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White Wash

Edmund White's reputation has mushroomed in recent years. But his talent, compared to a younger generation of gay writers, looks like it's shrunk.

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Camp counseling: Edmund White pioneered gay fiction, but now his students are surpassing him.  

The Married Man
BY EDMUND WHITE
Alfred A. Knopf; 336 pages; $25.00

Affinity
BY SARAH WATERS
Riverhead; 352 pages; $24.95

War Boy
BY KIEF HILLSBERY
William Morrow; 352 pages; $24

Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas
BY DOUGLAS MURRAY
Talk Miramax Books; 374 pages; $27.50

What kind of career would Edmund White have had if he'd been straight? It's a question you're bound to ask yourself as you make your way through his new novel, which is yet another reminder that the author's lofty stature ("He's the dean of gay letters," a friend of mine in gay publishing nodded knowingly when I mentioned I was going to be writing about White) has been increasingly untethered to the actual quality of his work since at least the early eighties. That's when White stopped writing small, intense, self-consciously stylish novels like the exotically filigreed Nocturnes for the King of Naples or the slyly funny Forgetting Elena or his career-making autobiographical coming-out novel, A Boy's Own Story, and decided to be -- well, the dean of gay letters: the august, definitive, multivolume, semi-autobiographical chronicler of his own Lost Generation, the Anthony Powell -- or, as his admirers would have it, the Proust -- of leather bars, pectorals, and plague.

Like a lot of gay men of my generation -- I'm 40; White's 60 -- I liked, and was grateful for, White's vivid early books. It was a relief, in 1984 or so, to find on the daring new "Gay Interest" shelves of the college bookstore something other than "classics" of gay fiction like John Rechy's vaguely terrifying hustlers-and-drugs saga City of Night or Andrew Holleran's narcissistic-loneliness-as-a-high-art-form novel Dancer From the Dance. There was a quality of lightness about the early White that was intensely appealing to people who came of age (and came out) just before aids hit -- gay men who were young enough to benefit from the struggles of those who'd come before without (we thought) being weighed down by the freight of shame and anxiety that burdened our older gay friends. Especially in A Boy's Own Story, White seemed to be the only person writing about . . . normal gay stuff: sex and longing and bars, yes, but also rides with your dad in the Chris-Craft and fooling around after lights-out during sleepovers with the neighbor boy. Then came aids, which seemed to call for Importance rather than quirkiness and stylishness. So he set off for Paris, where Importance resides, to chronicle his generation and the devastation of aids in a series of thinly disguised autobiographical novels that took up where A Boy's Own Story left off.

The great irony of White's career is that the vastness of his project has shown up the limits of his gifts. The self-conscious artfulness and Baroque filigree that could glint and sparkle in his early novels becomes, in the big books, an embarrassingly show-offy "grand" manner ("I was reeling in a Breughel peasant dance of signifiers") that barely hides a smallness of spirit. Rather than a wide-angle view of the totality of the gay experience, the real point of these books often seems to be the teensy roman à clef revelations about the people the author has known. (Early in his career, the young White was taken up and encouraged by established authors like Susan Sontag and Richard Howard; he repaid the favor by bitchily caricaturing them both in Caracole.) I suspect that books like The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony are so popular because the things White puts in them, the minutiae of urban gay life -- the easy sex and hard hearts, the swank aspirational gossip, the real or imagined cosmopolitanism, the endless, terrible, ongoing subtraction of human beings from their lives -- are like the things in a lot of gay people's lives. His work gives readers a sense of confirmation. There's nothing wrong with that; it's just that there's not a whole lotta writing going on here. White is regularly referred to as "Proustian" ("Nobody since Proust . . ." goes a typical blurb from the London Times); but as his awful new novel reminds you there's more to being Proustian than a Paris address and a good memory.

The Married Man is supposed to be a love story. It traces the "tragic" affair between yet another White-ish protagonist, an artsy expatriate Wasp named Austin Smith, who lolls around a fa-a-a-bulous little apartment on the Île Saint-Louis while giving excellent head and living off a "sizeable advance" for his forthcoming book on eighteenth-century furniture (Note to self: nudge agent about Hummel-figurine proposal!!!); and the married Julien, whose appeal for the reader, if not for Austin, remains a total mystery throughout the novel. Chacun à son goût, I guess: I may be superficial for being put off by Julien's oily skin, his horrible snobbery, his habitual lying to his family and to Austin, the "liverish green linen sports coat" that he constantly wears, perhaps because it's the same color as his temperament; others, I have no doubt, will detect a refined inner nature here. "Do you like linen?" Austin asks his married lover in one of the tender exchanges that demonstrate that here, at last, is a Love That Will Never Die. "Yes," Julien responds, "it's a noble material."

