by Gary M. Kramer -
SGN Contributing Writer
Gay man of letters Edmund White's irresistible new novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend, chronicles the title character moving from the Midwest to New York in the 1960s and getting a job working for a magazine called The Northern Review. He soon meets and helps Will Wright get a job at the magazine. The men become fast friends, and Jack, who is Gay, falls in love with Will. And Will, who is straight, falls in love with Jack's female friend Alex, eventually marrying her.
Over the course of the novel, which unfolds over three decades, White alternates telling the story from the perspectives of each man. On the phone from Key West, the author explained how he came up with his characters and their trajectories.
'I started with the idea of a straight man and Gay man who are best friends and one is in love with the other. I didn't know how it would go, so I invented episodes. Once I got Pia [a woman Will has an affair with] - who isn't based on anyone, but an amalgam of many Eurotrash women I know - she took over, so I had to reign her in. Straight men who have read the book are all enamored of her, and want to have sex with her. It's funny how people think Jack is sexy and sympathetic, but no one is fascinated by Will.'
White is candid about his inclusion of elements of his life - studying Chinese in collage, working for magazines and going for psychoanalysis - all thinly veiled. The opportunity to re-imagine his past appealed to him he disclosed.
'I remember Nabokov, in his book Look at the Harlequins!, took a version of himself - a vulgarization of himself - and made a story. So I thought it would be interesting to invent a character to lead my life. I went to University of Michigan and then went to New York City [as Jack does]. I worked for Time/Life Books from 1962-1970, and Horizons, a hardcover magazine. That's what I based The Northern Review on.'
He continues, 'I wanted to take someone who wasn't ambitious, wasn't a writer, who was better looking, had a bigger endowment and see what he would do in my place. The other character [Will] was pretty much invented.'
White not only alternates between the characters, but he changes from third-person narration for Jack to first-person for Will.
'I wanted Jack to be mysterious,' White admits. 'There was some distance for the reader in the third person.' Still, he acknowledges, that writing the straight character in first person, particularly Will's sex scenes, were a challenge.
The conversation shifts to explore White's own sexual history with women. He explains that he did have sex with women years ago, as Jack does. Then he reveals, 'I was engaged twice,' and elaborates, 'That was characteristic of the '60s - Gay guys trying to go straight.'
White then introduces the element of psychology, which featured periodically in Jack Holmes & His Friend, stating that 'People all tried going to shrinks to get straight. I was one.' White wrote a chapter called 'My Shrinks' in his book My Lives, and confesses to having spent '20 years on couches.'
'The only good one was Charles Silverstein, a Gestalt psychologist, and with whom I wrote The Joy of Gay Sex. He was Gay, so he was not trying to turn me straight, but help me adjust to my Gay life and find happiness.'
Jack's dabbling in psychology is used in the novel to get him to understand, and accept, his homosexuality. White observes that in the 1960s, coming out as Gay required three 'necessary conditions,' which he enumerates:
'Living far from your family, having an (independent) income and anonymity. New York City met them all, especially if you were from the Midwest. Women did not come out until the beginning of the 20th century, because they didn't have an income of their own. They had to be married, or become actresses.'
White uses the 1960s and its social codes as a way of talking about Gay liberation, which is one of the novel's arcs. 'Jack feels Will is incredibly tolerant to put up with a Gay friend,' the author insists. 'By the end of the 1970s, Will realizes it's trendy to be Gay, and people envy [Gay men] - there is a change of attitude going from pariah to icon.'
Jack Holmes & His Friend ends in the early 1980s, with the onset of AIDS. The disease has important ramifications for both main characters and their sexual behavior and relationships. When asked if he felt is his own HIV-positive status prompted him to write about promiscuity and AIDS, White answered, 'Maybe I'm sensitive to the issue because I am positive, but it's realism. Everybody discussed AIDS then. It was a fact of life. The sexual behavior of many straight people who were swingers, and wife-swappers, and orgy-goers came to a screeching halt because of AIDS.'
White takes a moment - and just pride - to mention his work founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis in America, and being the first president of the oldest and biggest Gay organization in America. He also helped Foucault's lover establish AIDES in France when White lived in Paris in the mid-1980s.
While AIDS puts a damper on the characters' promiscuity in the novel - Jack sleeps with countless men, and Will participates in orgies - White includes several purple passages in his book. And as the co-author of the aforementioned The Joy of Gay Sex, White certainly enjoys writing sex scenes.
He declares, 'My theory is that it's fun to write about sex, because we all think about it all the time. It's a major activity, like eating. I think books should try to reflect proportionally human experience as it occurs.'
'My thinking is the opposite of pornography, which is one-handed reading, designed in rhythm and word choice to get you off. You should try to describe what actually happens, which is often comic - the body resisting or failing the spirit. You have romantic, erotic thoughts, but your body can't deliver. You have premature ejaculation, or can't get it up, or your body can't move in that position. I like to write about sex a lot because you are alone when you write, and you think about sex.'
Given that the author has published many acclaimed memoirs and biographies of Gay writers including Proust, Genet, and Rimbaud, does White prefer writing fiction over non-fiction?
'I guess I feel that fiction is the higher art, in that even if your novels aren't any good, only you could have written them.'
This comment serves to explain why White made Will a writer of failed novels. 'I think writers are more forthcoming, he suggests about the character. 'When I've written biographies, like Genet, the best interviews were by writers, who are honest and remember details. They are interested in testifying to the truth and not parroting conventional wisdom. Even if Will is a failed writer, he's sharp in the ways I've mentioned.'
As for being a Gay writer - especially one included in Eminent Outlaws, Christopher Bram's new book subtitled, 'Gay Writers Who Changed America' - White demurs, 'It's an accident of history that you are. I was always quite out and eager to be identified as a Gay writer, where other writers are afraid of losing a larger audience, or being 'just a Gay writer.' If we Gays had the same amount of pride and self-acceptance as [other minorities] we'd see that 'Gay writer' is an honorable title.'
Yet White draws a distinction that is also a parallel between straight and Gay. He states, 'If you're not straight, then you're Gay. Gay reveals the reverse side of the tapestry and shows how the threads come out on the other side.'
Curiously, one of the best passages in Jack Holmes & His Friend appears late in the novel, when Jack and Will discuss their sexuality honestly and openly. White practically balks at the mention of this candid exchange. 'I hesitated to write that passage! It was too explicit, very 'on the money' dialogue as they say in Hollywood. The characters say what they think, which is successful only if you get all the juice out of the fruit. I felt I needed to say things about straight vs. Gay life.'
White was also prompted by his lover, writer Michael Carroll, to include more action and dialogue in his novel, and less meditation and introspection.
He recalls, 'Michael gave me a lot of Richard Yates to read, and that encouraged me. I used this Yates method of scene, scene, scene, and action, action, action, which may be why it's such a page-turner.'
And readers - whether they are longtime admirers of White's writing, or those discovering the author for the first time - will find much to enjoy in meeting Jack Holmes & His Friend.
© 2012 Gary M. Kramer
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