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Edmund White: Jack Holmes and His Friend

Edmund White: Jack Holmes and His Friend

UK 2012, 393 pp., brochure, € 19.95
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Edmund White's »A Boy's Own Story« was the first gay book I've ever read as such. And to be honest I didn't like it much. Even though I grew up in a comparably provincial surrounding as the young guy in »A Boy's Own Story« does (well, not the American Midwest but rural Bavaria - which is certainly close) it was the late 70s and the early 80s not the 50s of the White's autobiographical coming-of-age novel. And things - from a point of view of a personal experience - had changed at large. The Sexual Revolution had come over the countries of the West. And it even reached parts of countries where you would never expect things like this to happen. And so the experience of the boy in »A Boy's Own Story« was too far from my own to touch me or strike a chord. I was 18 and found it completely boring. It may be a strange kind of irony that »A Boy's Own Story« is nowadays considered a gay classic - one of the most important gay books of the 20th century. Even though my first reading experience with a White book wasn't a positive one I never gave up on White. Actually, I gave him several more chances and what I was reading in books like »Skinned Alive«, »The Burning Library«, »The Farewell Symphony«, and »The Married Man« I liked much better than the first one. At that time - I had already started working for Löwenherz - White has already been considered one of America's most important gay writers, the one that was able to reach a broader general audience - different from others who seemed to be more restricted to a kind of literary gay ghetto. Most impressive to me was White's well-informed, easy to read, paramount biography on the French writer Jean Genet - it contained so much information on the legends the author created around himself, about the circles he was in, and it transported a better understanding of the mysterious person and work of the French author. And now, we have this marvel of a new Edmund White novel »Jack Holmes and His Friend« that I need to recommend to potential readers. You may not have read any of his previous books but you'll get a feeling for the real mastery of the author of this book in no time. It comes with an unpretentious but really beautiful language, and describes the life of Jack Holmes who comes from the Midwest and starts to study Chinese art history at New York University. He's a rather plain person, very much entangled in his own interests. This time it's the 1960s - President Kennedy has been assassinated, and no one can escape the repercussions of this murder. But these are times of change. And the departure into a new and different future that Kennedy's presidency has stood for would not end there. It's already the pretext to the Sexual Revolution and, for gay people, to Stonewall. Jack's Midwestern family has no idea of what their son's up to with his studies. And since he's departed to New York City he can live a life of his own with all the advantages of a bohemian lifestyle in one of the most vibrant, multi-cultural, liberal cities on this Earth. It's also his period of experimentation. His sexual orientation is still open. He's got a girlfriend, but she seems to abhor his exorbitant penis. They have sex but it's nothing special or rewarding. More like a duty to fulfil or a consequence of men and women being together. That's when he finds out that a big penis is only a disadvantage in heterosexual connections. It has the opposite effect when gays get to see his dick. There, he has a real impact. The labour under the weight of his genitalia that has overshadowed his sex life since puberty is now over. And the envy of other guys with lesser endowments starts to turn him on massively. The less interesting his heterosexual relationships turn out to be the keener he gets to find out more about the gay side New York City has to offer. He goes frequently to gay bars and has anonymous sex there - or at least sex with guys he loses all interest in as soon as their ways part. These guys never last long in his bed or at his side. First he's stumbling into the still-secret gay subculture. He notices that he can dwell fine on his extraordinary endowment in a world of size queens. And then he embraces all the wonders of a full-blown promiscuity - it's still pre-AIDS. That's when he meets Will Wright. In so many ways they are totally different types of guys. Will is shy and lonely, urbane but lacking glamour. He comes from a rich, even intellectual family and seeks fame as a writer (but his first novel is terrible and gets the attention it deserves). He and Jack are working for the »Northern Review« - a quarterly cultural magazine. All day long they are concerned with books and literature. Jack does that for his own interest and to get some extra money in order to secure his independence from his family. And from working together Jack and Will move on to something else, at times it is kind of love that resembles a non-sexual affair because Will insists on being heterosexual while Jack signals All-Systems-Go. Jack has a crush on Will. And it will last for all of their lives. So it's always in and out of favour. That, for Jack, may be a very frustrating experience. At least, he can be sure - whatever happens - they will be friends because Will needs Jack. Without him he would never have the guts to court women. Jack's natural way of being with women makes him a magnet that is very helpful for shy Will, to prevent him from being a total loser. And their friendship stands the test of time. Will marries a young woman who has been introduced to him by Jack. But this marriage is pushed to the brink of break-up when Will starts to discover his true sensuality with another woman and wants to live up to it. Again, when the 70s come to an end, Will's and Jack's lives merge. They have experienced so many things and stand on common ground now. Looking back on a long list of impressive novels, White unfolds great poetry in his new book. His peppered text never forces itself on the reader. It's more like snowflakes falling: everyone thinks it's so nice but you would never be annoyed by it. White's real art is evident when he brings about great language but with such an ease you will hardly notice its artfulness. And at the same time his new book is full of rich observations of social and sexual interaction from the 1950s to the 1990s. (Jürgen empfiehlt, Frühlings Katalog 2012)
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