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Edmund White, adept at and prolific in so many genres, remains most known for his explorations of his own life: in memoir, in fiction, in the blurry space between. His new book, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, is a fairly traditional memoir, covering roughly the same period as The Beautiful Room is Empty and the first half of The Farewell Symphony, the second two novels in his autobiographical trilogy. Some material also overlaps with his recent (and more experimental) My Lives. So it’s not unfair to ask how much new he has to say.
A lot. True, the basic landscape is familiar (his arrival in New York in 1962, his job at Time Life Books, his struggle to “make it” as a writer, his friendships with David Kalstone and James Merrill, his experience at Stonewall). But the perspective this time is different. City Boy is as much about the city – New York – as it is about the boy. Its central theme is the rough and tumble interplay between the city’s fractured, complex social life and the art it produces.
City Boy fully evokes New York’s gritty beauty. It’s a treasure trove of period detail. But White knows the real city is made up of the people in it, and he seems to have known an astounding number of them, from Billy Dee Williams and Mama Cass to Lillian Hellman and Robert Mapplethorpe. One advantage memoir has over fiction: characters don’t necessarily need to serve an overall narrative structure. They can just be there because they were there. This allows White to fit a lot of these people in. He includes analyses of larger social trends, but allows them to emerge through portraits of his acquaintances and friends.
Because City Boy is as thronged as New York, many of these must be sketches. One of White’s gifts as a stylist is that, like Sargent in his watercolors, he can capture people quickly. The labor never shows, the effects are fresh, the brush strokes loose yet precise. Of the poet Howard Moss, for example, he writes, “It was always evening in Howard’s mind, but in the midst of these lengthening shadows ran his jaunty humor, which really was adorable and improbable as a puppy, a golden retriever, say.”
Moments from other sketches: The elderly Virgil Thomson, who insisted on calling mashed potatoes “a puree de pommes de terre.” A three way with Robert Wilson, another with John Ashberry. Lonely Peggy Guggenheim, whose one obsession was “arranging for her babies [her Lhasa apsos], and herself, to be buried in the garden of her palazzo.” Jasper Johns, who tells White how much he likes The Gong Show. William Burroughs, whose sexuality “seemed like something that might take place only once every hundred years, like the midnight blooming of a century plant.”
Some of the most moving passages concern people who aren’t well known. There’s Marilyn Schaefer, his long time friend and the model for “Maria” in his novels. And later, there’s Norm Rathweg, “a part-time beau” who designed the St. Mark’s Baths and “the Hindenburg of discos,” the Saint. Seemingly a prototype of the muscular gay males who would come to rule Chelsea, he grew up a bookish nerd in Florida, where his invalid father “would lie in bed drinking and insulting his big, fearful, skulking son, calling him a creep and a faggot.”
Another not-famous person, Doug Gruenau, had, like White, gone to the University of Michigan. His boyfriend, Harold Brodkey, whose “moods and thoughts were restless, rolling about like ship passengers in a storm,” was thought by many (Harold Bloom included) to be America’s Proust. Brodkey never publicly acknowledged his relationship with Gruenau, and barely mentioned a third man, Charlie Yordy, with whom the two lived in the ‘70s. While suggesting (though not spelling out) the paralyzing toll internalized homophobia took on Brodkey’s writing, White offers a balanced portrayal: he acknowledges Brodkey’s stunning originality and, surprisingly, includes him among his many influences.
Throughout City Boy, homophobia’s impact is quietly traced. While working for the hideous chemical company Celanese (whose vice-presidents remind White of fetuses maintained in a warm chemical bath), he’s informed that gays aren’t allowed on the executive floor. His Freudian shrink convinces him to move from the apartment he shares with his boyfriend Stan (to help White “recover” from homosexuality). Even after Stonewall, he reminds us, there were states where sodomy was punishable by death. And realistic portrayals of homosexual life almost never appeared in books. Editors feared “regular” gay characters. “Low-life gays, as in the novels of John Rechy or Jean Genet or Hubert Selby, were easier to stomach since they seemed so exotic,” White writes. He tells the painful story of one closeted gay editor, Peter Kameny, who grew so fearful that his secret would come out that he began hiding in the bathroom. His neurotic behavior led to his firing. He then jumped in front of a subway.
At one point, while spending an evening with Jasper Johns, White recalls, “I thought a bit resentfully that all these ‘blue-chip’ artists – Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, John Ashberry, Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Sontag, Robert Wilson – never came out. . . . It paid to stay in the closet, obviously.” In a key scene, he recalls critic Richard Poirier’s fury when he said he believed that there was such a thing as gay fiction: “Richard was enraged that I would even propose to isolate gay writers from the literary mainstream.” White replied that he couldn’t see anything wrong with a gay school of fiction. And he was soon to become one of the key figures in just such a school. But now, he writes, “when ‘gay literature’ has come and gone as a commercial fad and a serious movement, I can see his point. It’s true that as a movement it did isolate us – to our advantage initially, though ultimately to our disadvantage.” Commenting on parallel developments outside of literature, White remarks that he sometimes regrets the invention of the category “gay,” which can, at times, function as a “barbed-wire fence.”
White is sometimes given to – and gifted at – broad statements. Often they’re perfect summations. But now and then his broad brush can seem off. When he remarks that no one reads metafiction anymore, he likely means that he and his friends don’t. Similarly, writing about an interlude in Rome, he tells of his hook-ups with Ron, an African American. “Our racial differences would have kept us apart back home (it was the era of the Black Panthers) . . . .” Surely White knows there were other forces at work which were at least as significant as the militant wing of the Black power movement.
The most intriguing portrait is saved for last. At the start of City Boy, Susan Sontag appears to him as distant as the Duchess de Guermantes first does to young Marcel in The Remembrance of Things Past. But in time they become friends. She promotes his career and blurbs A Boy’s Own Story. At a certain point, White begins to feel that he is, for her, a kind of puppet. Then, in1985, he uses her as the model for the rather abhorrent Mathilde in his novel Caracole. Sontag is furious and their friendship ends. White concludes that, many years later, he still doesn’t fully understand what motivated his betrayal.
This could be the book’s most troubling moment. But White, through-out, never lets the shadows get too dark. His refusal to become bogged down in self recrimination seems of a piece, perhaps, with his greatest strength: an absolute rejection of the shame queer people have always been told they should feel. Some may think he’s spent too long looking at himself. But for White the self is always social; well observed, it’s full of other lives, endlessly lush and complex. In City Boy, the stories of these lives – and White’s – are recounted with the literary quality he tells us he admires most: charm.
My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s
by Edmund White