Jack Holmes & His Friend (January 2012)
Jack Holmes is in love. Sadly for him, his feelings are not returned, at least not in the way he would like them to be. It doesn’t look as if there will ever be anyone else he falls for: the other men he takes to bed never last long.
Jack’s friend Will Wright comes from old stock, has aspirations to be a writer and, like Jack, works on the Northern Review. He is shy and lives alone, working on his novel. Jack will introduce Will to the beautiful, brittle young woman he will marry, but is discrete about his own adventures in love – for this is sixties New York, literary and intense, before gay liberation; a concoction of old society, bohemians rich and poor, sleek European immigrants and transplanted Midwesterners. Against this charged backdrop, the different lives of Jack and Will intertwine, and as their loves come and go, they will always be, at the very least, friends.
Edmund White’s startling perceptions of American society are here deployed to dazzling effect, as character after character is delicately and colorfully rendered and one social milieu after another brought vividly to life. White is a connoisseur of the nuances of personality and mood, and here unveils his very human cast in all their radical individuality. With fabulously on target insights, narrative daring and a gifted sense of the rueful rough-and-tumble of life, Jack Holmes and His Friend is a beautifully sculpted exploration of sexuality and sensibility.
Edmund White has three voices. First there is the storyteller, relaxed, conversational, an anecdotalist, an inspired flaneur. Then there is the poet: on every page there lies in wait a metaphor of startling precision, an image that holds and reattracts the eye. And then there is the laic philosopher, who observes human life from the highest altitudes, held aloft by vast infusions of erudition and experience. In Jack Holmes and His Friend, White's trio is in frictionless accord.
January 2, 2012
LONDON SUNDAY TIMES, Edmund Gordon
Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White
In a triumphant return to form, Edmund White’s latest novel, his best yet, is a moving love story and a comedy of sexual manners
The American author Edmund White was one of the pioneers of gay literature, one of the first novelists to find an audience by writing wholly and frankly about homosexual experience. His third novel, the strongly autobiographical A Boy’s Own Story (1982), which traces the coming-of-age of a sensitive gay teenager in 1950s New Jersey, was greeted on its publication as an instant classic; a few years later, he cemented his status as an icon in the gay community when he became one of the first public figures in America to admit to being HIV positive. But almost 30 years on, and despite the continued critical and commercial success of his books, White still tends to be thought of as a leading gay writer, rather than as a leading writer full stop.
To an extent, he has encouraged the ghettoisation of his own work in this respect. He has said that his “ideal reader” is “another gay man”, and has poured scorn on the idea that any work of fiction might achieve “universality”. He has become increasingly graphic and relentless in his depictions of sex, sometimes, as in his memoir My Lives (2005), apparently seeking to shock the heterosexual mainstream, or (to put it another way) to speak only to those who share his particular (sadomasochistic) drives. Yet in spite of his protestations and occasional provocations, the clarity and emotional purity of White’s writing, not to mention its idiosyncratic comedy, have earned him a readership that is by no means defined by its sexuality.
Whatever their orientation, though, most of White’s admirers must have felt disappointed by his most recent fictional outing — the novella and short stories collected as City Boy (2009). That book was so lacking in energy of any kind, so flatly pornographic in its attitude to sex, and so clumsily written, that it was easy to believe that White, like his protagonist in the clearly autobiographical title story, was all washed up.
The publication of White’s new novel is therefore a cause for great cheer; he has rallied, and in spectacular fashion. Jack Holmes and His Friend is an intimate and moving study of unrequited love, but also a comedy of sexual manners and a panoramic novel of society, all achieved in a rangy, full-throated prose. The novel traces the friendship of Jack Holmes and Will Wright over two decades, from the sexual revolution of the early 1960s to the Aids epidemic of the early 1980s, alternating between the two main characters’ perspectives, with Jack’s narrated in the third person, and Will’s in the first.
The two meet when they are in their twenties, and both employed by a New York arts magazine, The Northern Review. Jack is gay, promiscuous but self-hating, and thinks of the men he sleeps with as “fags” and of Will, who is straight, as a “real man”; he falls desperately in love, but Will, though flattered and amused by the attention, never considers it a threat to their friendship. Jack himself, in the years before gay liberation, attempts to sabotage his feelings, even introducing Will to the woman he ends up marrying. But over 20 years of social change, as both of them see lovers come and go, the men’s relationship remains intact.
Jack Holmes and His Friend shows White at his very best: funny but melancholic, sensitive but sharp. Perhaps the book’s success can be attributed, at least in small measure, to his decision to restrain the autobiographical impulse that has dominated his oeuvre for so long. Reading Chaos, it was hard not to feel that he was growing tired of telling his own story over and over again; here, by contrast, he focuses on two characters who have little in common with himself, and the result is the most gorgeously buoyant prose he has written in years. Every sentence has an undertow of brutal comedy, or an image to stun the mind’s eye: Will, picturing his wife’s naked body, thinks of “the three horizontal bones like a military decoration between her small breasts”; after smoking pot, Jack’s body “resonate[s] when touched like a skylight under a pelting rain”. Jack Holmes and His Friend isn’t just White’s best novel since A Boy’s Own Story; it has a strong claim to be regarded as his best novel yet.