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 d...read more