The Way We Were: In His 10th Novel, Edmund White Again Draws on Personal Experience

The evolution of gay life from the early ’60s to today

"Jack Holmes & White Friends" by Edmund White. (Bloomsbury)

Over the years, the novelist, memoirist, cultural critic and literary biographer Edmund White has been vocal about his decision to write from a gay perspective, for a gay audience. In the wake of the AIDS crisis, he became more firmly devoted to this audience, helping to found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and publishing his breakthrough autobiographical novel, A Boy’s Own Story, about growing up gay in the Midwest. Ironically, it was only as he began to focus more exclusively on gay themes that his work became known to straight audiences. In his recent memoir, City Boy, Mr. White wrote about the creative liberation that occurred when he realized, in the late 1970s, that he could create groundbreaking work simply by mining his own autobiography: “A straight writer, condemned to show nothing but marriage, divorce, and childbirth, might need a new formal approach or an exotic use of language. But a gay writer, free to record for the first time so many vivid and previously uncharted experiences, needed no tricks.”

When Mr. White first began to write about gay life in the 1970s, his work was trailblazing, but now to speak openly about gay life is commonplace, even occurring on network television. It’s an extraordinary cultural shift, and one that Mr. White examines in his new novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend (Bloomsbury, 400 pages, $26.00), about a decades-long friendship between two men, one gay and one straight.

As its title suggests, the novel belongs mainly to Jack Holmes, whom we first meet as a college student at the University of Michigan in the early 1960s. Jack is the kind of vague person who aims to please everyone, declaring himself a socialist even as he joins his father’s conservative fraternity. He dates women, who consider him a “boy-next-door type,” but is tentatively attracted to men. It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Jack as closeted; at this point, he is simply unaware of who he is or who he might like to become. It is in this confused state of mind that he moves to Greenwich Village, where New York’s crowds, and sheer size, quickly overwhelm him. As Jack wanders through the city, he begins to pick up on the Village’s gay subculture: “Sometimes Jack would walk through a pack of gays, all sibilance and jingling and prancing, as if Santa’s reindeer had been watered with champagne and gone off course.” But Jack is too timid, at first, to explore. If another man meets his eye, he quickly looks away.

Mr. White has thrown anxious Midwesterners into this milieu before, most notably in his autobiographical novel The Beautiful Room Is Empty, which tells the story of Mr. White’s own experiences in pre-Stonewall-era New York. Because Jack shares so many details of Mr. White’s own biography, from his college major to his first job, he at first seems like a stand-in for the author. But where the narrator of Mr. White’s autobiographical novel is ambitious, curious and hungry for experience, Jack Holmes is passive, modest and uncertain. Lest these qualities make Jack a boring protagonist, Mr. White narrates his point of view in the third person, allowing the reader to see the character generously, as a charming and impressionable young man. It helps, too, that Jack is good-looking and frequently falls into bed with both men and women.

What eventually brings Jack’s personality into focus is a crush on his coworker, Will Wright. He meets Will shortly after deciding that he’s through with New York’s social-climbing scene, and what he really wants is “a buddy, a guy his own age, a masculine guy who didn’t look at you penetratingly or size you up.” Will fits the bill. Both men are employed as writers as an obscure arts magazine, although Will aspires to writes novels and is pleased to learn that Jack is a voracious reader of contemporary fiction. Jack’s crush deepens into love as he and Will spend more and more time together, but he is careful to hide his attraction. To some degree, Jack even deceives himself: “It wasn’t that he was queer; he just loved Will.”

Eventually, Jack confesses his feelings for Will, hoping they will be reciprocated. Will takes the news gamely, if awkwardly, and later, in a section from Will’s point of view, we learn that Will thinks of himself as “a generous soul for taking on board a fag friend.” Meanwhile, Jack is so full of self-loathing that he sees a psychiatrist, hoping to be cured of his “illness.” At night, however, he cruises the bars, looking for a replacement for Will. Mr. White poignantly shows how Jack’s split identity reflects the attitudes of the time; although Jack mixes with a freethinking, bohemian crowd, the puritanical 1950s have not lost their hold on the culture at large. To make matters even worse for Jack, Will falls in love with Jack’s closest female friend. Jack and Will’s friendship peters out, leaving Jack in the throes of “this homo thing … slithering around in the shadows,” while Will drifts away “to have a real relationship conducted in the sunlight.”

When the two men meet nine years later, the tables have turned. It’s the 1970s, the era of gay liberation. Now Will is the one struggling with his sexuality and his ambitions, while Jack refers to himself as a “libertine” and enjoys a busy social life and career. This second phase of their friendship is narrated by Will, who has not fared as well over the years. He’s a character straight out of Cheever, married with two children and a house in the suburbs, but bored sexually and longing to break free. He begs Jack to introduce him to new women and soon finds himself embroiled in an obsessive affair, which he thinks of as compensation for the novels he hasn’t written. But in an unexpected and original turn, Will’s affair takes a backseat to his friendship with Jack. The two men become close again, but with little left in common, professionally, they end up discussing their personal lives with a new honesty. For Jack, this means a chance to become close to Will, at last; for Will, it’s an opportunity to be a part of a world otherwise unavailable to him.

In a 1991 essay about friendships between straight women and gay men, Mr. White wrote that “friendship is a kind of witnessing,” and in its best moments Jack Holmes allows Jack and Will to look in on one another’s lives with curiosity and openness, engaging in pages-long dialogue about the nature of sex, love and friendship. In its worst moments, the novel can feel tedious, even adolescent, as the men recount the details of their erotic adventures. Plotwise, things get pretty soapy where Will’s marriage is involved, but Mr. White has never been a writer who excels at plot, or even psychological realism. In Jack Holmes & His Friend, Mr. White is more interested in showing how Jack and Will’s friendship is as much a reflection of changing cultural attitudes as it is of any personal growth either man experiences. He’s also adept at showing how relationships, especially in New York, city of ambition, are rarely disinterested—it’s this last insight, in particular, that makes Jack’s continued love for Will all the more poignant.

Jack Holmes evokes a New York that no longer exists, detailing long-lost restaurant menus, bars, fashions, haircuts, street corners, ballets, exhibits and, most significantly, other people. Even the most minor characters are precisely and carefully sketched. Despite their neuroses and dissatisfactions, Jack and Will are alert to the fleeting pleasures that both friendship and love can provide. As Will reflects upon meeting his lover for the first time, “It’s a gift when something magical steps into real time.”

The Way We Were: In His 10th Novel, Edmund White Again Draws on Personal Experience