Jack Holmes and His Friend, by Edmund White, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 400 pages
Given that very early on in Edmund White’s new novel the reader will be confronted with a scrotum as “red and veined as an autumn leaf in the rain” and nipples like “Nordic berries stunted by the cold”, it should be said right off the bat that Jack Holmes and His Friend is not a contender for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award but an elegantly stylish novel that deals grippingly with that subject we never tire of. For a novel that largely turns on the faulty wiring between the minds and bodies of men there’s a whole lot of flower arranging going on here. A mistress’s breasts remind her lover of anemones “maybe because the aureoles were big and dark and the surrounding petals were soft and relaxed and drooping”.
White is not a hornier incarnation of Constance Spry, but he is a terrific storyteller, gifted with a deceptively easy style that strides from wit to passion to pathos and then back. He is also author of several acclaimed novels and City Boy, his 2010 memoir of life as a young man in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a sleek, close-shaved quality to White’s prose that in passages gives it the warm lubriciousness of early Updike and the dry martini sting of Cheever. And he is mercifully free of the lumbering pretensions, much in evidence these days, to write the Great American Novel.
Though he sketches in the urban landscape of the 1960s and 1970s with a deft hand (save the odd glaring anachronism: Paul Smith and the hip reincarnation of Barneys didn’t happen until a decade later) White couldn’t care less about making some grandly oracular statement about the gay lifestyle in the halcyon days before Aids. His bounding metaphorical exuberance often works brilliantly at conveying the feel and look of Manhattan at the moment of the Kennedy intoxication – and crushing hangover. To the Midwestern Jack Holmes, tall, rangy and corkingly supersized where it counts, New York, “with its tall buildings wavering in the heat and the blasts of dirty air blown up through the grates by deafening subway trains ... sometimes felt like a rusting, but still functioning, factory built by a giant”.
Yes, there is a story, kinda. Jack – whose college girlfriend had off-puttingly told him all about her spasmophilia (look it up) – works for a literary magazine unappealingly named The Northern Review. As a favour to one of the two women with whom he shares a downtown apartment, Jack recommends a job-hunting friend of hers to the magazine sight unseen. When he lays eyes on Will, tall, blue-eyed and pimply, love scorches through the acne, but, alas for Jack, where there’s a Will there’s really no way – he is irredeemably straight. Jack and Will never do get to go up the hill, much less tumble down it, but instead stay workmates and lunch buddies.
Jack copes by plunging (I use the word advisedly) into the usual gay line-up, including the inevitable ballet dancer with husky tonsils and buns of steel. Will writes a novel, which is the only thing about him that makes Jack cringe, and is set up by his thwarted pal with a fine-boned Upper East Side society girl whom the horse-country Virginian boy ends up marrying. Needless to say this doesn’t work out as planned. The second half of the novel, recounted in Will’s disconsolate voice, sees him predictably alienated from the attenuated, waspy wife with the suburban vodka habit. Jack, now a hotshot at Newsweek, gets him into another fix in the curvy shape of Pia, of the anemone tits and more besides, including a mink-covered couch-bed on which Will is led to many varieties of bliss, all anatomised in loving close-up.
Loving is the right word for the sex in Jack Holmes; its pleasure arises from the fact that, gay or straight, sex is never presented as either crudely mechanical or sentimentally precious. White enjoys himself getting down and dirty, even as his characters resign themselves to never getting to the holy grail of an intimacy that’s both unselfish friendship and daily rapture. Thwarted, they recoil from the sucking, licking, cupping and bucking with chapped lips, the occasional invasion of minute but icky vermin and shudders of disgust. But these predictable disappointments are treated with a light-fingered affection which, these days, makes a nice change from the statutory doses of weltschmerz required for the big prize shortlists.
Jack and Will swing between truth and self-deception but mostly they swing with winning, earthy honesty. Alternating between cold contempt and sweaty hots for the voluptuous Pia, Will wonders whether “the big red, slippery heart of a couple ... this genital couple, huge and smoking, sat happily on a throne ... didn’t dwarf and overshadow everything else?” He dissolves into a reverie of “her white body thrown back on those gleaming oiled mink pillows” but then, “as I wiped up I thought that Pia wasn’t so special”.
Jack Holmes and His Friend doesn’t really go anywhere. It won’t change your life or introduce you to a higher state of consciousness but while you’re in the thick of it, it couldn’t be more fun.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor