This is Book #1 for our Green Carnation Prize reading project. For more information on the project and on the Green Carnation Prize itself, please visit This Post.
About the Book:
Published: January 1st, 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury UK
“Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in New York in the calm before the storm of the 1960s. Coworkers at a cultural journal, they soon become good friends. Jack even introduces Will to the woman he will marry. But their friendship is complicated: Jack is also in love with Will. Troubled by his subversive longings, Jack sees a psychiatrist and dates a few women, while also pursuing short-lived liaisons with other men. But in the two decades of their friendship, from the first stirrings of gay liberation through the catastrophe of AIDS, Jack remains devoted to Will. And as Will embraces his heterosexual sensuality, nearly destroying his marriage, the two men share a newfound libertinism in a city that is itself embracing its freedom.
Moving among beautifully delineated characters in a variety of social milieus, Edmund White brings narrative daring and an exquisite sense of life’s submerged drama to this masterful exploration of friendship, sexuality, and sensibility during a watershed moment in history.”
Reading Jack Holmes and His Friend is, for me, like visiting an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while. In years gone-by, I have read and enjoyed other White novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty. As with any reunion, though, one notices certain differences. For instance, the two books read previously are both semi-autobiographical (or, as I would prefer to call them, creative non-fiction). This one, though, is a bit more difficult to figure out. The primary character, Jack, is a gay man with aversions to homosexuality. I actually saw quite a bit of myself in him (at first – but only at first!), which was fun, as I usually do not identify at all with fictional gay characters.
Jack has a difficult time coming to terms with is sexuality, though he does eventually accept himself, after attempting, through physical action, therapy, and other methods to “fix” himself and become heterosexual. He also struggles his entire life with being in love with the man (Will) who becomes his best friend. Some readers have found this relationship cliché, but I would argue that 1) something is not cliché simply because it happens often in real life and 2) White handles this yearning, in Jack, with a sense of realism that is not often found in these types of situations—it does not feel like a “puppyish” type of unrequited love, as might be found in YA books.
Readers should also be prepared for quite a bit of masterfully crafted erotic segments, both heterosexual and homosexual. White has always portrayed sexuality and sexual situations in a naked (no pun intended) uninhibited way, and that certainly still holds true. Readers who are expecting a purely “gay” tale, though, will be in for a surprise, as the heterosexual escapades seem, to me, just as accurately and intimately detailed as the homosexual ones.
What I find most appealing about the story, though, is its temporal reach. The novel spans decades and it is fascinating to watch how the friendship between Jack & Will changes over time (as well as how they themselves change), but also to witness the important historical events and movements that take place, particularly the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted the gay community of New York. I did find Jack’s “growth” a bit contrived and forced – I will leave the impetus for that growth out of this review, so readers can discover and evaluate it for themselves; but, I for one would have liked to see that development come from a “purer” place (if that can be said to exist).
Some of the difficulty of this book is in its structure. While the prose is beautiful, the back-and-forth narration, from Jack’s perspective (but in third-person), to Will’s perspective, and then reversed again, is a bit odd and distracting. I understand that White wanted the reader to relate closely to both the gay and straight characters, to experience their world through the eyes of both friends, but I wonder if a simpler, consistent third-person narrator might have been more effective in serving this purpose.
Would I recommend this book? I would, indeed. Is it worthy of The Green Carnation Prize? Well, fortunately, that is not for me to decide! I do see how and why this book made its way onto the short list. White might be breaking-ground with his look at adult male relationships, here. Can a gay man and a straight man be best friends? Absolutely. But if that gay man happens to be in love (obsessed) with his friend? Complications! Those situations and complications do happen, though, and they have not yet been extensively explored in fiction. Although its structure and style might leave a bit to be desired, Jack Holmes and His Friend absolutely has a place on the shelf and adds a certain something to the canon of gay literature. It is also an interesting read for those interested in cultural studies (particularly 1960s/70s New York City), the nature of friendship, and sexuality.
Up Next in Our Series on the Green Carnation Prize Short-List:
December 4th: Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Ana of Things Mean A Lot)
December 5th: A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (Mat of MatLee Reviews)
December 6th: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Cass of Bonjour Cass!)
December 7th: Moffie by Andrew Carl Van Der Merwe (No review scheduled – please comment if you would like to read/review this book for our project!)
December 10th: Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Before he Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson (Jodie of Book Gazing)