City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review



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.

6 thoughts on “City Boy – Edmund White (2009) – A Real Life Review

  1. inexhaustibleinvitations

    Nice review! I’ve been wanting to read White for a while now, but any time I pick up one of his novels, I find myself repelled by how cold the writing feels. I might try this one some day, though!


    1. I think you are absolutely right about the coldness of the writing – I thought it was just me. I’m not saying that “City Boy” is noticeably warmer but I don’t think it is as apparent (or as off-putting) in a memoir as in a novel. Thanks for the comment

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Monika McKay

    Hi Phil,

    was on hols in N. Wales.. the weather was crap, but peace and quiet PRICELESS..Reading what you’re saying, perhaps it is HIS WAY, the author’s way, to deal with such a complex issue….Don’t forget, perhaps it helped him to come to terms with it…you can’t guess how others can react….Nobody needs to explain themselves who they are, in my personal view, but perhaps the cold scientific approach by him, helped him to square the circle…There is still an older generation who is rather confused, not necessarily bigoted, but appear to be so…There is nothing to explain, just ACCEPT it…Easier for everybody…


    1. Absolutely, Monika. I do suspect this is a generational thing Edmund White is considerably older than me and is of just of the age where he has had difficulties in coming to terms with where he is at but then also threw himself into that life with such enthusiasm. When he writes it feels odd that the enthusiasm can become a cool detachment. As I said in response to the previous comment I think in a Memoir that’s fine as it represents the sort of person you are but in the case of writing fiction it can alienate part of your audience. This tends to make the fiction I have read by him impressive but not totally enjoyable compared to other authors who write on similar themes. Glad you managed to enjoy the peace and quiet of North Wales! Welcome back!


  3. Pingback: Turn The Beat Around – Peter Shapiro (2005) – A Real Life Review – reviewsrevues

  4. Pingback: A Saint From Texas – Edmund White (Bloomsbury 2020) – reviewsrevues

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