It’s Love versus Sex in White’s Latest
TRUST EDMUND WHITE not to shy away from sex. Now, in his latest novel Jack Holmes and his Friend, the master of the queer eye directs his attention also to female anatomy and heterosexual intercourse as experienced by a straight guy. To be sure, the bulk of the sex is still of the homosexual kind, but it is by juxtaposing the gay perspective of Jack Holmes with the straight perspective of his friend Will Wright that White explores what may be the novel’s central question: is sex the cause or the effect of love?
White’s answer is clever, sophisticated, and highly enjoyable. Building on the gay-boy-loves-straight-boy convention, White follows the fits-and-starts friendship between Jack and Will, which runs from New York in the early 1960’s, when they make their first steps in the big city, to the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980’s, when they seem almost to know what they want in life. That the relationship will never be consummated is key: Jack and Will entertain different expectations and hopes for their friendship, and the process of their negotiation reveals and explains their priorities.
The story begins in Ann Arbor, where Jack is majoring in Chinese art at the University of Michigan. He moves to New York, struggles for several months, then lands his first position, writing for an arty magazine. The similarities with White’s life end there.
At the magazine, Jack befriends Will and starts to fall in love with him. Virginia-born, Princeton-educated, infused with Catholic guilt, Will is an aspiring but failing novelist who will end up running a small public relations boutique. He will marry Jack’s female friend Alex, a rich heiress, and settle for a boring, affluent suburban life marked by perfunctory sex and two kids. By then, Jack is an increasingly successful, though not overly ambitious, journalist who winds up covering business for Newsweek, a position that allows him to maintain a comfortable apartment in Manhattan whose most important fixture is a bed to accommodate a stream of willing men.
Jack adapts rather quickly to a life dominated by sexual pursuits. He’s not oblivious to social constraints or to political issues, but he’s too involved in sexual matters to be distracted by abstract questions of identity, much to the chagrin of his shrinks. However, when he comes out to Will, it is his love, not his sexual attraction, that he confesses. Beyond this infatuation, Jack seeks the company of men mainly in bed. And plenty of appreciative accomplices are only too happy to submit to his passionate embrace, given his largess. “Eight inches? Nine?” one of his first suitors asks. While the size is never precisely calibrated, the book provides detailed, often artfully articulated, evidence of the awesome respect it commands.
To be sure, White is hardly the only prominent author known for his vivid descriptions of sexual acts, though he might be the least apologetic, the most matter-of fact. In contrast, say, to Philip Roth, whose characters are typically distracted by sexual thoughts and obsessions, White places sex at the center stage of a normal life, not a distraction but the motivator of life’s major decisions. Jack embodies this principle. Writes White about Jack: “If it occurred to him to turn around and park his anus on the guy’s mouth, he did so without hesitating—and rarely did the guy push him away. Most men fed off the violence and specificity of Jack’s desires.” What immediately follows may or may not be about love: “Jack realized he’s never experienced anything quite as exciting as what they were going through.” For him, life is what happens on the way to having sex, while love is what happens when you plan to have sex.
His one-sided love affair acquaints us with Jack’s romantic side as against his no-nonsense approach to sex. While Jack the romantic savors every detail of Will’s clothes, sexual Jack would rather dispense with the clothes altogether. Romantic Jack, on learning that Will is straight, next holds out hope that at least Will may be receptive emotionally. Even so, the sexual Jack rears his head as he begins to organize his life around Will’s unobtainable, treasured cock, which he begins to think of as the milliarium aureum, the zero point from which all distances were measured in antiquity. “All of Jack’s thoughts radiated out from this white stone he’d never seen.”
By the time Jack sees the golden hoard, which comes near the end of the 400-page novel, he reports with clinical detachment: “just big enough to satisfy anyone.” Anyone but Jack, that is, for whom it retained its attraction as long as it remained covered, unknown, imagined. Here we have the dialectic of gay love: given the immediacy of sex, a straight guy’s unavailability establishes the distance needed for romance.
Halfway through the book, the narrative shifts from Jack’s third-person to Will’s first-person account, backing up to an accidental encounter in the 1970’s. Will, embarking on an affair with another girlfriend of Jack’s, adopts the socially approved, “gentlemanly” means to sex. The outcome is a mixture of desires and affections, lacking the clarity of Jack’s analytical separation between making love and falling in love. Stumbles Will: “I want you to understand how … great our sex was, and I hate that word ‘sex.’ It makes it sound like some other form of activity.” The effect is amplified by Will’s voice as a naïve wannabe novelist—in contrast to Jack’s journalistic, exact narrative—with which he annotates his life with unimaginative captions, often framed as “idea for story.” Thus the intimate knowledge of Jack’s intentions alternates with the delayed reporting of Will’s reactions, until clothes are removed piecemeal and words struggle their way to his consciousness.
Looked upon through the straight man’s lens, the directness of sexual desire and identity is perceived at a distance, often not without judgment: “He’s a dirty boy, and he understands other dirty boys and girls,” reflects Will on his friend. He compares the options, starting with Jack’s outlook: “It’s strange that his way, the sexual way, would be considered a secondary route,” while for Will “the high road is social, economic, stable.” So Jack, a “dirty boy” in the sexual way, will learn to be a gentleman. Will, a gentleman from birth walking the social way, will have to learn the sexual language.
Jack Holmes and his Friend is much more than a worthy addendum to Edmund White’s canon. The book provides an important lesson how the literary contribution of White—a gay writer with keen interest and insights in gay life—should echo well beyond “gay” literature. Far from reducing life to limiting interests and a limited readership, White’s mastery in depicting life and characters unabashed about sexual desire exemplifies his talent for addressing universal questions through the particularism of his fictional characters.