Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ed White writes a novel about male friendship.

I run hot and cold about Ed White’s novels. I like several of them, but others leave me cold. I picked up this novel with some trepidation, but in the end I am glad that I did.

Jack Holmes & His Friend

Jack Holmes & His Friend (392 pages, Bloomsbury, $26) is a different kind of novel for Ed White. Long known as the premier gay novelist, something of a spokesman for the AIDS generation, White has this time written a powerful novel that is as much about the straight character as it is about the gay one.

Jack Holmes is a handsome and prodigiously endowed gay man who reluctantly came out in his early twenties and tried to come to terms with being a gay man before Stonewall and gay liberation made coming out almost mandatory. More comfortable being closeted at work, while pursuing a gay life in the bars of Greenwich village, he surprises himself by falling in love with the straight friend of a friend who comes to work with him in the editorial offices where he is employed.

Will is handsome, but vague. And he is about as straight as a man could be. He is embarrassed by Jack’s love, which a mutual friend had to explain to him, and he found that their friendship was making him nervous. Then he married a dear friend of Jack’s, and he and his wife moved into the suburbs, and Jack is left to nurse his crush in his lonely Manhattan apartment.

The second part of the novel shifts from Jack’s point of view to Will’s, and we start to see all these experiences from the perspective of the straight man. There is nothing wrong in this, of course. Indeed, most fiction is written from this perspective. But not most of White’s fiction, and I have to say I think this part of the novel was impressive. Just as Will is getting bored in his marriage and cheating on his “perfect” wife, with a female friend of Jack’s, as it happens, White narrates his anxieties and his desires vividly and with conviction.

Throughout the novel White narrates sex and bodily responses, and he does, or tires to do, everything for straight sex that he did for gay sex in the first part. The characters are always telling sexual secrets on each other, and this makes good fun, especially when Will feels his life is closing in on him.

The third part of the novel goes back to Jack’s perspective, and as he takes up with one boy after another, and even allows one to move in with him, he still finds he is carrying a torch for his hopelessly straight friend Will. This is probably the most touching section of the novel because we see Jack confronting the reality of their different lives. As this section ends, Will has contracted venereal disease, at an orgy as it turns out; but while at the doctor he hears about a new gay disease called GRID, and that frightens Will and Jack both.

The last, short section, is told from Will’s perspective many years later. The two men meet again, Jack with an older partner and Will with his handsome teenage son. This final scene is very moving, and the account of this friendship starts to feel very important.

I think White has written a really wonderful novel. I can only say how good that makes me feel and how much I hope that it will be followed by more and equally powerful novels. He really is the premier gay novelist of his generation.

Edmund White

Jack Holmes & His Friend
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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