Jack Holmes and His Friend: Edmund White’s Wisest and Funniest

Posted on January 17, 2012
Filed Under Book Review, Strong Recommendation | 2 Comments

Jack Holmes and His FriendEdmund White’s new novel, Jack Holmes and his Friend tells the stories of two men–one straight and one gay–in the nineteen sixties and seventies.  It isn’t surprising that Mr. White brilliantly describes the story of Jack Holmes–the gay character.  (He covered similar territory in his memoir City Boy.) The big surprise of this book is how well he renders the straight character.  Mr. White  inhabits this character–telling his story in the first person.  At times Mr. White projects this character’s heterosexist attitudes so well that it can be maddening to the reader.  But Mr. White has created something unique here.  And at the root of it are two characters who are three-dimensional, fully realized–sometimes surprising, but never inconsistent.

The glue that binds these two characters together is friendship.  But this friendship isn’t exactly the Aristotelean ideal.  Indeed it can be argued that this isn’t the story of a friendship at all, but rather of one gay man’s unrequited love for a straight man.  But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that these two characters–so different on the surface–live parallel lives and in the end come to possess values that are surprisingly similar.

Of course it isn’t accidental that Mr. White chose to set this novel when he did.  The sixties and the seventies were a time of sexual revolution for straights as well as gays. And make no mistake this is a very sexy novel. And sometimes this can be surprisingly humorous.  So while Jack Holmes and his Friend is Edmund White’s wisest novel it is also his funniest.  Consider this paragraph:

Billy was naked, and his body looked much more childlike than Jack remembered.  He had a shower-pink butt, very prominent and cherubic but unwobbling, and a kid’s little paunch with a tidy “inny” belly button and just a touch of blond pubic hair dusted around a small penis that curved snugly around his sac.  His chest was hairless and flat and his arms slightly plump.  Resting on top of so much childish inconsequence was a big, surprisingly adult head with horrible razor-cut hair, a geranium-red complexion, and a heavy smoker’s lines bracketing his mouth.  Jack no longer found him attractive

I love the way Mr. White sums up the mounting humor of this paragraph with one short punchline.

I strongly recommend this novel.

Edmund White’s Jack Holmes and his Friend is published by Bloomsbury.

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