JACK HOLMES IS, like Edmund White, from "an eccentric Midwestern family," like White attended a boarding school outside Detroit--Cranbrook Academy pops up as frequently in White's fiction as Weequahic High does in Philip Roth's--and like White arrives in New York City at the dawn of the 1960s, hoping for work in the literary world. And like White, Jack is gay.
Well, we've been here before, you may be thinking--The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, My Lives, City Boy--well, of course we have. With luck, we will be here a few more times. A White book set in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, like a Roth novel set in Newark in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is a sign unto you that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
Jack's friend is Will Wright, from the Virginia fox hunting country, a would-be novelist, and straight. Jack loves Will. Thanks to Jack's good offices, Will meets not only the woman he will marry, but also the woman who will turn out to be the most charismatic of his mistresses. Jack will go to extraordinary lengths for Will, who seems hardly grateful for, or even cognizant of, Jack's devotion. Will, the reader is compelled to see, is a preening, self-involved, and painfully shallow man, an impression deepened rather than dispelled by the two length first-person-narration sections the novel grants him (Jack's sections are in close third person).
Very near the novel's end, Jack ponders the fact that Will is really not that lovable. But love is not about the lovableness of the beloved, is it? As Jack tells himself:
You love him, though he's as stiff as a scarecrow and about as human. He's a talentless writer. I've done a little snooping around, and I know his business is about to go under. He's turning into a drunk; he's a heartless father and a faithless husband married to a maniac.
But I do love him. He's as attached to me in his way as I am to him. We belong together. We could grow into two old libertines together, beauty patches on our zinc-oxided cheeks, pitiless in destroying young lives, as devoted to each other as two alligators dozing in the mud.
At this point in the novel, Will is avoiding his home, virtually living with Jack, and Jack at last gets a quick glimpse of that long fantasized-about penis (Will is worried about a venereal infection he has contracted and wants advice). And what does he find?
Nice shape. Looks like the circumcision was botched, with that extra dewlap of flesh hanging down on one side. Milk white skin with that ropy blue vein rushing down the shaft. Neither big nor little. Just big enough to satisfy anyone.
And that's it. As unremarkable as that. But desire is as unaccountable as love.
Somewhat to my surprise, the opening section of Jack Holmes and His Friend kept reminding me of James Salter's All That Is. In both, a young man arrives in New York (Salter's novel starts about a decade earlier), finds a good-enough job in the verging-on-prestigious-but-not-all-that-remunerative publishing world, fools around a bit, and winds up attached to someone from Virginia old money (precipitating a memorably-narrated awkward visit to Old Dominion). From there, though, Salter's novel seems to wind down and dissipate its energies, while White's manages to gather liftoff velocity and land on the the epiphany quoted above. Mistake me not--both are fine books. But White's, I suspect, will stay with me longer.