IT IS AN ESTABLISHED tradition for the constituent minorities of the American melting pot to celebrate their assimilation into the main broth with a novel or memoir describing the representative rites of passage of a young man or woman growing up within the ghetto and graduating into the culture at large. The genre has encompassed all levels of sophistication from homespun to lace: Kathryn Forbes' Mama's Bank Account (which became I Remember Mama ), Herman Wouk's The City Boy, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Mary McCarthy's Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood. The public success that each such book enjoys is a kind of national birthday party for the minority undergoing assimilation, a way of the universal saying to the particular, "Yes, we recognize ourselves in you and understand that you are part of us."
Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story represents the strongest bid to date by a gay writer to do for his minority experience what the writers cited above did for theirs -- offer it as a representative, all-American instance. Earlier literary treatments of homosexual themes to reach a mass audience presented the subject either in horrified whispers (Suddenly Last Summer, Deliverance ) or as a gothic freak show, strenuously unrepresentative declarations (like Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms ) of the author's ineffable specialness. Such is the psychology of the ghetto when its walls seem unbreachable.
As admirers of White's two earlier novels (Nabokov among them) have noted, White writes beautifully. But in those novels, especially Nocturnes for the King of Naples, the beauty of the prose often sank under the weight of its own ornamentation. In A Boy's Own Story, by contrast, White has trimmed away all that was precious or over-ripe, and his prose is now as normatively shapely as a gymnast's torso, as flexible in its ever-shifting tone as a Mahler symphony yet with no loss of narrative momentum. I've seldom read a book so continuously and variously quotable. Here is a single sample, chosen not for any special brilliance but for its anecdotal self-sufficiency. The narrator has begun to go to a psychiatrist, Dr. O'Reilly, in order to be cured of homosexuality. In one quick paragraph White sends up the follies and foibles of psychiatry in the Age of Conformity:
"During World War II O'Reilly had served as an army doctor in Polynesia, where he had studied the childrearing methods of the natives. There no infant was ever punished, he said, and none ever cried. An infant's deepest insecurity, he went on, was derived from its physical smallness and helplessness. The Polynesians, especially those on the happy isle to which fortune had blown the good doctor, countered this insecurity by carrying their babies on their backs in a sling pitched so high that Baby's eyes peered out over Mama's head. This literally superior position insured the infant against all future anxiety and guaranteed him a life-long serenity. Eagar to spread these advantages to America, O'Reilly insisted his patients emulate the Polynesian made of transporting a baby. I saw those patients, men and women alike, all over town, sheepishly stepping over snowdrifts or gliding down supermarket aisles, their infants, petrified with fear, squawling and clutching locks of parental hair."
The story White tells is spellbinding -- by turns incisively satiric, goldenly nostalgic, calmly voluptuous, and throbbing with Weltschmerz in the grand adolescent manner of Young Werther or Holden Caulfield. No reader, straight or gay, who grew up in a middle-class, Midwestrern household in the mid-'50s, can fail to experience shock after shock of recognition in these pages, and few, I would bet, will be able to withhold a one-to-one sympathy from the unnamed narrator, even when he is being, by the standards of only yesterday, "shocking." The first chapter's account of the reciprocal seduction of the narrator, then age 15, and a 12-year-old friend, Kevin, comes across as an idyll of first love that transcends all specifics of sexual preference. Then, lest the reader suppose he's being led up a garden path of pastoral posturings, as in Gide's Corydon, Chapter Two begins with a deft about-face of substance and tone:
"When I was 14, the summer before I went to prep school, a year before I met Kevin, I worked for my father. He wanted me to learn the value of a dollar. I did work, I did learn and I earned enough to buy a hustler."
White's novel never sentimentalizes homosexual experience, which is shown to be, like all sexuality, of variable ethical potential. Indeed, the story ends with an act on the part of the narrator so deeply and awesomely treacherous that my first reaction, after 218 uninterrupted pages of high-intensity vicarious involvement, was simply an ache of protest. Yet, reconsidering and rereading, I must admit that this ending, painful as it is, is not only inspired and necessary but that it is the last twist of the knot that fixes the story permanently in memory. What had seemed almost to the last 10 pages a masterfully casual assemblage of portraits, anecdotes, and period memorabilia crystalizes into a neatly mortised parable of the guilt that must always attend the process of growing up in an imperfect world. With A Boy's Own Story American literature is larger by one classic novel.