Bloomsbury, £18.99, 392pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Jack Holmes and His Friend, By Edmund White

 

When I interviewed Edmund White for a newspaper profile, that supremely gifted photographer Jane Bown came along to take the pictures. In a swift stroke of impromptu genius,she turned the straggly greenery behind a London hotel patio into an antique bower, with White as a sprite – half-Puck, half-Pan – grinning out from between the leaves. If mayhem and upheaval often follow in his spirit's wake, then their passage will leave, beyond the heartbreak and bewilderment, happiness and even some hilarity behind.

From A Boy's Own Story to Hotel de Dream, White's vast accomplishment as a fictional chronicler of American (and many European) lives and loves needs no reiteration here. To highlight his special achievement as an interpreter of the gay experience risks drawing down the shadow of the ghetto. To sideline it, though, risks dishonouring the artistic courage and integrity he has brought to the roles of witness and pioneer. Suffice to say that, as with every writer who matters, he can speak to anyone, from anywhere – but always as someone, from somewhere.

However broad his compass or grave his concerns, that strain of madcap mischief, of antic merriment, will always guarantee delight. Jacket puffs in general count for nothing, but when – as in the case of this, White's tenth novel – Martin Amis, John Irving and Dave Eggers line up to hail a master, even scoffers should sit up and pay heed. A treat lies in store.

White aficionados will rapidly plant the novel's action and people into the unfolding landscape of his work – from the progress of a Mid-Western kid in flight from the "grotesque chaos" of his uptight family, to the social and emotional texture of Manhattan gay and bohemian life between the discreetly swinging Sixties and the Aids-haunted Eighties. But questing, insecure journalist Jack Holmes – with his improbably neat porn-star name, and oddly burdensome porn-star endowment – makes up one pole of White's plot. His perpetual antipode is Will Wright, ramrod-straight (or is he?) scion of a Virginia gentry family, and the unattainable "friend" for whom Jack hopelessly pines from the era of Mad Men and Sinatra to that of Dynasty and disco. Their unconsummated "bromance", as shifting and shaded as any marriage, gives a tingling spine to this wise, funny, sympathetic and richly entertaining novel.

Jack's own story, in the first and third acts, comes couched in a smart, sophisticated but compassionate third-person narrative. Will, in the middle section and a brief epilogue, speaks for himself, sometimes less incisively. This bold switch of voices delivers problems along with its extra possibilities.

To be frank, Will starts out by sounding rather stiff and dull (as befits his roots in the Southern plantocracy) but soon acquires some of his creator's epigrammmatic flash and sparkle. But then, the choice between brittle brilliance and solid rootedness lies close to the heart of this story – in art, in love, even in the rhythms of its prose.

Fleeing the scene of his parents' car-crash relationship (Dad, aptly enough, is a Detroit executive), Jack studies Chinese art in Ann Arbor, Michigan and becomes a downbeat would-be beatnik in Greenwich Village. Quickly he picks up the lifelong habits of an attendant lord – "a fine backup singer, but not a soloist". Early girlfriends, however, find that the bland, malleable nice guy secretes a "heavenly problem" in his pants. This outsize talent, at least in one department, not only supplies the novel with a running (or rather standing) joke but Jack with a kind of destiny – a fortunate one, as it turns out.

At the upscale Manhattan arts mag where he works, Jack falls for blue-blooded Princeton alumnus Will just as (via a priapic faun of a ballet dancer) he comes to grasp his growing attraction to men. Diplomat and go-between, the perfect "extra man", Jack introduces his unreachable beloved to Alex, the rich and arty deb who becomes Will's loving and resourceful wife.

As times and tastes change, Jack mutates from furtive misfit to detached connoisseur of the one-night stand: the urbane but loveless poster-boy for a seemingly more "tolerant and progressive" epoch. After a failed first novel, Will the Catholic toff settles into suburban calm, a family man on his organic land, and half of a trendily patrician couple of "back-to-nature loons". In due course, he will stray from monogamous bliss - thanks to the more wolfish sensuality of the half-Italian socialite, Pia. As ever, Jack fixes the affair.

If the mood and décor of the two men's jointed tales often recall other White novels, then the wit and daring of his prose dispels any hint of monotony. Nimble, naughty similes take flight on almost every page, from a German matron's bosoms "like warm dachshunds in constant motion" and gay groups jingling down New York streets "as if Santa's reindeer had been watered with champagne and gone plunging off course" to Will being pleasured by his mistress, "as if it were a doll's head that she was painting with her tongue, determined to cover every last centimetre". Whatever the gender combination, White's sex scenes have a humour, poignancy and poetry all their own. Many British male novelists, still so pitifully craven in or near the bedroom, could learn much about the tongues of love from him.

As always, though, White looks for the soul within, and not against, the flesh. Over the years Jack and Will – drunk or sober, aroused or apathetic, forever close but never together – come to pursue a sort of Platonic dialogue (in every sense) about love and desire, gay and straight.

White packs this erotic Symposium with dialectical quarrels, asides and reversals. Each party both envies and rejects what the other seems to have and know. Both struggle, as humans will, to integrate devotion and desire; to "knead their sentiments into their sexuality and roll it all out into a continuous surface that didn't tear apart". If neither quite succeeds, then each concludes – in his way – an honourable truce with fate as the heyday of the "libertines" gives way to a more sober, or simply more scared, age.

"Let's face it", thinks Jack as he frets about a lover's incompatibility, "people are obstacle courses". Often comic, never heartless, White's fiction shows us how to fall over them with grace.

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