White, Edmund. “Jack Holmes & His Friend: A Novel”, Bloomsbury, 2012.
Looking at Love
It is always a cause for celebration when Edmund White has a new book come out and we have two celebrations now. Edmund White has two new books coming out—one a nonfiction collection of profiles of people of importance, “Sacred Monsters” and the other a new novel, “Jack Holmes & his Friend” which looks at love as expressed by two different men. One of the beautiful things about White’s writing is the way he creates characters and he does so yet again in the new book. We have two men, Jack Holmes and Will Wright, one straight, one gay. They both come to New York before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and they both get jobs at The Northern Review, a cultural magazine and they become close friends. Jack introduces Will to the girl he will marry. But there is a problem. Jack also is in love with Will. Jack seeks help from a psychiatrist and dates several women and at the same time has sex with men. However, he does not lose his feelings for Will who maintains his heterosexual life and almost destroys his marriage.
The beauty of the novel is, of course, the characters of the two men and we see them as they face different aspects of their lives and find their places in society. White gives us their story against the background of a turbulent decade that witnessed the birth of the sexual revolution alongside of the assassination of a much-loved American president. Looking at the themes of “friendship, sexuality and sensibility” we get quite the look at the period. The fact that we see it through the eyes of two men who lived through it and that makes it that much more real.
Obviously Will must know how Jack feels for him and while he can return the feelings of friendship, he cannot do more and Jack faces the problem of not being able to feel for anyone else what the feels for Will. Will is from an old-established family and tends to enjoy being alone and working on his novel. Jack introduces him to the girl who is to become his wife but does not let on about his own feelings for Will. In order to really understand what is going on in the novel, it is helpful to understand the tempo of the times. The 60’s were an intense decade and America was experiencing the beginnings of the modern age. The old aristocracy stood on one side of the decade while the new Bohemia was on the other. It was a charged time during which the sexual revolution and gay liberation broke through and ushered in a new liberality that we had not seen before. It was during this period that Jack and Will found each other and a deep friendship.
White’s description of the 60’s brings the decade back to life. White uses the background as a canvas against which to paint his characters and has them appear in the various social milieus of the day. Each character receives his own portrait in intimate detail and we are privy to their human sides as they come to life on the pages of the book. Along with the intense physical descriptions, White gives us a look at their sexuality and sensibility and we are never at a loss in understanding them. The book is both the exploration of these characters and the age in which they lived and loved.
The idea of a straight/gay friendship is not new but the way it is treated here makes it read like a journey into the nature of life and love and an excursion into life as a libertine. Will, of course, realizes Jack’s affection and during the course of years from the 60’s to the 70’s, from the beginnings of gay liberation to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, he deals with his sensuality and his marriage is almost destroyed because of it. It seems to me that White tells the story from the perspective of a storyteller who fills his tale with metaphors and peppers his dialogue with philosophical views of humanity. While one of these perspectives would have been enough, to have all three gives us a wonderful experience as we read. White’s wit is present throughout and his observations on the way it was are brilliant. He gives us yet another wonderful read and a welcome addition to the gay canon. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will be on many of “THE BEST” lists this year.