Bloomsbury, 282 pages
Edmund White, author of numerous novels, biographies, travelogues, memoirs, essays on contemporary American gay life and so much more, is arguably America’s pre-eminent gay writer. From his seminal semi-biographical novel A Boy’s Own Story to The Joy of Gay Sex (which he co-authored) to his observations contained in The Burning Library through to his chronicles in State of Desire: Travels in Gay America, I’ve lapped up every bon mot, every elegantly constructed phrase, every vignette where I could find a parallel to my own experiences as a gay man. White has taken contemporary gay life as his primary and recurring subject, illuminating a culture, as he has noted, that was “oppressed in one generation, liberated in the next and wiped out in the next.” Only his dense and over-detailed biography of Jean Genet has defeated me after getting through only a quarter of the monumental 800 page tome. Obviously I’m a fan.
Yet despite the excitement of having discovered a new novel from Edmund White, despite the gorgeous prose which characterises most of his writing, Our Young Man is ultimately unfulfilling. It has somehow missed the mark. Perhaps it has something to do with the mostly unsympathetic and vapid protagonist who really is not very interesting. He is neither a hero nor a scoundrel, either of which would make him grab our attention. He’s just unlikable.
Our Young Man is set largely in ’70s and ’80s New York City and Fire Island. It recounts the life of Guy, a gorgeous French model, whose “more ironic and cultured friends called him, as the dying Proust had been called by Colette, ‘our young man.’ ”
While on a church trip to Paris, 17 year old Guy is discovered by agent Pierre-George who thrusts him into the world of fashion where he becomes an immediate success. After his first runway show for Pierre Cardin he finds his face “flashed over Paris”. Guy finds his ticket out of the dull industrial city of Clermont- Ferrand which he has longed to leave for the bright lights, and to escape the confines of his impoverished family life. For 10 years he remains “the darling of Paris,” who is universally liked, as his agent tells him, because he’s a “black hole in space,” a beautiful creature onto whom “everyone projects . . . what they’re looking for,” which is easy to do because he doesn’t “stand for anything definite.”
But he eventually outgrows the rarefied European fashion world and moves to New York in 1980. New York City is where art, sex, music, fashion mix to create a culture explosion, just before the advent of AIDS puts a dampener on it all. New York is a whole new ballgame, but his beauty and perceived youthfulness bring him unbelievable opportunities when he finds himself the object of the attentions of older, wealthy men. He manages to gain gifts and favours by tantalising these men and by rarely putting out. He’s a professional cock tease. He strings along the lovelorn Fred, who leaves his family and comes out at the age 66 and who gets to sleep with Guy only once before buying him a house on Fire Island. Guy does not even have to go to bed with the grotesque, masochistic and vindictive Belgian baron to get a Mercedes 450SEL and a house in Greenwich Village. A night of whipping the old queen in his dungeon suffices.
Like Dorian Gray, Guy never seems to grow old. By the middle of the novel he is nearly 40, but he can still convince people — crucially, a desirable 19-year-old called Kevin — that he’s 25. The other characters constantly comment on Guy’s age. Guy himself obsesses over it and goes to great lengths to hide the truth, pathetically pretending not to recognise cultural references from earlier decades. But what happens when age eventually catches up and beauty fades and you don’t have brains or a personable character to fall back on?
Despite my reservations about the novel as whole, there are still some classic White-isms. The author had worked for Vogue for ten years, so he does offer some fascinating and humorous insights to the fashion and modelling industry. Having lived in France and his homeland the United States, White also explores the cultural differences between the two countries. Then there are some witty distinctions between the gay tribes. The habitués of Christopher Street are “tall, balding, skinny, pale, tattooed, almost as if they were vagrants who slept rough”. By contrast, on Fire Island “everyone was in a Speedo pulling a wagon of groceries across the bumpy boardwalk; you couldn’t tell the houseboys from the bankers”.
Ultimately I found Our Young Man too nihilistic for my liking, despite the elegant writing. Perhaps it was White’s intention as he was writing about the world of fashion. But rather give me more The Devil Wears Prada or even Ugly Betty over this. I never thought I would be disappointed by anything White wrote. But there it is. Nevertheless, I remain a fan and look forward to his next offering. – ET.