I'd like to say that Julien's protracted death comes 250 pages too late to save the book -- but what is there worth saving? The tired expat digs about American culture? (During a trip to the U.S., Austin, who's taught himself to prepare pike in a beurre nantais at the drop of a chapeau, is repelled by Grape-Nuts and "rows of unripened vegetables" in local supermarkets.) The little mini-lectures about the demographic composition of the bourgeoisie? The invocations of Gide, or the knowing asides about "the best white wine in the world"? Everything here, you realize, from Austin and Julien's first meeting at a gym to their seemingly endless and understandably tense vacations with Austin's old boyfriends to Julien's illness and death, is just an excuse for White to show off how at home he's made himself while living abroad, during his late, Henry James­ish stage. The Married Man is meant to be about two emotionally frozen people who find themselves capable, after all, of deep commitment; but Austin and Julien's relationship can't move you, because you can't imagine what they see in each other. Inevitably, in a book where limp strings of adjectives are forced to do the work of characterization, the characters are all outsides with no insides: "Although he was vulgar and sassy, Gregg had deep inner resources of grief." This is Proustian? Perhaps: Sentences such as "Like a goddess Joséphine flashed anger from her beautiful fierce eyes" are enough to put anyone in a cork-lined room.

Halfway through The Married Man, the narrator sniffs that Americans have no flair for gossip. "They didn't know how to serve it up. They got bogged down in detail, they introduced too many names, and they never told the end." That's as good a characterization of White's recent fiction as I can think of. I have no doubt that The Married Man will find an audience, but I have to wonder what it says about "gay letters" when such a writer can be acclaimed as the "dean." In any university but the open-admissions one that is "niche" publishing, where all you need to do is wear the appropriate sweatshirt ("gay u.") to be admitted, this book wouldn't have even passed its, um, orals.

The Englishwoman Sarah Waters is half as old as White, and has written a dozen fewer books, but she could teach him a thing or two about novels. Her first, Tipping the Velvet, was good; her second is just terrific. Moody, haunting, and haunted (it's about love among Victorian spiritualists), Affinity is two parts Wilkie Collins, with whose The Woman in White it shares an obsession with prisons, madness, journal-keeping, and elaborate, carefully engineered deceits; and just a dash of Jeanette Winterson for up-to-the-minute lesbian-historical-fiction flavor. ("He, she -- you ought to know that in the spheres there are no differences like that.")

Margaret Prior, an unmarried upper-class woman with Electra-ish neuroses, is recovering from a suicidal breakdown after the death of her beloved "Pa"; as a high-minded distraction, she starts visiting the women in ominous Millbank Prison. There she falls in love with Selina Dawes, a beautiful young medium who's been imprisoned after one of her (rather sexy) séances goes horribly wrong. That may sound like melodrama gussied up in period drag, but I can't think of a recent novel as subtly constructed and psychologically acute as this one. As she ever so slowly draws the threads of her increasingly gripping narrative together (Selina, of course, wants to escape, and the besotted Margaret, of course, wants to help her), you realize how successfully Waters has made the spirit world into a richly illuminating metaphor for the world of illicit love. Both, after all, rely on a fervent belief that what you want is out there, somewhere; and both, as Affinity's wrenching climax reminds you, are full of users who profit from the credulity of the lonely.

I liked Kief Hillsbery's first novel, War Boy, a sweet if overplotted bildungsroman whose hero, Radboy, is just your average gay, deaf and dumb, environmental terrorist "sk8boarder"; all of 14, he is in search of love like everyone else. Radboy runs away from home in deadly dull New Monterey after his alcoholic dad kills his mom. On his way to San Francisco he picks up his own Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion: a pair of gay speed-freak punkers, an environmentalist Swedish nurse, and a red-hot, not entirely trustworthy crack-addict fellow sk8boarder named Jonnyboy. They decide that the obvious way to solve their problems is to blow up the offices of a corporation that chops down giant sequoias. There's way too much going on in this novel, but it's hard to resist a narrator who wobbles between sly manipulation of hearing people ("Her face definitely goes Hallmark after she reads my note") and a poignant cluelessness: Because he can't hear a queeny new friend's intonation, Radboy has to look up camp in the dictionary. When was the last time that happened in a gay novel?

More precocious youth: Douglas Murray's new life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the beautiful and spoiled young "Hyacinthus" whose affair with Oscar Wilde rocked late-Victorian England and led to Wilde's trial and imprisonment, begins with a lengthy series of acknowledgments of all those who helped the author "over the five years it took to research and write this book." You'd never guess from this sober beginning -- to say nothing of the meticulous, judicious, and surprisingly lively biography he's produced -- that Murray is only 20, an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford (Wilde's alma mater, as it happens).

Wilde dies on page 119 of Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, and there's still another 241 to go; but Murray, who's apparently charmed his way into the libraries of some great houses, uses previously unavailable material to show that his eccentric subject was more than just a footnote to Wilde's life. Douglas has always been cast as the spoiled, manipulative villain of Wilde's downfall, but Murray persuades you that he behaved admirably during the trial, when he remained in England at considerable personal risk, and even afterward, when, unaccountably, Wilde turned against him. (Less persuasive are Murray's arguments for the excellence of Douglas's poetry and his stature as a serious artist.) In later life, the hyacinth wilted: Among other things, he accused Winston Churchill of participating in a Jewish financial conspiracy and went to prison after Churchill successfully sued for libel. Still, Murray's Bosie is more complex and, ultimately, sympathetic than the one you thought you knew. In the rah-rah culture of gay publishing, where false idols are so regularly worshiped, it's nice to find some feet that aren't, after all, made entirely of clay.


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