IN A FAMOUS POEM 50 years ago Kay Boyle summed up homosexuality: "As engrossing as gee-raising, and as monotonous to the outsider." Well, monotony is perhaps not quite the reacton today of, say, Anita Bryant, whose belligerence reflects the old tack of the ignorant. More disturbing is to find that tack still taken by cultured "outsiders." Male homosexuality is currently treated by Mary McCarthy as silly, by Hilton Kramer as corrupting, by Norman Podhoretz as dangerous and by William Styron as makeshift (although to his credit, the sole character in Sophie's Choice with a touch of grandeur turns out to be lesbian). Indeed, no first-rate heterosexual thinker has ever delt at length intelligently with this increasingly visible matter.
If outsiders are those shunning the tenets of a prevailing group, the term would seem more apt for homosexuals themselves were they not continually functioning within a straight millieu. As to how monotonous they might find the upcoming Talese report on straight sex will depend on how restrictive the survey and how skillful the prose. The prose of Edmund White, meanwhile, as he recounts his travels in gay America, glimmers and surges into channels far wider than his stated theme, and in a mode that could make even bee-raising a hit course at West Point.
"I looked everywhere for the tinted windowpanes I remembered from a childhood visit," notes the author toward the close of his book, during an excursion in the line of duty to Boston's Louisburg Square. "At last I discovered two panes, one pale amethyst, the other purple; I was reminded that glass is a liquid that continues to flow (that's why it warps with age). Perhaps if I return after another hundred years those panes will be violet puddles on the cobblestone." Boston was on the last lap of a 20-city investigation pursued by White, age 40, with an adolescent's horny zeal. The investigation is no more a queer tour of the U.S. than Gide's journal is a gay guide to France (oh, just a bit more), although it poses as a documentary -- narrated from a thoroughbred horse's mouth -- on our national gay bourgeoisie. Actually it's an artist's selective vision (through purple panes, if you will) of human comportment which is and is not his own, mulled over, distilled, then spilled onto the page with a melancholy joy like "violet puddles on the cobblestones."
First stop, Los Angeles, which like every city boasts its "body type", the Platonic form for that locality." Since "most people's parents are heterosexual (so much for the role-model theory of sexual orientation), and everyone is raised to be straight," gays, once they discover their nature, must invent themselves. Here the self is "silken, tan, hairless . . . a trail of golden dust shading the hollow just about the coccyx." In San Francisco, where at least 20 percent of registered voters are gay, the body is "trim, five-foot-ten, and the face wears a dark beard and mustache below warm brown eyes radiating good will." SF minds shift from EST to S&M, such a contradiction, where "the society against which [a young homosexual] might rebel is itself largely homosexual," endorsing gay unanimity as the only strong policy. "The progressives of Seattle keep looking back over a shoulder . . . convinced they are more elegant than their Portland neighbors to the south," a perception corroborated by one case history here, another there, both with "very handsome" men (few of White's interviewees are physically plain). In Santa Fe "chastity is now suspect, and bisexuality has been declared a form of rank hypocrisy," because the Liberation Movement, otherwise noble, does discourage the rugged individualism of yore.
So flows contrast across the land. If sodomy to Salt Lake City is a witchery to Salem, Denver seems as easy-going as Athens. If Houston is the friendly town where "machismo still stands as much for honor as for violence," Dallas is "snobby, pissy, phony elegant, up-tight." If Kansas City is "the Fifties in deep freeze" where "marriages" betwixt Older Man and Beautiful Boy still prove the norm, Cincinnati is no far ahead when "no one has stopped to ask if respectability is a valid standard." If gay liberation is a feeble affair in Chicago, which is nonetheless "the chief oasis between the coasts," blame it on Mayor Daley's Machine ploughing up the city too deeply for grass-roots activity to sprout.
Florida, meanwhile, like all the South where Gay Lib has made few inroads, adores drag and "nelly behavior . . . as the only available means of expressing distinct identity . . . Gay anger is not directed against Anita Bryant but against the radical gay leader, Bob Kunst." Key West ("the rate of violence is lower than in any major city"), Memphis ("all the men here are femme," claims a denizen); Atlanta ("no one ever wants to leave," although the black and white gay worlds are utterly separate): each center is classified, replete with interviews (occasionally with intellectuals, mainly with white-collar fauna), and with no sexual holds barred. Yet always rising above the opinionated babble or murmuring through the moans of an "orgy room," transliterating the lingo of bigoted queens or miming the wisdom of Castro Street theologians, we hear the private voice of Edmund White, humanist yet unsentimental, tough but never cynical, luscious though not campy.
However, we also hear the risky whisper of generality, the undifferentiation common to documentaries where there is no "building toward," no climax, only comparisons, and where 10 examples seem better than one. The constant slant provokes indigestion: surely there's more to homosexuality than being homosexual! "I am trying," claims White early on "to describe the styles of life that are unique to a city, not those that could be lived in any city." Still, by the time we reach Manhattan, after 200 pages wherein White has played scribe to endless middlebrow bull sessions, we are told that the cliche gay West Sider is in his late twenties, works as an architectural assistant, gets stoned with friends on Friday while watching old movies on television, wants a new apartment, a new job, a new lover, works out at the Y, digs ballet and brass bedsteads, is in group therapy and convinced he's "making progress." Is the gay East Sider so far away? Or even the straight Washingtonian?
