Our Young Man
by Edmund White
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo seminal novels have been written about gay life in Manhattan and Fire Island in the seventies and eighties that many of us know and love, Larry Kramer’s Faggots and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance. They’re not the only authors who have documented the era, but they are certainly the best. It was not only a vital and important time in gay life, but in American culture as well. Edmund White was a witness to this time in history and has certainly documented the time well himself, but with Our Young Man he delivers a book that’s almost a companion to these two, although entirely different, especially in one critical way. Written in the twenty-first century, through eyes that have stayed modern and fresh, he can write about what happened to his characters well into the AIDS era. While the other two foreshadowed it as we read them now, the screw had not yet turned.
The novel’s protagonist, Guy, comes of age in a bleak, small, industrial French town. Truly great beauty is really nothing more than an accident of genetics and Guy is aware of his at a young age. On a trip to Paris, he is discovered by Pierre-Georges, who becomes his lifelong manager and friend, and is given the requisite makeover. His hair is colored, he’s sent to the gym, and given an updated wardrobe. He’s initially surprised when Pierre-Georges doesn’t expect anything from him sexually, but soon learns that his new manager prefers rougher trade, middle-aged working men he picks up at a small Paris bar specializing in them. Guy’s very French attitudes and perceptions color the whole novel and provide much of its surprising humor. Having lived and worked in Paris for years and given the fact that the love of White’s life was French, he understands the unique, very different French mind set and culture the way those of us who have only vacationed there may not. They simply think and see the world differently than Americans “That’s like like asking why English words are spelled the way they are. Because. Just because,” Pierre-Georges says ruefully to Guy. The French are pragmatic whereas Americans deal from emotion and feelings. It colors all their perceptions, even those of death. White understands all of his characters innately; their virtues, their flaws, even those colored by nationality, are brought to life. Their interactions and verbal exchanges aren’t always predictable, but they ring with truth and humanity.
Guy embarks on a modeling career that spans the seventies and eighties. In an era and industry that makes a cult of youth, he’s like a fly in amber—he simply does not age. It is remarked upon wryly by one observer: “But he looks so young, he must have a terrible painting in the attic.” White uses this premise to say a lot about beauty, its power and its drawbacks. Good looks are like currency in the gay community as well as in the world at large, at least they’re traded as such, giving them who possess it definite advantages. But, beauty can be its own kind of prison, it can keep people at arm’s length. Guy is showered with gifts and valuable real estate for sexual favors, often for not having much real sex at all. And Pierre-Georges encourages what he sees as an investment in Guy’s future. He discourages meaningful connections with men who can’t service Guy’s career or secure a financial security against a day when his looks run out.
Guy arrives in New York City on the edge of thirty, well past the sell-by date for a model, but still passes for twenty-three. The gay sexual revolution is at its height. Life revolves for the gay A-list around the clubs and parties of the city and its hedonistic summer playground Fire Island. There are so many landmarks and touchstones of gay New York of the period. (I hadn’t thought about Uncle Charlie’s, a Village bar, in years.) White tempers explicit tales of the sexual exploits of the time with humor and wit, softening what to outsiders might seem coarse and indulgent. But, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. A mysterious “gay cancer” appears and no one knows exactly how or why it is spreading. It progresses steadily, taking many men at the height of their powers, its name changing (next called GRID, and finally, eventually, AIDS) as the body count rises.
White brings a compelling and original perspective to the fore. As stark as the landscape became with the spread of AIDS, an ageless Guy can only live in the present. Just as for any young man of the time, there is some life beyond AIDS. In two major and faithful relationships, he manages to avoid the disease that kills many of his peers. He is affected by the crisis, but unlike many others, he does not protest and lay in the streets fighting an indifferent government and country. Not that that should be something that one should brag about, but it is true that there were those who just wanted to forget what was happening, they grew weary of death. It makes sense that a man who simply refused to grow old would want to ignore a disease that ages and kills its victims. Guy is no hero, but he is human and not alone.
Our Young Man is a novel by one of America’s masters of prose still, at seventy-four, at the height of his powers. He again brings his deep understanding of what it means to be human to the page and does so uniquely and with great sensitivity. White has been an chronicler of gay life in the U.S., but this work is something different for him. It explores a time in New York when he himself had lived in Paris. It adds a unique story and perspective to an already prolific body of work.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for twelve years.