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White's ambitious tale sinks under characters' ennui

"Incredibly moving," "hilarious" and "dazzling" are jacket blurbs by three accomplished contemporary writers about this book. Blurbs are just ad-speak, but even taken with the usual grain of salt -- or a couple of pounds -- these are hard to swallow here.

Edmund White is himself a distinguished American contemporary writer and Princeton writing professor, the author of 23 books. He calls his travel book "States of Desire" the first gay travel book; his novel "A Boy's Own Story" "the first or among the first gay coming-out novels"; and he says of "Jack Holmes and His Friend" that it is "to the best of my knowledge the first novel to deal with the friendship between a gay man and a straight man."

White is an artist who has a clear and admirable interest in his work's social context. However, the only thing that matters, once any art leaves the studio, is whether it works. Regardless of the debatable claim concerning the novel's "firstiness," as Stephen Colbert might say, there are better books to be written exploring the rich territory of gay-straight male friendship.

This is an ambitious, occasionally lapidary and poetic, but frustrating, novel -- one in which puzzling authorial decisions ensure that nobody, male or female, straight or gay, comes off looking good, either as characters or as humans. The central depiction of friendship here is, at best, incomplete, and what this really is, is a novel about sex. Those scenes in which characters have sex, think about it or think while having it are probably the novel's high water marks both in terms of craft and absorbing (not prurient) writing. It's the in-between stuff, the connective tissue of lives from which the sex is created, that's frustrating.

Jack Holmes and Will Wright arrive in early 1960s New York and begin working for the same cultural journal: They become friends. Jack is gay; Will is straight. What follows is the story of their relationship. Echoing numerous novelists of manners, White renders the mores and culture of Jack and Will and their cohort of gay and straight upper middle class Manhattanites, from the '60s to the '80s.

However, the volcanic forces sweeping through America and the world during that period pass not only offstage here but outside the interests of the characters. This is a world driven by the quaint, courtly concept of "libertinism" (there's a whiff of Versailles here) decorated with arch conversations and gossip and metaphorical pillow fights resulting from situational ethical decisions (not a lot of moral consistency here -- these are not friends you'd want watching your back in a bar fight) and basic urges, playing out among privileged adults. For the most part they're contemptuous of their jobs but uninterested in doing anything about it; frequently they're independently wealthy and they're occupied by "charity" work. Work in general is just ways to kill time between barhopping or shows or sex.

The sole character who displays anything besides ennui or diffidence about life beyond the glands is Will's debutante wife, Alex. Alex is rich (her money pays for things), blond-model-beautiful, brittle, ineffectual and almost self-parodic in her suburban platitudes about vegetarianism, race and respect for the servants (they actually have staff at home).

However, her progressive proclivities don't extend to her own life, which seems more 17th than 19th century in its complete ceding of all power to Will, while absolving him of any domestic responsibilities, including fidelity, while being suicidally depressed and unhappy about it all. However, Alex is not a cautionary tale, or irony or satire: just scenery, albeit carefully drawn.

It seems the reader is supposed to sympathize and empathize with the characters, given the novel's tone and plotting, but these are characters, even in their low moments, who are difficult to care about. Jack does have a long-term unrequited yen for Will but beyond that he and Will don't really work hard at or care a lot about much -- including, in Will's case, writing, as he publishes one novel but then gives up writing with not a lot of angst -- besides their genitalia. While Jack is plausibly drawn, Will rings a little hollow as a straight guy, and their friendship, supposedly the driving force in their lives once begun in their early 20s, endures an 11-year split during which they don't talk, a fact seemingly untroubling to both and one not explained until after they "reconcile." In a chance meeting, Will barely recognizing Jack, they suddenly take up where they left off -- with the explanation for the break an odd, tossed-off anecdote by Will. And that's it.

This novel is, unfortunately, also tone-deaf to humor. You could play a challenging game of "Where's Waldo?" here if "Waldo" is anything even approaching funny. The intent is there, but White chooses a risky tactic: He has characters frequently fall out laughing over what passes for witty badinage here. However, when what's said doesn't amuse the reader, but is un-ironically hysterical to characters, the reader is yanked out of the story. And characters here have enough strikes against them already.

The main thing arguably missing here is conflict -- everyone gets what they want, or finds a work-around that allows them to remain frictionlessly in their jaded stasis. Even the '80s AIDS crisis is dodged -- promiscuous Jack decides to become monogamous and committed to a rich older man. Unironic happy ending.

The cover of "Jack Holmes and His Friend -- A Novel" features a black and white 1963 Walker Evans photo of suited legs ending in sharp business shoes, framed by skyscrapers; a daydreamer lying on his back on a marble wall at New York City's Seagram Building shot from slightly below, legs comfortably crossed and the space between them a perfect V -- pointing at his crotch -- framing a section of skyscraper windows. City and stories everywhere, but in his own world: an evocative illustration, given what's between the covers, and maybe equally applicable to the author here.

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance writer and critic.


Jack Holmes and His Friend: A Novel

By Edmund White


392 pages, $25