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Jack Holmes and His Friend does not re-open Edmund White’s The Boy’s Own Story trilogy, nor, like Fanny (2003), does it venture into the genre of the historical novel. What Jack Holmes and His Friend does do is continue White’s long and distinguished use of semi-autobiography to produce fine literary fiction. Think here not only of the Boy’s Own Story trilogy, published from 1982 to 1997, but also of a Married Man, published in 2000. What’s more, Jack Holmes serves, along with Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel (2007), as yet another indelible—another articulate and articulated—White homage to New York City—one that is very deeply, very personally concerned with history.
Jack Holmes, like Edmund White the Younger, is a bookish anti-hero-cum-hero from an eccentric Midwestern family. In the Midwest, Jack attends a boarding school and, later— also in the Midwest—Jack studies Chinese Art History in college (White attended a boarding school in the Midwest and White also studied Chinese at the University of Michigan). Jack then moves to New York, where, despite his budding struggles with his sexuality, he manages to find work as a writer (White, too, struggled with his sexuality and yet managed to find work in New York City at Time-Life). All this happens, for Jack as it did for White, about the time “[the] beat movement was just winding down and the hippies were emerging”—a time when “[knowing] that someone was queer could place him at your mercy and, if you blabbed about it, could cost him his job.”
At the offices of the fictional Northern Review, a place as full of eccentrics as it is of comic scenes, Jack meets Will. What Jack and Will, now our two central characters, have in common is that they are both reserved WASPs. Indeed, in keeping with White’s endless way with words, Jack Holmes is described as “pliable,” as “recessive” and “easily forgotten,” someone who wants to feel like “a minor adjective, not a major noun.”
“Jack,” the omniscient narrator reiterates, “wasn’t famous and didn’t want to be.” Fame, after all, would only “single him out for unwanted attention.” Will on the other hand, publishes a novel, albeit one so bad it’s presented to the reader satirically. Will, moreover, is about as straight as straight gets. But that doesn’t stop Jack from falling in love with him. The two remain friends, even after Jack’s discloses his feelings to Will, and Jack tries to cope by seeking the counsel of a psychotherapist, which leads us to some of the novel’s most foreshadowing scenes. This no doubt has much to do with White’s own biography (White’s eccentric mother studied psychology and guinea-pigged White when he was younger, and White entitled the opening chapter of one of his memoirs “My Therapists”). Here, in any case, is one of those clinical scenes:
At the next session Jack told [Dr. Adams] about a long dream he’d had …. “I’d come back to the Northern Review after many years away, and even the old people on the staff were too young to have ever known me …. Someone—maybe it was me—had killed two young men …..
Dr. Adams lowered herself into the bathysphere, the better to be laved by the unconscious. When she reemerged, her mouth smoking, she said, “I think the two young dead men in this dream are you and Will. It’s your younger, neurotic selves who are dying off to be replaced by—who knows? It’s a hopeful dream.
Yes, I won’t sound the spoiler alert, but let me just say that Jack Holmes and His Friend, despite ending as AIDS begins, concludes on a hopeful note. This is rare for White, an author who has written many a dark tale—think, particularly, of Chaos and Other Stories (also 2007)—and who, like his fellow Violet Quill writer Andrew Holleran, has mainly concerned himself with “the brutality of gay life” (this last quote is itself from Jack Holmes). The hopeful conclusion is also surprising considering that Jack Holmes and His Friend is a longish novel chock full of dark scenes, mostly those brought about by Jack’s descent into sex addiction.
Thus Jack becomes less like White as the story proceeds—he never, for instance, writes a novel. Nor does Jack, like White, have a number of long-term relationships. (Jack, in addition, is described as well-hung, as “tall” and “rangy,” “with stomach muscles as hard as a turtle’s shell”—all of which, I don’t know, may or may not be like Edmund White of the present or the past). Will from time to time takes the helm, narrating in place of the omniscient narrator and giving White further opportunity to reflect on the differences between straight and gay. “We idealize some men,” gay Jack tells straight Will, “the boy next door, the athlete, the golden boy—but we make them into something we wish we’d been, whereas you don’t want to be a lady.” And we are privy, throughout the story, to White’s many observations on New York—“The city [that] swallowed every anecdote and digested it; [where] nothing got remembered or noticed”—as well as to his many musings on art, including this one, which just may sum up White’s narrative strategy, a loose game-plan that has always placed more emphasis on thinking than it is has on plotting:
[Writing fiction] meant taking yourself too seriously; there was no denying a novelist was some sort of indefatigable monologist. You had to believe that what you thought was worth saying; you had to possess the confidence to impose yourself on everyone, for hours and hours, even days.
Fortunately for us, the many hours and the many days of reading Edmund White’s thoughts (28 books in 39 years!) do not pass slowly. They pass, rather, as fleetingly—and as satisfyingly—as a New York nanosecond.
Jack Holmes and His Friend
By Edmund White
Hardcover, 9780984635306, 400pp