Edmund White is best known for his trilogy of autobiographical novels. I read the first of these “A Boy’s Own Story” not long after it was published in 1982 and it has since become the classic coming out tale. I’ve read all three as well as his 2000 novel “A Married Man” which probably ranks as my favourite out of these. White is a highly esteemed novelist, literary biographer and essayist but I haven’t yet read anything by him which has really blown me away.
From a British gay man’s perspective I value very much his contribution to gay-themed literature but I have never had the emotional response from his work that I have had from Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, John Boyne, for example. Compared to these authors I think he can come across as a little too academic in his writing and lacking warmth- perhaps investing his novels with a richness of technical skills rather than empathy. Admittedly, it has been a while since I’ve read anything by him and I’ve not read all but this is my impression so far and throughout the years I have been choosing my Best Books of the Year he has never featured in my Top 10.
Things could change with this. Subtitled “My Life In New York During The 1960s and 1970s”, a memoir in which the struggling author relocates to New York and benefits from the cheapness of rents and the richness of the creative and literary minds he is able to surround himself with. It is a significant period for New York as it heads towards bankruptcy and areas become violent and dangerous as well as a hub for civil rights and in 1969 a fracas at The Stonewall Inn changed lives for gay men and women across the globe. White was there.
During these years White met many important figures in the Arts and provides almost rapid-fire character sketches and gossip. Many readers nowadays will only recognise a handful of these names but that doesn’t matter as we’re drawn into White’s associations. He also catalogues the increasing sexual freedoms of the era as lived mainly by those who escaped the repression of small-town America for New York City life. There are lovers, friends and sex partners and the many men he met tended to fall into one of these separate categories. It was only in the era of AIDS, White proposes, that one person could fulfil all three roles.
My interest in this book was as much to do with the city in this period as much as the man and he conveys the feel of New York very well. There are sojourns in San Francisco and Venice but the pull of Manhattan wins out. White takes us to the point at the end of the 1970’s where a new virus is looming menacingly, poised to wipe out many of the characters in this book. (White moved away from NYC and lived in France for much of the 80’s). He ends his account with a metaphor which I find effective and very much gives the feel of this book;
“I suppose that finally New York is a Broadway theatre where one play after another, decade after decade, occupies the stage and the dressing rooms- then clears out. Each play is the biggest possible deal (sets, publicity, opening night celebrations, stars names on the marquee) then it vanishes. With every new play the theatre itself is just a little more dilapidated, the walls scarred, the velvet rubbed bald, the gilt tarnished. Because they are plays and not movies, no one remembers them precisely. The actors are forgotten, the plays are just battered scripts showing coffee stains and missing pages. Nothing lasts in New York. The life that is lived there, however, is as intense as it gets.”
“City Boy” recounts Edmund White’s time in this vanished world.
City Boy was published by Bloomsbury in 2009. I read the 2010 paperback edition.