Hotel de Dream (2007)
In a short note tucked away at the back of the book, White modestly categorises this marvellously compelling and moving story as "a fantasia on real themes provided by history". The idea of White as a fantasist may come as a surprise to readers who have previously encountered him only in the autobiographical pages of The Farewell Symphony or the recent My Lives, where he has seemed determined to push first-person bluntness in matters of sex and death almost to breaking point - but to those who cherish memories of the delirious otherness of Forgetting Elena or Nocturnes for the King of Naples it will come as no surprise to find that this most (infuriatingly or liberatingly) personal of writers has now decided to explore his favourite theme - impossible love - by slipping into another man's shoes.
The man in question is Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage and perhaps the most mysterious and least known of the great American voices of the 19th century. One of the most tantalising (but almost certainly apocryphal) stories about the resolutely heterosexual Crane is that shortly before his death he started - but then abandoned and destroyed, on the advice of a puritanical friend - a novel inspired by a chance encounter with a teenage New York male prostitute. In Hotel de Dream White has set himself the task of recreating not only this semi-legendary lost novella, but also the circumstances of its writing. In short, pungent chapters - as intimate as pages torn from a diary, as bluntly cropped as photographs - the novel shuttles the reader between three cunningly interwoven stories: that of Crane's agonised final journey from Sussex to Bavaria, seeking a cure for his terminal tuberculosis; his memories of meeting the real model for his fictional whore in the dazzling queer underworld of 1890s New York; and the fragmentary lost manuscript itself, for which White invents the haunting title "The Painted Boy".
White's Crane writes his story under two very particular circumstances. Knowing that he is dying, he feels both able and obliged to tell the sexually explicit truth but, as the tuberculosis invades his body, the story has to be dictated. Fortunately his amanuensis, Cora, having had a previous career as the madam of a Florida brothel, is unshockable, and Crane needs to censor neither his language nor his tale's heroic, unsettling tenderness. In "The Painted Boy" Theodore Koch, a respectably married New York banker, finds himself inexplicably smitten with Elliott, a 16-year-old Manhattan "flame fairy". Syphilitic, kohl-eyed and marble-skinned, at once utterly available and utterly unknowable, this curiously childlike debauchee leads Theodore into a bewilderingly new world, one in which the older man's infatuation must be played out amid the lurid, slang-festooned fairy saloons of the Bowery. As their story progresses, Theodore finds himself drawn ever more closely both to the boy and to the inevitable destruction of his own previously secure life; as Crane races to complete it before he succumbs, three very different kinds of devotion reflect each other as if in a densely imagined hall of narrative mirrors. Theodore's obsession with Elliott is the inverse of Cora's fiercely pragmatic love for the dying Crane; Crane's devotion to his own art even in the face of physical dissolution seems somehow to find expression in Theodore's insistence on finding beauty even in the lower depths.
In synopsis, this tale sounds outlandish, a self-conscious literary conceit; a 21st-century gay man writing about a 19th-century straight man with a terminal disease writing about a straight man falling in love with a queer teenager with a terminal disease. In the flesh - and it is flesh, as ever, that is at the centre of White's fiction - the story is as moving as it is unlikely. Just as the hitherto heterosexual Theodore's passion is a singular one ("I don't like boys", he tells Elliott, "I love you"), so the alibi of recreating Crane seems to give White permission to write passion in an utterly idiosyncratic voice. It's almost as if the radical effeminacy of his own early prose has interbred with Crane's own high-toned virility, producing something marvellously (in Crane's own words) "fresh and queer". Like the loves they describe, the sentences of the book are eccentric, disgracefully funny and shockingly beautiful by turns; determined both to describe the world as it really is and to invent it anew. Crane's death, in particular, is one of the finest things White has yet written.
Chief among the book's pleasures is its impressionistic recreation of the miseries and splendours of fin-de-siècle Manhattan - swarming, noisy, riddled with both luxury and poverty - and its deft setting of the elusive Crane among his better-known peers. There are neat asides on Bennett and Wharton, and vivid portraits of Conrad and James - the last, refreshingly, portrayed as an evasive, poisonous queen. But it is as a love story, not as historical fiction, that the book matters. It reminds us that when it comes to love - or writing - the only struggle that counts is the struggle to imagine other lives. When, as here, he is at the top of his form, White simply does it better than most.