Edmund White's Hotel de Dream is a complex re-imagining of the last days of the American novelist Stephen Crane. Although narrated partly by Crane, it is the salty voice of his "wife" without official sanction, the former bordello proprietor Cora, which brings life to the book. Her accounts of the visits of Henry James and Conrad put White's gift for sly irony on handsome display. But it is the long story within the story, "The Painted Boy," dictated by Crane amid bouts of tubercular haemorrhage, which raises interesting questions about Crane, and also about White. It is an uneasy pairing.
Hotel de Dream is a fantasia upon a story which Crane did not write, and for which there is no credible evidence. The manuscript of Crane's Maggie: a Girl of the Streets was completed in 1892, when the author, a college drop-out, was 21. That precocious novel of low-life in the tenements of New York City took an unsentimental look at motherhood, the family, romance and respectability. It ends with the heroine, now one of the "painted cohorts", approaching one "stout gentleman wearing a silk hat" after another. They regard her with casual indifference. Maggie's suicide soon follows.
An influential magazine editor despaired of the cruelty of Crane's story, and found it utterly lacking in visible sentiment. "You mean that the story's too honest," Crane remarked. Within eight years Crane was dead of tuberculosis, and the project of literary naturalism in America was at an end.
Crane observed passion from an ironic height, and had nothing to say of the breasts or any other body-part of his heroine. It is the cruelty and indifference of her destruction, and Maggie's innocence, which to Crane was the great truth at the heart of big cities. White is enamoured of the erotics of skin and penis, and dwells upon sexual obsession. It is hard to imagine two writers more unlike.
The story of the "painted boy" Elliott, his sexual abuse at the hands of his brothers and father, and his life as a street boy, or girl, in the choppy sexual marketplace of the homosexual underworld, is a subject for White, not Crane. However lurid the horror of his denouement, the "painted boy" is a blank surface, a slab of marble, to be fingered by others at will. His lover Theodore, a middle-aged banker in an unfulfilled marriage, is swept away by the delirium of an impossible obsession. White tells his story with the clipped brevity of a slide-show.
White's Theodore is a victim too, but one belonging more to the fictional world of Theodore Dreiser than to Crane's. His prototype is perhaps Hurstwood, the portly saloon manager in Dreiser's Sister Carrie, destroyed in a similar bout of middle-aged sexual folly. Hurstwood's decline, narrated in slow-paced detail, makes a larger claim upon our understanding. When it comes to obsession, the author of An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie knew plenty, or at least as much as is worth knowing.
Eric Homberger's cultural history of New York City is published by Signal
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