Alan Hollinghurst's deeply English but bravely carnal The Swimming-Pool Library, in 1988, was some kind of turning-point ("Seeing again how his cock was held in his little blue briefs I was almost sick with love, fondled it and kissed it through the soft sustaining cotton"). But even before that there was Edmund White, with the autobiographical fiction of A Boy's Own Story (1982) and The Beautiful Room is Empty, a sequence that now concludes with The Farewell Symphony, a novel both tender and brutal in its honesty: "I moved easily from one man to the next, my hand sifting through long hair, my lips grazing a soft moustache, my cock engulfed by a hot mouth that like a glass-blower's would make grow and glow through its motion a shape and an urgency."
A male heterosexual who finds such passages of joy (to use Thom Gunn's phrase) interesting and even enjoyable may start to wonder about himself: so, they were right, I must be poufy after all. But the answer may be more banal, the excitement a literary one. After the limp exhaustion of most contemporary male writing about sex with women (a tiredness that has made an increasing number of novelists, Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby among them, pull the blinds down if they feel a sex scene coming on), White and Hollinghurst look fresh and energetic.
The energy is partly the elation of breaking new ground. Ten years ago, if not now, a gay novelist could feel uninhibited by precedent. The tradition of Forster and Firbank is eloquent, but it includes very little speaking, plain or otherwise, about the male body - about foreskins and shafts and scrotal sacs, about nipples "the colour of a drop of blood when it tinctures a basin full of water" and "balls light and tender as seedless grapes or big and veined like walnuts", about skin as "warm to the touch as a clay pot left out in the sun". The territory has always been there, but White was one of the first novelists to report what it looks and feels like. The image is often flattering, rose-tinted with desire, but not always. "His mouth tasted slightly sour, like a mildewed washcloth," he writes of one lover. And of another: "his skin no longer looked like sugar dissolving in a spoon but had taken on the grainy, tobacco-stained hue of old piano keys." Flab, bad odours, bald patches and excess body- hair are here, too, part of the truth that can't be left out. These hymns to Him are more tactile than anything since the "Song of Solomon".
Not everyone can appreciate such writing, even when it avoids the horny cliches and come-on lyricisms of the flesh. There are those who dislike carnal prose in general, and those who'll be turned off by the particular carnalities here described, as well as those, especially women, who can't help but feel excluded. But White isn't only preaching to the inverted. His ideal reader, he says, was until recently "an imaginary European heterosexual woman", who functioned as a filter, a corrective, someone with whom he couldn't exchange knowing looks. And even now that Aids and activism have made him turn for readers to "other gay men, young and old", he remains faithful to "the old ambition of fiction", to collar strangers and look them sympathetically in the eye.
To win over strangers, you mustn't be too strange yourself. Though White depicts himself as uncertain and sometimes isolated when young, and still deeply conscious of belonging to a minority, he comes across as gregarious, engaging, good company. There's a Whitmanesque generosity about him, both physical and spiritual, and a lack of snobbism, however refined his aesthetic taste. There are elements in his work of Proust and Henry James, but he hasn't their physical recoil and fastidiousness. He's uncertain, too, and not afraid to admit it, turning his confusion into wise, wistful oxymorons about love and loss, polygamy and monogamy, Europe and America, and the vanity of human wishes. Some of the best sections in The Farewell Symphony narrate, not picaresque adventures in the flesh trade, but his relationship with his mother, father, sister, nephew and several women who unwisely fell in love with him. He's also fascinating on the subject of his literary ambition. For many years he ached to be published, as if it were a kind of canonisation and only then he'd be redeemed and vindicated. Once successful, he felt more isolated than ever and began to write "out of a mild curiosity about what I'd invent rather than from a searing need to impose myself on the world".
"Happiness writes white," said Montherlant. But this White (who once co-authored The Joy of Gay Sex) is very good at writing happiness, at recapturing sexual delights, delicious meals and funny conversations, always with that elegiac undertow that reminds us they can't last. His metaphors, whether pared or (more usually) lush, suggest a poet manque. And the best of his analogies are reserved for touch: "warm showers of sparks trailed his hand, as though my flesh were the phosphorescing sea in August".
White's poetry would get the better of him if it weren't that he's also an astute social commentator, an "archaeologist of gossip", and an unblinking eye-witness to the changing moeurs of gay men over the past 40 years. In the 1950s, White thought he was the only one; by the late 1960s "we were everywhere, an army, the coming thing"; in the 1970s, the "clone" look developed - moustaches and white T-shirts - and White, in love with idiosyncrasy, hated it, though not as much as he hated the "puritanical disease" that came along in the 1980s. It's all here: the tricking and cruising, the tops and bottoms, the remaking of Fire Island and Manhattan. At one point in The Farewell Symphony White describes a club in New York called The Mineshaft, at the centre of which is a wall with saucer-sized holes at waist height - "glory holes"for a transaction between faceless guys and unseen mouths. To hets, it's a vision of hell: even at our most perversely polymorphic, we don't come near to this. And yet the rampancy and neediness and addiction are recognisable enough.
White estimates that in 30 years he must have had 3,120 partners, on the basis of three a week. But he is also irresistibly drawn to the notion of the couple. A central theme of The Farewell Symphony is the pull towards sensation, novelty and plurality on the one hand and, on the other, a stable relationship with Mr Right ("I wanted to be his wife in the most straitlaced of marriages"). Both, to White, are impossible ideals, which doesn't make them any less worth pursuing. He is an American optimist but also a homosexual pessimist, who knows (and wishes women would, too) that "of course men betray you, of course love is an illusion dispelled by lust, of course you end up alone". Promiscuous yet uxorious, his book recalls both the high points of casual sex and the four enduring loves in his (or his narrator's) life: Sean, Kevin, Joshua and Brice.
Brice's death from Aids not only begins and ends the book, but casts a shadow on everything in between. It is, as White puts it, what makes a Gorky comedy about an endless summer house party end up as a terse Greek tragedy. Little is said about the illness. Little needs to be said. Implicit in all the carnal pleasures is the day of their curt removal. As well as Brice's death there are others, briskly catalogued or tearfully mourned. The novel attains a mythic quality, a legend of Paradise and Paradise Lost. For a brief, glorious period, its protagonists dwell in an Edenic community, "redolent of summer camp", where sex is "a game of touch-tag"; then comes the Fall. That almost every contemporary gay novel has this story to tell - the growth and decimation of a community based on sexual preference - doesn't make it any less compelling. It is a tale full of love and pathos, and Edmund White is its master chronicler.