Edmund White has often been described as a trailblazing artist. He co-authored an innovative sex manual, “The Joy of Gay Sex,” in 1977; wrote a gay travel book, “States of Desire,” in 1980; and two years later produced one of the first coming-out novels, “A Boy’s Own Story.” His biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, along with his memoirs, “My Lives” (2006) and “City Boy” (2009), all attest to fascination with the male body and its erotic imperatives. As a chronicler of this particular subset of life and literature, he’s surveyed the landscape thoroughly and well.
His new book maps adjacent territory: the friendship of a gay man and a heterosexual in the buttoned-up 1950s, the experimental ’60s and, finally, to the first intimations of AIDS.
According to the author, “ ‘Jack Holmes & His Friend’ is to the best of my knowledge the first novel to deal with the friendship between a gay man and a straight man — such a common occurrence in real life and yet never treated before in adult literary fiction, as far as I know.” This may be hyperbole (think, for example, of James Baldwin), but it’s a genuine subject and explored here at languorous length.
The story is told in three parts, with a brief epilogue, alternating between third- and first-person narrators. There’s a small shift of expectation involved, since Jack Holmes is clearly more akin to Edmund White than is “His Friend,” yet the first-person point of view belongs to the heterosexual Will Wright, with his touch of homophobia and — at least to start with — straight-arrow sexual mores.
The young men meet in New York when they’re both fresh from college. Jack, a Midwesterner with a “Gothic horror novel” of a childhood, attended the University of Michigan; Will, a foxhunting Southerner of large lineage and small funds, attended Princeton. Will is a would-be novelist, Jack an aspiring journalist-about-town. The boy from Ohio is prodigiously endowed, the object of nightly admiration. Will is a bit of a bumbler, although his reticence has charm. Relatively early on, Jack introduces Will to Alex, the girl he will eventually marry, and the novel tracks the three of them through years of romantic strife. The one non-consummated love affair is that of the two men: Jack has an unrequited passion for Will. “Will was a bad habit it seemed he’d never get over,” White writes. “Jack felt like one of those courtiers who back up when leaving the king’s presence.”
White is knowledgeable and witty, and often his dialogue sparkles. But his descriptive prose can turn florid, as in “Then he relaxed him until he was almost reclining, and he kissed his small maroon nipples and his clavicle, which came swimming out of his shoulders like a spatula in butter.” Or, “Jack’s cranium cracked open, and the airborne seeds of these desires sprouted and overflowed.” Or, “Rupert’s feet were unblemished, with anklebones so snug and unobtrusive that Jack could imagine an entire Japanese religious cult based on their worship.”
The mechanics of seduction are repeatedly described. That’s appropriate, perhaps, since Jack claims to have had thousands of partners, but there’s a strangely slapdash feel to the whole. We know next to nothing of Will’s courtship of his wife, for instance, or why she accepts his philandering. Jack makes what seems to be a modest living but somehow drives an Aston Martin and rubs elbows with the mega-rich. Will pilots Alex’s sports car to Larchmont from Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge — not a route that makes much sense — and tells his friend that he had “great, intense sex” with his wife “the day she and the kids came back from St. Barts,” although earlier we witness her return, and there’s no sex involved.
Which is particularly notable, given that sex is nearly everywhere in this novel. It’s the alpha and omega of the two men’s friendship, the subject of every conversation, the focus of their separate and intertwining lives. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is given far less airtime than the question of who infested whom with crabs; the positions assumed by Will’s mistress are described in laborious detail. In the end — to cite another of the author’s titles — the beautiful room is not empty but a little over-full. Will’s career as a novelist is derailed by a negative review in the New York Times. “Jack Holmes & His Friend” doesn’t deserve that, but less would have been more.
Delbanco’s most recent book is “Lastingness: The Art of Old Age.”
JACK HOLMES & HIS FRIEND
By Edmund White
Bloomsbury. 392 pp. $26