Sunday, June 10, 2012

Any Friend of Jack Holmes ...

It is not a stretch—in fact, it may be a cliché—to call Edmund White one of the founding fathers of gay literature.  When I came out of the closet, one of the first books I was advised to read was A Boy’s Own Story.  I’m willing to bet that half the gay men my age can say the same thing.  Reading that novel was, for young men just emerging from the closet, what Lord of the Flies was for 13-year-old boys, or Little House on the Prairie for their sisters.  In a very crucial way, I found myself in that book.
Decades later, White remains on the cutting edge of gay fiction, as he proves with his latest novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend.  The coy title is part of the book’s brilliance—it’s not just a double entendre; it’s a triple, perhaps even a quadruple entendre.  Yes, the eponymous protagonist does have a friend—but, as Harvey Fierstein once so cleverly wrote, is he “a friend-friend or a euphemism-friend?”  (Answer:  Jack wants him to be a euphemism, but he’s just a friend.)  And, of course, friend is in itself also an erstwhile euphemism for penis—as in, “my little friend.”  Or, in Jack’s case, not so little.
The novel begins in what, for wedding-planning homosexuals, constitutes the distant past—the 1960s, pre-Stonewall—with Jack struggling against his sexual urges in a world that seems to offer no alternative.  Even his psychotherapists tell him that his sexual behavior is only an “acting out” of neurosis.  These days, a therapist who said that would be laughed out of practice—or go to work for Marcus Bachmann.
In such an unwelcoming culture, it’s no coincidence that Jack’s first object of affection would be an unattainable straight man named Will.  (One of my favorite things about this book is the way it plays with names—Will and Jack conjure up images of their respectively straight-acting and fey counterparts on TV’s Will and Grace, while Jack’s full name—and endowment—suggest the porn star John Holmes.)  Theirs is an odd friendship, which in due course becomes illustrative of both the similarities and the differences between the gay and straight demi-mondes.
As Jack becomes more comfortable with his sexuality, his confidence and social skills grow.  Sexual liberation opens him up to life.  In contrast, Will—whose sexuality is stifled by a cold wife and the expectations of heteronormativity—finds himself living an increasingly constricted existence.  Until, that is, Jack sets the wheels in motion for Will’s own sexual awakening—even if, given the circumstances and Will’s character, it can be only a short-lived transformation.
What strikes me most about this book is its lack of a moralistic tone.  It isn’t just because White is writing about the pre-AIDS era; even in the 70s we had our share of novels condemning the supposed superficiality of casual sex.  But White never judges Jack for being … well, a slut.  Neither does he judge Will for returning to the fold of monogamy after his dalliance with promiscuity.  In fact, one of the strengths of the novel is that Will—in all his naivete and knee-jerk homophobia—is presented as a real person, whose worldview is the product of his upbringing, and his time.  Will, in fact, is the only character granted a first-person narration, which suggests something about White’s desire to understand the point of view—literally—of a straight man.
There’s a fearlessness in this book that I quite admire.  White makes no apologies for gayness, never succumbing to the politically correct notion that we’re just like straight people except for what we do in bed.  Some of us are.  Some of us, like Jack Holmes, are not.  That, coincidentally, is one of the key themes of my new novel, The Heart’s History:  Which is the greater goal for the gay community’s coming of age—to be accepted into the fabric of the straight world, or to add a new color to it?  Despite the advances of recent years—indeed, perhaps because of them—the question is more crucial now than ever.

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