Our Young Man by Edmund White. A review by John Cook

9781632860026

 

I approached this read with some trepidation as a fellow group member reported that he didn’t like it at all. I took the precaution of checking the reviews currently available and it was clear there were plenty of negative reactions. However, as a long-term admirer of most of what White has written (his Francophilia has led to some less than wildly satisfying efforts) I completed the job

 

This is very much a White piece of work drawing, as he is often prone to do, on much of his background. He had extensive experience of New York bohemia and the fashion and art world (10 years of vogue), Fire Island living and his time in France. All of this is brought to bear in his spin on the Dorian Gray story line and its applicability to the gay scene and the fashion industry.

 

The central character, Guy, is a man who dedicates his life totally to maintaining an amazingly youthful appearance. While he does so remarkably effectively over a long time (a forty-odd year old presenting as a twenty-odd year old), it is clear that the apparently successful world of possessions he accumulates are not enough and the process of maintaining his appearance (perhaps more accurately a mode) is eating him away internally unlike the Dorian Gray picture in the attic.

 

He passes through a number of phases in his close personal and love life with a relative few making it through to close contact. He originates from a gloomy industrial town in France and retains a supporting contact with his Mother but retains little else except a lingering nostalgia for values he sees as superior. The book is peppered with constant references to the linguistic problems of acquiring conversational skill in a second language which White himself experienced in the reverse and he has previously mused over. Whether these are always necessary or helpful is debatable.

 

His manager Pierre-Georges is a constant influence always pulling him back to a sterile existence subservient to the demands of fashion and Mammon. He acquires from two older men (the Baron and Fred) who share the common key characteristic of pursuing their sexual needs, one an utterly selfish lifelong S&M devotee, the other a late-bloomer who ends with AIDS and is used by White to illustrate the problem of a gay death, families and wills.

 

He eventually finds a latin lover with whom he achieves previously unexperienced sexual satisfaction and the possibility of love. This lover is so deeply involved he foolishly engages in criminal behaviour as what seems a valid consequence to him. While in jail, Guy refocuses on one of a pair of Minnesotan twins (Chris and Kevin) who represent a kind of waif-like perfection. Once again, this leads to sexual and emotional developments and an eventual choice situation which leads to the not entirely satisfactory denouement.

 

The earlier part of the book is curiously flat in tone and I think this may put off a lot of people while the latter half is curiously fragmented in tone and direction. This book could be taken simply as a somewhat eccentric erotic love novel (there is plenty of sex most quite well presented) but I prefer to enjoy the good writing and the regular flashes of humour and wit that keep on popping up throughout.

 

White has been interviewed about this book and other matters and I recommend it for reading and understanding especially in the light of the claims that his heart attack may have had something to do with its formation

 

Go to http://gawker.com/talking-with-edmund-white-his-new-novel-gay-looksism-1769013744

 

Easy to read but not easy to appreciate.

 

 

 

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