- Jack Holmes and His Friend by Edmund White
Bloomsbury, 390 pp, £18.99, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 0579 4
The friend in the title of Edmund White’s new novel is a writer called Will Wright, a straight man with bad skin but a sterling pedigree. What little we learn about Will’s first novel – a metafictional romance about a man, the heiress he loves and an anthropomorphic cat – comes from Jack Holmes, a handsome, closeted editorial assistant who works with him at a literary quarterly in Manhattan. Jack is in love with Will, but his ardent affection and oversized penis fail to bend Will’s heterosexuality. Jack holds out hope that Will’s novel may betray affection for him, or at least an openness to sexual experimentation. Novelists, Jack believes, are under a professional obligation to be ‘odd’. And if Will’s novel turns out to be a hit and makes him a celebrity, he’ll need someone around to give him unconditional support. Who better than Jack? But then he reads a galley of Will’s book and his hopes are dashed. The novel is ‘sentimental horseshit’, ‘tepid’ and ‘gooey-sweet’, and he’s offended by the cartoon on the cover, an attempt to be ‘argotic and contemporary’, he thinks, that seems flimsy and ‘toothless’.
Kirkus disagrees, and gives the novel a starred review, praising its ‘charming’ recombination of the styles of Thomas Pynchon and Boris Vian and its ‘tender’, ‘childlike’ depiction of heterosexual love. Jack figures the Kirkus reviewer must be a woman, probably studying French, unduly influenced by Will’s touched-up author photo. Then comes a review in the New York Times, which begins by commending the novel for its ‘exact’ and ‘shimmering’ prose and its ‘well-observed’ characters, but adds that ‘some readers may break out in hives after such a prolonged exposure to whimsy.’ Still, the reviewer concedes that Will has talent and that ‘his very next book could easily be a roaring (and not another treacly) success.’
Will’s next book never arrives. He marries an heiress, moves to Westchester, and takes a job writing annual reports for corporations. As his prospects sag, so does the narrative, which gets mired in the details of Will’s unhappy marriage. Will starts having affairs, and gets back in touch with Jack, who has graduated from the desperation of the closet to the glamour of life as a gay high society tag-along. For a time, Will moves in with Jack as each tends to a much younger lover. Their experiment in inter-generational living falters, however, when the Aids epidemic sweeps them both back into stable monogamy.
White’s memoir City Boy closely tracks the events of Jack Holmes and His Friend. Like Jack, White is born in Ohio, attends boarding school outside Detroit, graduates from the University of Michigan and moves to New York. Both study Chinese and pass up the chance to start a PhD at Harvard in order to seek bohemian liberation in the big city. Each takes a junior job with a publisher – in White’s case, an ‘imagination-killing’ job at Time Life Books. Each prowls downtown Manhattan for men. Neither has difficulty finding takers. As the novel puts it: ‘You’re the universal ball, Jack Holmes. Everyone at that party wanted you.’ And the memoir: ‘Ed White, everyone wants you, you’re the universal ball.’