What we learn about life-style is finally less singular than the terse interpolated essays -- some a mere two sentences -- on politics ("Unlike other minority groups, homosexuals through liberation . . . are becoming more idiosyncratic and less assimilated to the general population"), on pedophilia ("A great deal has been written about the havoc pederasty may or may not wreak on the young, but little has been said about the disorder it introduces into the life of the lover of boys"), on sexual violence (which has "broken the tyranny beauty used to hold over us," but which seems to be mainly symbolic, not harmful, like ritual fights between male wolves), on the dissolution of the Protestant family, or on the Proustian yearnings within White's own case history, much of it having nothing to do with sex, still less with homosex; for his treatise is more a diary than a Baedeker, being at once too special and too general for reliability.
I once argued that Edmund White's chief theme in literature, like Antonioni's in movies, was responsibility -- or rather, the lack of it. Was not the hero of Forgetting Elena (the first of White's three previous books) exempted, by his amnesia, from the chores of his mannered entourage? Did not the narrator of Nocturnes for the King of Naples kill off his lover before the curtain rose, thus eluding the question of fidelity while affording himself the leisure to intone an elaborate elegy? Was not The Joy of Gay Sex by definition an advocacy of promiscuity -- an evasion of the "serios" menage?
I posed these questions not to judge but to locate the tonality over which the author piped his friendly tunes. (Though surely the question comouflaged a suspicion that something was not quite right: If even a sinful Frenceh Catholic like Huysmans punished his protagonists for their carnal doings, how could Edmund White -- like me, an American WASP -- let his characters off scot-free?) "Perhaps sex and sentiment should be separated," suggests White, "Isn't sex, shadowed as it always is by jealousy and ruled by caprice a rather risky basis for a sustained, important relationship?" Maybe too White's friendly tunes were precisely that -- tunes -- not dutiful discourse. In only one brief paragraph of the present book, when a young host dies in Georgia shortly after White leaves that state of desire, is there a hint of more than fleeting fondness for any of the myriad contacts formed during business hours. But after all, to discuss with strangers what used to be called the "intimate moments" (and this, while enjoying, unlike the clinical Kinsery, their hospitality and sometimes their carnal favors), calls for a certain cool.
Now, if I argued that White dealt with a general avoidance of responsibility, might not someone else argue that homosexuality itself is a particular avoidance of responsibility? Might I have missed the point? Was the point that Edmund White always, in fiction as in reportage, elucidates (as distinct from advocates) a sort of erotics of morality, promoting the cheerfully disinterested use of the body? "I can picture," says he, "wiser people in the next century regarding our sexual mania as akin to the religious madness of the Middle Ages -- a coperative delusion. I feel that homosexuals, now identified as the element in our society most obsessed with sex, will in fact be the agents to cure the mania. Sex will be restored to its appropriate place as a pleasure, a communication, an appetite, an art; it will no longer pose as a religion, a reason for being. In our present isolation we have few ways besides sex to feel connected with one another; in the future there may be surer modes for achieving a sense of community."
It's unclear if "our isolation" here means mankind's or gaykind's, since often in his book White, an English teacher by trade, employs -- as do many gay writers succumbing to the exigencies of non-sexism -- the ungrammatical formula of substituing "our" for "their" (e.g. Narcissism is "an insult that has been hurled at gay men for decades because of our supposed fascination with our own looks"). He is otherwise a true stylist, and like all true stylists he gets away with murder, the special brand being a rococco suffocation undared since Pierre Louys. Is this opulence one that insiders so loosely name Gay Sensibility? If such a thing could be pinpointed through example rather than through definition, then yes, doubtless a gay sensibility does elusively ooze from the pages of Edmund White. His rhapsodic preamble to the San Francisco chapter, for instance, contains not one straightforward sentence among the fountains and dreams, fuchsia and tears, beige-gold living rooms and Sung landscape poetry. Not that the tone is devious, for there is nothing to hide; but declarative information does get waylaid by ornamental orchestration. His trick is to avoid amateur gush. My having thus limned gay sensibility, will Nobel Coward's terse high camp rise up to disqualify me? But if Coward pens never a word too many, neither with all his fioritura does White. Both are good writers in that they do not overwrite. (Wilde had it both way -- the sumptuosity of Salome, the aphorisms of Earnest -- though never simultaneously. Similarly Hemingway, for the sensibility is not restricted to merely avowed gays).
Whatever the style, this book tenders its subject without apology and with the cultured clarity of an address to peers. Perhaps the work's wholesomest reminder to our permissive-robot era is that the homosexual has earned the right to be ordinary. In no way is he worse or better, and therefore more inherently interesting, than any other offshoot of Adam's breed. Indeed, if his "condition" defines itself simply by what goes on in bed, then like heterosexuality it can be monotonous even to the insider.