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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 1 March 2019

"A Boy's Own Story" by Edmund White

Six episodes in the growing-up of a homosexual. 'Cornholing' a younger boy, working for money to hire a rentboy, living in a hotel with mother and sister, having oral sex at summer camp, adoring the most popular boy at middle school, and seducing and betraying a teacher at boarding school.

There are three things that lift this book high into the stratosphere of literary greats. First there are the character portraits. White describes his mother and father and teachers and fellow students and all the other characters with enormous sympathy, chronicling their strengths and weaknesses, charting their complexities, and never ever descending into caricature. The father, for example, is a businessman who can't quite fit in'to the local social scene, who is easily hurt and a bit of a sissy, but who can talk baseball and do manly things such as building steps, who owns the speedboat but isn't at ease with it because he can't swim. He works all night and sleeps all day. He thinks 'love' is a word to be used by women, men 'like'. He has sex with one of his workers and then dismisses her but when his maid needs help he rushes to assist.

  • “We were both afraid of the water, he because he couldn't swim, I because I was afraid of everything.”
  • “He throbbed with the pressure to contend, to be noticed, to be right, to win, to make others bend to his will.”
  • “Naive and proud at the time of her divorce, she wanted to conserve money but also maintain a good address. She decided the three of us should live in that expensive hotel in one furnished room with twin beds, my sister and I taking turns sleeping on the floor.”
  • “My mother was a tedious Penelope weaving her tales and tearing them up.”
  • “I, who thought only of survival, had no interest in philosophical questions. The proximate ones were enough to obsess me, not as things I choose to contemplate, but as decisions rushing up at me as out of oncoming traffic. These were the things I thought about: Am I boring Tommy? Mill he mind if I rest my elbow on his shoulder? Should I powder my white bucks or keep the scuff marks? How low should I let my jeans ride?”
  • “There was nothing about this actor that couldn't be read from the top balcony.”

The second feature of this book is the insight it offers into the human condition. Some of this is from the perspective of a boy who will grow up gay in a society that considers homosexuality as a disease, a weakness, a failing: “I never doubted that homosexuality was a sickness. In fact, I took it as a measure of how unsparingly objective I was that I could contemplate this very sickness.” But other aspects are more general comments on life:

  • “He hadn’t invented another life; this one seemed good enough.”
  • “I feel sorry for a man who never wanted to go to bed with his father; when the father dies, how can his ghost get warm except in a posthumous embrace? For that matter, how does the survivor get warm?” 
  • “The price of freedom - total solitude - seemed more than I could possibly pay.”
  • “That was the secret of the imagination - its creations were feeble only to the maker but stronger than life itself to the observer.”
  • “All of our daddy's dollars were casters on which the furniture of our lives glided noiselessly.”
  • “Busoni once said he prized the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one ‘good part’ to another. He said such workmanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer - the actual vernacular of his imagination - then the deliberately bravura moments.”
  • “Someone who seemed not at all eager to confide in me or seek my friendship or even comments, as though he recognised that this life, at least, was worth enduring only if it remained unexamined.”
  • “She taught me that the loneliness I felt like a bad burn could be soothed. I most certainly had been lonely. I had ached and writhed with loneliness, twisting around and smearing it on me as though it were a tissue of shame pouring out of my body: shameful, familiar, the fell of shame.”
  • “Under my sister's tutelage I learnt that love or at least friendship must be coaxed, that there are skills ( listening, smiling, remembering, flattering) that lure it closer.”
  • “When I was growing up I had never glimpsed the underbrush of kid society that lay just behind the topiary of the classroom. .... Nor did I suspect some kids saw each other every day after school, saw and saw each other strolling under a shifting leaf spray of social life and sexual shadows.”
  • “Except when he sang. Then he was free, that is, constrained by the ceremony of performance, the fiction that the entertainer is alone, that he is expressing grief or joy to himself alone.”
  • “If the Devil were listless, if he were a pale man in his underwear who watched television by day behind closed venetian blinds - oh, if that were the Devil I would fear him.”
  • “We were Shadows, like the dead after Orpheus passes them on his way through the Underworld, after this living man vanishes and the last sound of his music is lost to the incoming silence. All my life I've made friends and lost lovers and talked about these two activities as though they were very different, opposed; but in truth love is the direct and therefore hopeless method of calling Orpheus back, whereas friendship is the equally hopeless because irrelevant attempt to find warmth in other shades. Odd that in the story Orpheus is lonely too.”
  • “Because I loved her she was opaque to me.”
  • “The world is governed by a minority, the sexually active, ... they hold sway over a huge majority of the nonsexual, those people too young or too old or too poor or homely or sick or crazy or powerless to be able to afford sexual partners ... All advertisements and films and songs are addressed to sexuals, to their rash whims and finicky tastes, but these communications cleverly ignore nonsexuals, those pale, penniless, underdeveloped bodies, blue nipples flung like two test drops of ink from a new pen across the blotting paper of a chest, or high, hairless buttocks, unmolded by hands into something lovely, something enticing, left pure and formless like butcher’s lard.”
  • “‘Just because you feel something is no reason to act on it’, the priest said. ‘Americans hold up their feelings as though they were ... dispensations’.”

