AIDS, Edmund White, Friendship, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, New York, Sexuality

Review: Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White (The Green Carnation Prize)

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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:

Format: Hardcover

Published: January 1st, 2012

Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

Description:

“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.”

-From Goodreads.com.

My Thoughts:

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.

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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 7thMoffie 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)

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2010 TBR, Book Review, Edmund White, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge

Review: Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White

Summary:
The Beautiful Room is Empty picks up shortly after where White’s earlier memoir, A Boy’s Own Story, leaves off.  This work discusses not just the growth of boy-into-man, but also gives a historical account of the period. The 1950s and 1960s – the rise and fall of the Beatniks.  The advent of hipsters.  The strain for one man to understand what being homosexual means, and for one nation – one culture – to begin approaching a similar question.  What is “gay?”  A disease?  A malady? A psychological disturbance or a physical perversity?  White seamlessly weaves the individual and the populous struggle and turmoil.  There is the question in general, and the answers as approached through different lenses: class, education, region.  How do the Midwestern intellectuals, mundane and suburban, treat homosexual?  What about the artsy, edgy New York City high-rollers?  The rich? The destitute?  What’s the difference between a “trick,” his “john,” and day-life versus night-life?  This novel attempts to answer these questions, and more.  Really, though, it’s a novel of questions.  It’s a memoir of life, as lead by the author – someone still obviously affected by the pain, the struggles, the joys, and the many, many questions of his youth.
The Good:
White’s prose is beautiful, almost musical.  The pages turn rapidly because sentences and paragraphs flow richly and uninterrupted.  Ideas, encounters, and the (many) literary references are approached with caution, but also with a shy confidence.  Personal experiences, like the narrator’s experiences in a prep school – guarded from the subversive Art College just across the way- conveniently and realistically mime moments in time, the greater American sentiment.  The psychological fascination with homosexuality as something to be cured, the insecurity of the gay men and lesbian women, so totally aware of who they are, yet still trying to cope with the realization that society around them will not accept their own reality, all wrapped in the narrator’s concession that what he does he knows to be wrong (the consumption of anonymous, meaningless sex, night after night – not being gay in general) and that, though he comes from a dysfunctional family, it is not the family that makes the man.  It is both the personal touches, the narrator’s struggle to find meaningful love – and to lose it – friendships, loss, embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness and body image, coupled with the bigger ideas of society, religion, and law (the many references to gender laws, some of which included laws that banned women from wearing more than three articles of “manly” clothing, and a law which required that in each group of men at a night-club, at least one female must be present) which makes this story so impactful, so believable and so important.  The personal struggle is terribly hard, but White also wants us to remember that, there was a bigger struggle.  Yes, the “Pink Panthers” at the Stonewall Riots found themselves to be a bit ridiculous, yet they were, for the first time, standing up for a certain right being denied them, singing “We Shall Overcome” and, upon waking up the next morning, are crushed in spirit when they find that no mention of the riot, the movement, the importance of their presence can be found in any newspaper.  It was a painful time in America, and that strife and clawing-struggle is purposefully and powerfully represented by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty. 
The Bad:
There is an uncomfortable amount of time and attention paid to the many sexual exploits of the narrator.  Certainly, I understand the inclusion and, admittedly, believe it to be entirely necessary if the novel is to be truly honest.  Still, I did oftentimes find it distracting.  How could White have remained honest without the repeated, saturated references to prostitution, glory-holes, bathroom orgies?  I can’t say – and for this reason, I understand the necessity.  Still, I find myself wishing a bit more attention had been paid to the personal relationships, the professional growth, the assimilation of the narrator into “normal” culture, and his feelings in these situations.  This is my only gripe, and it is a minor one, because despite my need to find fault with any novel, there’s little to find here.  I believe the work could have been strengthened, certainly, by more attention to the late-blooming, loving relationship between the narrator and Sean, which is quickly ended but obviously important to the narrator and his personal growth.  The novel also might be more enjoyable if a closer connection could have been made between reader and the narrator.   Though White makes an effort to open up the narrator to observation and examination by exposing inner thoughts & feelings, by placing his narrator in the darkest depths of his own embarrassment and making the reader bear witness, yet we don’t ever really get to know the narrator. Not even his name.  We know that writing and artistic appreciation drive him, but we don’t ever see any prowess or success in this – in fact, very little time or attention is even paid to the task of writing.  Perhaps the novel itself is the writing, the final outcome, the “what” that had been developing from all of these experiences.  If that’s the case – I missed the hint.
The Final Verdict: 4.5 Out of 5.0

The Beautiful Room is Empty is quite an accomplishment, despite White’s guardedness over his narrator.  I can understand if the story was too personal to disclose anything more than what was disclosed and perhaps, to White, the most sensitive nerves truly were exposed.  Ultimately, the development in plot and in prose & style from A Boy’s Own Story to The Beautiful Room is Empty makes me believe, as I seldom do, that the author’s every concealment and revelation was intentional.  There are later works in this “series” and I can only imagine that the work continues to grow and improve.  That the honesty will continue to be more honest, the writing will continue to run fluid and the self-realization will continue to occur in tandem with the greater growth and understanding of a people.  Truly enjoyable, if at times uncomfortable.

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Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Edmund White, Fictional Memoir, Gay Lit

Review: A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

A refreshingly realistic tale of a gay boy’s “coming of age.” White makes a point of expressing his distaste for fanciful boy’s tales in which all boarding schools are brothels of young sex and violence, then proceeds to tell a painfully true story (autobiographic) about a youth growing up confused – his mother’s companion, his father’s shame, his sister’s punching bag, physically and emotionally. The boy struggles with self-image, with friendships and sexual experiences, with religion and philosophy, with truth and farce. While the story itself did sometimes get dwarfed by the over-arching themes which it meant to present, the novel still ends powerfully in that its stays true to its purpose. The narrator accomplishes what he meant to, but is left without any deus-ex-machina type epiphany. While I find the comparisons to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye a bit stretched, I can see a mixture of Knowles’s A Separate Peace (A Boy’s Own Story being more explicit of events, whereas Knowles left much to implication) and Forster’s Maurice. Interestingly enough, early American gay literature tended to be more subdued than its British counterparts; however, white seems to invoke a bit of the beat generation’s bravado in A Boy’s Own Story. Still, the language is often loftier than story would seem to necessitate and the narrator’s pretense of genius (the narrator himself and all characters around him, including his mother, seemed to consider him something extraordinary, though no characteristics were developed to explain this) gets a bit nauseating. All in all, I quite liked the blunt realism, in spite of many instances of pretentious prose.

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