Edmund White’s City Boy: Literate, Historical, Delightful.

Posted on October 5, 2009
Filed Under Book Review | 248 Comments

Edmund WhiteEdmund White’s City Boy is the kind of book we rarely see in the United States:  a literate memoir.  It is an important book.  And It is also a delightful book.  In a conversational–frequently humorous–style, he chronicles his own life in the sixties and seventies.  For most of these years, Mr. White was struggling.  I was frankly startled to learn how long he struggled.   Today Edmund White is such a literary institution that it comes as a surprise to learn how difficult his early years were.  It is somewhat ironic that these difficult years make such an enjoyable read. But Mr. White intelligently includes thorough descriptions of New York City throughout the book.  It’s changed significantly since the sixties and seventies.  New York was certainly dirtier, smokier, emptier and less safe.  But it also had a bohemian art/literature culture that is now gone.   So while Edmund White struggled for years to get his work published, he spent much of this time in the presence of artists and writers.  A lot of names come up in this book:  Susan Sontag, Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Mapplethorpe, Christopher Isherwood, Harold Brodkey, Lillian Hellman, William Burroughs to name a few.  But it never feels like Mr. White is name-dropping.  All of these names arise organically through the narrative of the story.  And Mr. White is never catty.  Indeed this is a surprisingly warm-hearted memoir.  Thus City Boy manages to be both educational and a pleasure to read.

One gets the impression that Edmund White has been writing this book years before he actually put it down on paper.  He covered the Stonewall riots in his excellent novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, but here he seems determined to fill in some blanks.  For instance, he has in the past compared the Stonewall to the Bastille, but here he further explains this analogy:

The Stonewall was a symbol, just as the leveling of the Bastille had been.  No matter that only six had been in the Bastille and one of those was Sade, who clearly deserved being locked up.  No one chooses the right symbolic occasion; one takes what’s available.

The Stonewall riots remain an enigmatic event:  a flash of violence in an otherwise peaceful movement.  Queer leaders all have their own ways of interpreting and reinterpreting this seminal event.  Mr. White has this advice for them:

GLBT leaders like to criticize young gays for not taking the movement seriously, but don’t listen to them.  Just remember that at Stonewall we were defending our right to have fun, to meet each other, and to have sex.

It is interesting that while many of the writers Mr. White encounters were gay, sex–or even sexuality–rarely enters into this book.  He does point out that most of them kept their sexuality a secret, except to close friends and family.  But for all their drama, manipulations–even deceptions–these really were writers struggling to define great literature and to write it.

The selection of the sixties and the seventies for this volume of memoirs is significant.  The sixties and the seventies truly were a pivotal period for queers, for society and for literature. And the first person narrator–as in Mr. White’s best fiction–has a certain universality to his character.  Here he is likable, humorous, slightly self-deprecating.  At the beginning of the book he smokes three packs of cigarettes a day and drinks heavily.  By the end of the book he has quit smoking and drinking and, by his own description, has gained a few pounds.  At the beginning of the book he believes he is sick and goes to more than one therapist to “cure” himself of his sexuality.  By the end of the book he is becoming a gay leader.  His journey is that of a gay everyman.  But this gay everyman is extraordinary.  Because Mr. White’s most important evolution is his journey from struggling writer to internationally acclaimed author.  How he made this journey, and who and what influenced him along the way, forms the core of this book.  And it’s what makes this book great.

Edmund White’s City Boy:  My Life in New York During the 1960’s and 1970’s is published by Bloomsbury.

UPDATE 11/29/09:  City Boy just made the New York Times Notable Books of 2009 List.  Good call!

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