Dying of tuberculosis, Stephen Crane dictates a novel about a boy prostitute in another fact-based fiction from White (My Lives, 2006, etc.).
As in Fanny (2003), the author offers a “fantasia on real themes provided by history.” Stephen Crane did die in 1900, and his common-law wife Cora did once run a brothel in Florida called the Hotel de Dream. The dying writer may have met a teenaged male prostitute in the 1890s and begun a novel about him; a “Postface” quotes a document left behind by a critic who knew Crane, but acknowledges that it may be a fabrication. It provides a handy jumping-off point, however, for The Painted Boy, White’s clever act of literary ventriloquism that applies Crane’s trademark stripped-down prose to the subject of homosexuality, so out-of-bounds in the 19th century that White shows the writer’s friend and fellow novelist Hamlin Garland telling him, “These are the best pages you’ve ever written and if you don’t tear them up, every last word, you’ll never have a career.” Interspersed among passages describing Crane’s final months, the story of a country boy turned big-city whore and his doomed love for a banker is interesting enough, but without the shock value it would have had in 1900 it seems merely a standard piece of American naturalism. Far better are White’s portraits of the earthy Cora and of Crane’s literary friends: Henry James, with his elaborate, endless sentences and underlying shrewdness; artistic comrade-in-arms Joseph Conrad, bristling with energy and ideas. Crane’s personality is more shadowy, perhaps because his energies are all absorbed by dying. White’s best sentences acutely capture the contrast between two writers he admires for very different reasons: “James had thought about his art for half a century and devoted all his life force to it, but Stevie laughed at it all, would never be caught saying a word about ‘art’…and yet Stevie was the great American stylist.”
A minor effort, but a nice tribute to some of the author’s literary progenitors.