Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York in the ’60s and ’70s is probably more fun, and certainly more surprising, if you haven’t read different versions of many of the same stories in his earlier books. Still, he’s the kind of guy who is charming enough that you still invite him to dinner parties even after you start hearing him tell stories you’ve heard before.
[update: For those unfamiliar with White, he has written several autobiographical novels, including the classic coming-out story A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty (which ends with Stonewall), and The Farewell Symphony (which takes the story up to the devastation of AIDS), and a memoir, My Lives. They’re all good. He has also written other novels and co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex, which I have not read.]
White serves as a kind of tour guide, presenting alien worlds (whether removed in place or time or attitude) and also defamiliarizing middle-class America. This book is of course mostly about a seedy, dangerous, exciting Manhattan, before the stockbrokers replaced the interesting poor, but there are also a few bits of other places…in Rome in 1970 he was told that a man simply could not be seen on the street with groceries, so he learned to do his shopping with a suitcase. Jacket and tie were so de rigueur that when he picked up his lanudry in a T-shirt, the laundress chewed him out for disrespecting her work.
The story of White’s first big break as a novelist gives some of the flavor of his memoir. Richard Howard, the famous and famously ‘out’ poet and translator, had agreed to look at his unpublished novel. White called Howard, who told him to stand on the corner of 13th St. and 8th Ave. at exactly 2:00, and he would hurry by and grab the manuscript.
At the appointed time I was standing on the corner…with the manuscript in hand. I was wearing sawed-off blue-jean shorts and a maroon T-shirt. My hair was freshly washed and combed, but I wished I’d slept better and didn’t have such dark circles under my eyes. Suddenly I saw him whirling up the street at a fast clip in a cape, his bald head gleaming. He sized me up with a head-to-toe survey and a cocked eyebrow.
Later, on returning from Italy, White greeted Howard so warmly that Howard got the wrong idea and invited him to a weekend in the country. White wasn’t attracted to Howard, but he didn’t want to be rude, so he went; his lack of arousal quickly became evident, but Howard took it well, and they remained friends, though White sometimes shows irritation with Howard’s bossiness.
This story fascinates me because it is so like and unlike its familiar counterpart in the straight world; one can easily imagine the struggling young female writer tarting herself up to catch the eye of the distninguished man of letters and ultimately feeling she must put out to avoid alienating her patron, but that would be a sordid and even tragic story of exploitation, not a farce where friendship overcomes embarrassment. White forces me to rethink the way I judge the economy of desire.
White thought in the ’70s that gay culture was the wave of the future, disentangling love, sex, and friendship from each other, and that eventually even straight people would catch on to the futility of trying to have all three with the same person. He still seems much more genuinely enthusiastic about sex and friendship–as he says, “love is a source of anxiety, until it is a source of boredom.” His portrait of a culture in which the idea of a couple was frowned upon and any desire for exclusivity was uncool is very interesting, like a sci-fi novel about ‘the planet of guys.’ But though I know women who dismiss marriage as irredeemably bourgeois, I don’t think there are many who would envy White’s record of 3000 mostly anonymous sex partners in 20 years.
There is a good deal of chatty (sometimes catty) gossip in City Boy, interest of which will depend on whether you actually care about Manuel Puig (in my case, yes), John Ashbery (sort of), Susan Sontag (not really) or whoever. Still, my favorite cameo is of an obscure novelist named Coleman Dowell, and I’ll leave you with that:
When gay men say in their personals, “no drama queens, please,” they are trying to avoid someone like Coleman. He was from a poor family in Kentucky but lied and said he was rich, and that his family owned Heaven Hill bourbon. What he didn’t want to admit was that his psychiatrist lover Bert was supporting him. [Coleman wrote postmodern stories about, for example, a farmer cursed with a giant penis.] Ludicrous as these stories were, no-one quite saw them in all their pornographic absurdity, since they were rendered with such dodgy modernist devices and in an opaque Faulknerian style.
Cole was a martyr cook. Since he never left the apartment except to swoop down on homeless black men in Central Park across the street for sex, he had the rest of his time to write and to construct elaborate dinners that sometimes took three days to prepare. Cole would greet us at the door with dark circles under his eyes and exhaustion pinching his lips. ….
[Cole’s dachsund Tammy] had a wardrobe of diamonds and tiaras and furs that were contributed to a museum after her death….Cole once told me that all his pleasant female characters had been based on Tammy; the unpleasant ones were based on Susan Sontag, whom he didn’t know…