But the feature of this book that simply blew my mind away was the description. White's descriptions of sex and fearlessly honest and yet not in the least tacky. His descriptions of the world are lush and gorgeous and yet precise, like a Caravaggio.

  • “Squeals, breathing, a tussle. then release, followed by the sound of two boys just being.” 
  • “His breath smelled of milk. His hands and feet were cold. ... His back and chest and legs were silky and hairless ... A thin layer of baby fat still formed a pad under his skin. Beneath the fat I could feel the hard, rounded muscles.” 
  • “That such a tough, muscled little guy, whose words were so flat and eyes so without depth or humour, could be so richly taken - oh, he felt good. ... Here he was, pushing this tendoned, shifting pleasure back into me, the fine hair on his neck damp with sweat just above the hollows the sculptor had pressed with his thumbs into the clay.”
  • “The night, intent seamstress, fed the fabric of water under the needle of our hull, steadily, firmly, except the boat wasn't stitching the water together but ripping it apart into long white shreds.”
  • “A world so sensitive, like a grand piano, that even a step or a word could awaken vibrations in its taut strings.”
  • “One opulent drop of water rolled down his high, compact chest into the hollow between his nipples, the right one still small and white from the cold, the left fuller and just beginning to color. The other drops were not so heavy; studying his body impressionistically with light, they didn't move; they slowly evaporated.”
  • “As the sun, like life returning to a body, stole over the world, the beam from my father's flashlight grew less and less distinct until it had been absorbed in the clarity of something that was new yet again.”
  • “I looked up at a face sprouting brunet sideburns that swerved inward like cheese knives toward his mouth and stopped just below his ginger mustaches. The eyes, small and black, had been moistened genially by the beers he'd drunk.”
  • “As the bottle slowly empties, its brown liquid, like kerosene fuel in a lamp, radiates, in words and more words, the intense heat of despair.”
  • “Folk songs in need of a pitch pipe.”
  • “The sound of a voice choking on its own phlegm.”
  • “The path I took girdled the hills that rimmed the lake; at one point it dipped and crossed a bog that looked solid and dry, planted innocently in grasses, but that slurped voluptuously under my shoes.”
  • “The sun solemnly withdrew into its tent of cloud, disappointed with the world.”
  • “ I could see Tom’s muscles like forked lightning on his taut stomach; here was this boy so handsome and free and well liked and here were we flanking him, looking up at him, at the torso flowering out of the humble calyx of his jeans.”
  • “Mr Beattie was brushing his right hand back and forth over his crew cut. He seemed to be concentrating on this job, getting the feel of those soft quills against his palm.”

This is writing as appetising and fulfilling as a carefully crafted meal at a top-class restaurant. I am in awe of someone who can write so beautifully. Wow!

February 2019; 218 pages

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