Undoubtedly Edmund White is one of America’s pre-eminent writers, the author’s fluid use of language and his innate capacity for detail often leaving other contemporary novelists gasping in his wake. In Jack Holmes and His Friend, the lush and descriptive prose
for which White is so renowned unfolds in exotic, sexy, even wicked tones that evoke tender memories of unrequited love.
Through the perceptions of
White's titular hero, Jack Holmes, sex is rendered in painfully honest detail as passion spirals outwards from the tumultuous early 1960s and on to an era characterized by the Vietnam War. In White’s tale, an extramarital affair becomes a complicated dance of bate and switch as Will, Jack’s best friend, finds himself growing musty in his marriage to his wife, Alex.
Utilizing a first-person narrative with an unusual mix of wry humor and deadpan seriousness, White makes us equal participants in the actions of both men, plunging us into Jack’s Manhattan world of erotic reveries,
the rather bookish and refined boy glorying in his own maleness, his “monstrous appendage” is always on display. Jack
becomes immersed in a life filled with champagne orgies and occasional tricks, drawn ever more to the addictive “homo thing” that seems to “slither around in the shadows.”
For a man who is used to the brash all-male locker-banging world of the heterosexual male, he finds it hard to adjust in a world where no one wants to spend time with a clearly identified homosexual, a condition that is labeled as a perversion and a disease. It is the early
Sixties, and Jack has learned to think of his queerness as a deformity and a scandal, “something akin to heroin addiction or pedophilia” which could even get you fired.
Jack furtively ponders whether confident Will Wright, the “scion of Charlottesville,” might just have moved to New York to lead a secret life. Jack's nascent fantasies for Will run so deep and so seductive, the narcotic powers of Will’s spell all part of his inaccessibility.
As the two men face the highs and lows of life, each new twist of fate and sex brings them closer together, each sometimes grasping for an understanding of the other’s feelings.
The author brings trails of blazing color to every scene, making his
characters enormously real and vibrant. Lovely Pia, only half-Continental but also privileged, at first seems so much closer to Will’s version of a cosmopolitan world. "Expensively thin" Alex relays her confidences to a greedy Will while also beguiling the already culpable Jack with her china and satin hostess gowns.
While Will attempts to write his first novel, Jack seems to sleepwalk his way through life. Readers will find themselves caught up in pre-Stonewall New York, where real sex is juxtaposed with imaginary sex and Jack, at first, has a pulsing urge to rid himself of homosexuality, “this demon of loneliness and the dragon of self-hatred.” Will’s view of Jack is essential to our understanding of how both men fit into the sexual revolution and the burgeoning gay liberation movement.
While Jack’s passion for Will drives White’s brilliant, burnished tale, the author’s prototype allows him explore the larger theme of sexual desire down through the ages, interlacing Jack and Will’s complicated emotions into a compelling chess game of friendship and of love.