Top-flight novelist White (City Boy, 2009, etc.) returns with a bittersweet story of the love that dared not speak its name until about the winter of 1963.
The chronology is a little fuzzy, but the author situates the opening of his latest novel safely in the cozy prep-school world of the late 1950s. Jack Holmes is a glorious son of a Rust Belt then brilliantly agleam, tall and blonde and “with stomach muscles as hard as a turtle’s shell,” popular with everyone. It would be easy for him to coast, to live a superficial life, but Jack is a person of depth and complexity. So we learn when, after college, our Gatsby makes his way east and pitches his tent among the bohemians of Greenwich Village. His intelligence soon land him on the staff of a high-culture magazine where, “over-caffeinated, overdressed, and under-instructed,” he wrangles with an editor who’s smarter than Susan Sontag and more frustrated than Portnoy. At the same time, he enjoys an increasingly catholic diet of friends and bedmates, including, eventually, a promising young novelist named Will Wright—the name is suggestive—who emerges, over the chapters and decades, as Jack’s soul mate. This is not all to the good, for White’s story takes in not just the time of innocence and Camelot, but also the very first inklings of the “gay plague” that was first known as GRID, later as AIDS; Will’s final dedication to Jack reads, “Our libertine days are over.” So they are. White’s book embraces a classic love story, but it is much more: It offers something of a cultural history of gay life in New York in the closeted era before Stonewall. In the sometimes facetious, sometimes mutually uncomprehending, sometimes blazingly intelligent interplay of people of all sorts of orientations, gay and straight and in between, and all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities, White’s narrative is sometimes reminiscent of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories—which is no small praise. But White’s chief characters are all-American types, which one supposes is the point: Though Jack’s psychiatrist may scold him for “acting out,” and though they were subject to criminal prosecution in their day, his desires and passions are utterly normal. White’s writing, of course, is not.
One of the best novelists at work today, White spins an entangling—and thoroughly entertaining—yarn.