America’s queer man of letters pens erudite, occasionally routine account of life, loves and lusts
“My Lives: An Autobiography,” by Edmund White. (Ecco-HarperCollins, 2006) 368 pp., $25.95.
For over 30 years, Edmund White has been the gay community’s modern-day equivalent of Henry James archly and eruditely chronicling the ups and downs of queer life from a self-imposed European exile. But whereas James is the eternal celibate observer seemingly channeling his sexual
energies into crafting grandly worded run-on sentences from hell White has never spared his readers titillating and exquisitely crafted accounts of his sexual exploits. This may well account for his continued popularity. (But then again, some might argue, so could his hangdog, gay Everyman persona.)
In any event, he’s now one of our elder statesmen of a literary bent, and in the eyes of some, a living treasure.
All this makes the publication of his autobiography, “My Lives,” something of a watershed moment in gay publishing. Eschewing the traditional,
chronological approach from cradle to present, White instead presents his narrative as a series of 10 “chunks” which roughly approximates a linear timeline of sorts.
“My Shrinks” may not constitute the most exciting start to an autobiography, but it methodically lays the unstable foundation to all that follows: “If today I have no few convictions and conceive of myself as merely an anthology of opinions, interchangeable and equally valid, I owe this uncertainty to psychoanalysis.”
The fact that White’s own mother was a psychologist in her own right, undoubtedly complicated matters. As White recounts, life for his divorced mother was far from easy, for “during the Eisenhower years a divorcee was just a step away from a prostitute.”
And her quest for Mr. Right soon desperately (and boozily) devolved into a hunt for Mr. Good Enough.
Consequently, White served as a spousal substitute: “She wanted me to be her soul mate, her confessor, her advisor, by turns a wise child and a comforting adult, sexless as an angel.”
Not until the fourth chapter, “My Hustlers,” does White reach familiar territory, rhapsodizing about the Kentucky hillbillies he’d pick up in Cincinnati after finishing work for his uptight father.
“Hustling gave a lot of out-of-work people something to do in the empty summer city,” White remembers.
He fondly recalls many of the rent boys whose services he procured and enjoyed in New York, Paris and more recently, via the Internet.
Unsurprisingly, sex crops up quite often in these pages, but never so blatantly as in “My Master,” a raw account of White’s ill-fated liaison with “a 33-year-old actor-writer-director named T.”
Anyone wishing to know the intimate details of White’s fetishes for sadomasochism and watersports will learn them here, occasionally to the point of information overload. White himself anticipates this, jocularly informing the reader that “I can imagine some of my friends reading this and muttering, “‘T M I Too Much Information,’ or “‘Are we to be spared nothing?”
And while on the surface these memories may seem exactly that, they
actually highlight White’s all-too-human failings and render him quite real. Instead of the expected “massive Edwardian gentleman” and all knowing “intellectual bully,” he reveals himself to be just as full of self-doubts and poor judgment as the rest of us.
Fans of White’s writings may be somewhat disappointed that he barely spends any time discussing most of his books aside from telling us which characters were based on specific friends of his, and what they thought about this. Only “Caracole” gets much mention, and that’s mainly in the context of how his unflattering portraits of the New York literati cost him many friendships (including that of Susan Sontag). Indeed, this oversight, as well as his relative lack of comment about living with HIV for over 20 years, are two of this book’s chief disappointments.
People familiar with White’s writing style will enjoy his layered, mannered prose style and frequent attempts to ingratiate himself with the reader: such as “I came to despite nonessential verbal ornaments, though the reader may decide I’m still guilty of inconsequence.”
“My Lives” unobtrusively demands that one take one’s time reading it, savoring the text like a fine wine. His accounts of historical details are striking. His chapter on “My Blondes” is riveting. And his unsparing self-analysis is vicariously bracing.
White occasionally treads upon familiar territory and dangerously teeters on pomposity every now and again. He nevertheless proves himself a worthy heir to Henry James’ title of “The Master” even though White readily admits to preferring the role of slave.
ROCK STAR AT THE PULPIT
Another celebrity trades fame for a humanitarian cause. But in Bono’s case, he’s arguably the most effective superstar with a conscious. He’s also a gifted lyricist, and his way with words crosses over to public speaking. When Bono talks, people listen: like the pope, U.S presidents and world leaders around the globe.
In 2005, Bono was a Time magazine Person of the Year and a Nobel Prize nominee.
An ardent supporter of Africa from 1984’s Live AID to last year’s Live 8 concerts Bono’s work is one of the reasons why President Bush promised to increase U.S. aid by nearly $30 billion over five years, including a major new initiative to fight AIDS in Africa.
On Friday, Bono visits Dallas to speak about his work and to bring attention and resources to the fight against global AIDS and poverty in Africa.
Daniel A. Kusner
Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Ave. May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. 214-373-8000. www.dfwworld.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, May 5, 2006.