 isnt 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. Whites search for
an American aristocracy is unceasing, but
his literary embellishments dont 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. Whites 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 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. Its not enough to
say that the modernist canon is well stocked
with homosexuals; between Proust, Mann,
Gide, Genet, Forster, Woolf, Stein, Hughes,

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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 Tibn. One is hardpressed 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, werent 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 Im 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 Whites 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 Whites gayness,
and his sceptical indifference to modern-

isms universalist claims, he has spent the


better part of his professional life suppressing his weirdness. In City Boy, he writes
with incomprehension about Howards
penchant for wearing red capes, for glorying in the strange, both in himself and
others. Ashbery too is called out for his
esoteric tastes and his interest in obscure
serious music. 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 its 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 thats of interest to a general
audience is the marginal, queer experience.
Whites masculine turn after he broke from
the avant-garde, ironically, is what marks his
prose as fey and brittle.
Its 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 novels 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. Somec
how the novel got left out.

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