APRIL 23, 2016
For more than 30 years, Edmund White has chronicled the agonies and ecstasies of gay American life. He was present throughout the heady days of Gay Liberation, the continuing terror of the AIDS crisis, and the movement of a maligned and marginalized sexuality into the mainstream of contemporary pop culture. The backward-looking tendency of his fiction has helped to make sense of the rapid changes of the past half-century. A Boy’s Own Story (1982) envisioned furtive frolics and the labyrinthine networks of pre-Stonewall closets from the vantage point of the 1970s’ sexual revolution. The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) waxed with nostalgia for that sexual revolution as the community that liberation built was decimated by disease. The Farewell Symphony (1997) confronted our community’s loss while demonstrating the incredible dedication with which gay lovers and friends cared for their own.
White’s latest novel, Our Young Man, sweeps back across those past four decades. The protagonist, Guy, makes his way from working-class French origins in Clermont-Ferrand to in-crowd fame as a model in the go-go Manhattan of the 1980s. Along the way, he becomes one of the more desirable bodies to dot the gay beaches of Fire Island and the streets of the city. He juggles three lovers: Fred, the blaxploitation film producer who bequeaths Guy estates in Fire Island and Manhattan’s West Village after he dies of AIDS; Andrés, a much fetishized Colombian art-history grad student who forges artwork to keep up with Guy’s high-fashion lifestyle; and Kevin, a young college-aged naïf who steps in while Andrés toughs it out in prison. Through the experiences of these characters, readers travel the familiar road of White’s concerns: his abiding interest in the themes of betrayal and abjection — the clearest marks of Jean Genet’s influence on his work — his Francophilic rejection of American culture as immature and provincial, and his celebration of gay sex. As usual, we’re also privy to White’s astute observations of the promises and pains of gay life as it is lived by the blessed, bleached denizens of New York.
Our Young Man treads new ground in witnessing the author’s confrontation with the ravages of aging. This in itself is a common theme in gay literature, but White explores it here with much more energy and poignancy than in prior works. Both the book and the theme are anchored by Guy, whose livelihood and relationships require him to lie about his age and fight constantly against the passage of time. Our Young Man seems especially interested in exploring romantic coupling as a figure for sex, love, and desperately sought security. And yet, the novel and the protagonist remain deeply suspicious about the couple as a retrograde (read: middle-class heterosexual) romantic fantasy. When Guy refers to Andrés as his “husband” before the latter is sent to jail for forgery, “something about the word […] roused him to new heights of ecstasy […] understanding the meaning of each kiss, each hug, each thrust.” Yet, after a long romance with Kevin, which Guy considers as his last chance for love and youthfulness, the protagonist can’t help but think that “it [was] awfully middle-class to be half of a couple.” This negative view is ultimately revealed to be little more than idealistic posturing, as Guy later admits: “[I]t made him uncomfortable to have someone so visibly stake a claim on him […] yet he found the idea reassuring, too.” More importantly, for someone always wondering “who will be with me at the hour of my death,” the romantic couple always offers the possibility of ultimate security, of “being held in someone’s arms, like being shielded from death.”
White’s characters should be distinguished from, say, Bret Easton Ellis’s portraits of members of the in-crowd. White is interested in the life caught between revolution and assimilation, while Bret Easton Ellis portrays a more self-evacuating ennui. At the end of the day, White’s characters do care about their world and the relationships that give it shape. And yet, he shares Ellis’s ability to show us an otherwise airbrushed life in all of its unvarnished dishabille. This is most especially noted in White’s representation of gay sex — the much romanticized experience that has long been at the heart of gay identity and culture. Take, for example, the following sex scene between Guy and his younger lover, Kevin:
[Guy] licked [Kevin’s] balls, raised high and taut in their hairless sac, and Kevin groaned a bit stagily. Then he shook all over, flinching like a splashed horse. […]
Kevin fucked him. Guy guided the little hard penis into his body; Guy was lying on his stomach in order to afford Kevin the full plush glamour of his muscular buttocks. The boy didn’t seem to know how to thrust. He just lay couched on Guy’s bigger sleek body, this million-dollar body soaked for decades in costly unguents, and more or less wobbled in there for a very short time until he exploded.
The movement of the scene renders the various stages of sexual enlightenment: from the “stagily” represented sex to the almost campy description of beefcake butt as “full plush glamour” to the couple’s wobbly finish. White moves methodically through sex as performance, sex as silly, sex stripped of its glamour and in full view of its meaningful awkwardness. This is, as Guy will later reflect, the representation of “pure sex, undramatized.”
White’s ability to peel away the idealized image exposes the labor involved in maintaining and manufacturing that image. In so doing, he asks serious questions about the kind of life created by and generative of post-Liberation gay identity. If sex, and lots of it, bonds Our Young Man’s world together under the promise of endless pleasure, Guy’s experience as an aging model illuminates the terrific labor underneath that perfect life:
[A]t thirty he’d blown a farewell kiss to his years as a desirable man — but still his extraordinary looks had lingered on.
Not that he’d done anything unusual or disciplined to stay young. Well, maybe a little, but no surgery. He’d cut out bread and desserts, though he couldn’t forgo a daily glass of fattening orange juice. He had a facial every weekday from a very unglamorous Korean woman who worked on Twenty-sixth and Broadway. He used Retin-A on the nights he was alone. […] He’d had electrolysis on his torso. He did facial isometrics after he shaved. He didn’t tan and he applied sunscreen every morning. His hair was expensively styled and feathered and lightened and he held it in place with Tenax. He thinned his eyebrows. If he watched TV alone he made himself do fifty sit-ups every half hour.
It never plays well to describe privileged people like Guy as trapped or oppressed by the conditions of their lives. He makes $175 an hour modeling and inherits property and other such things from even wealthier lovers as the plot moves forward. Yet, the book is full of exhaustive descriptions of the efforts Guy must perform on a daily basis to maintain his youthfulness for the sake of fashion clients and patrons alike. Even this brief excerpt makes one sigh or, perhaps, reach for the dumbbells out of mutual shame. Though never quite explicitly expressed, it seems as if Guy’s fight against age is also a fight against cultural irrelevancy. White’s novel is partly about the struggle between the self, the zeitgeist, and worst of all: being démodé. If the dream of gay life is eternal youth and thus eternal sex appeal, aging threatens you with a new world outside the well-lit paths, where loneliness and sadness lurk in dark corners. Guy’s response is to “train himself not to be nostalgic,” and to hate the past.
On the other hand, the novel itself seems to revel in the past. Reading this latest book feels in so many ways like reading many of White’s prior novels. Set largely in the 1980s and 1990s, the lifeworld of the novel feels starkly different from that of our contemporary reality. It’s almost as if one of our most iconic gay American writers might be folding back in on himself; he seems out of step with a queer present that seems so much more expansive than the taut life of a runway model from a bygone era. The novel makes winking reference to the contemporary marriage movement, but in a way that reveals the limitations of that movement, namely that it tends to serve a narrow band of privileged white gay men. Fred’s death from AIDS offers an occasion for Guy to explain to Kevin that “we don’t have any rights.” And yet the “rights” in question aren’t a question of visitation and companionship, but rather Guy’s pending inheritance of a “palatial” estate on Fire Island. These are the politics of the homosexual one percent, uninflected by any awareness of the ways in which the voices of queer people of color have challenged the blindness that adheres to privileged white gay experience.
Likewise, the representation of nonwhite characters often seems to blur the line between interracial desire and racist fetishization. The most pointed case is the representation of Andrés, whose Colombian heritage renders him little more than a walking penis that inspires Guy “with all his barbaric beauty and gypsy passion.” When Andrés returns from prison, he does so only to perform as the jealous Latin lover. Andrés, Guy reports, had “learned English in prison but the worst kind” and had “sunk a dozen social classes” from a “gentleman scholar” to a “gangster brute.” Horrified yet turned on by the transformation, Guy can’t help but think, “Sexy, though […] Very sexy.” Such soft racism was a familiar feature of the era in which White and his fellow Violet Quill writers — the term refers to a short-lived working group of highly influential gay writers — set out to found a new gay literature in the early 1980s. It’s difficult to read Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978) without wincing at its longing descriptions of Puerto Rican, Italian, and Venezuelan men as “dark-eyed, dark-haired beauties in whom you wish to extinguish yourself.” Today’s gay world is much bigger and much more aware than that, expanded in important ways by both a more public and diverse queer culture as well as the urgent and continuing interventions of queer of color critique. The fault lines of white interracial desire in White’s novel, however, are treated as uncritically as the casual misogyny that creeps into the characters’ self-reflections. The feeling of being desired, Guy reasons, is a “womanly feeling,” while Kevin considers that “jealousy wasn’t a manly feeling” — men are supposed to be “better than that,” thinking only of “their lovers as […] best friends” who they want to be happy. A noble sentiment, sure, but one couched in a sort of “masc4masc” worldview that seems more the domain of less-than-enlightened Grindr profiles than a contemporary queer (and straight) world that is less hamstrung by fixed ideas about gender identity.
In these ways, Our Young Man can read like a novel from yesteryear — a kind of period piece that marks the distance between then and now. Even the novel’s Francophilia — a personal hallmark of White’s, who is a member of the distinguished L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres — feels like a nod to a bygone gay imaginary. It harkens back to an era in which Europe, and France in particular, represented the apotheosis of an intelligent, egalitarian, and sexually accepting culture. In the end, these quibbles mark the kind of friction that must arise in discussions about the representation of a gay life that has changed dramatically over the past decades (to say nothing of the past century). They may also, of course, indicate White’s faithful reproduction of historical attitudes from the limited vantage point of a runway model. After all, Guy is both a consumable image and an image of consumption, and he reflects the rigid fantasies of mass culture. In either case, what White’s prolific oeuvre has always brought us is his own naked truth, and on this measure, Our Young Man does not disappoint. The contemporary gay world is much more expansive than this novel can offer, but it’s still fun to return to the intimate world of Edmund White.