The film When Harry Met Sally may be infamous for the scene in which the heroine mimics orgasm in a crowded café, but the real point of the story is a question: can a man and a woman ever be true friends, or must sex always get in the way? Jack Holmes and His Friend poses the equivalent question about a straight man and a gay one. If it’s made into a movie, the working title will surely be When Harry Met Gary.
Homosexual writers seem to be much better than straight ones at combining high literary style with vastly enjoyable descriptions of really filthy sex. Edmund White is a master of both. This novel is like one from the French 18th century, where passages of intricate social comedy alternate with carnal episodes of Baroque detail.
Jack Holmes is a Midwesterner who comes to New York in the late 1960s. While they are both employed at a little magazine, he befriends Will Wright, from a grand but impoverished family, who is unrelentingly heterosexual. (Wright sounds like Right, one of many little jokes which pepper these pages.) Will is handsome and secretive and wants to write a novel, and Jack is utterly smitten. Cupid’s arrows fall at random: Will is also shallow, narcissistic, tactless and disloyal. His novel sounds ghastly. He isn’t even nice to his own children. He entertains such thoughts as: ‘Befriending a gay was like knowing a Negro — you didn’t want too many, but one was chic.’ When his mistress confides her fear that she may be unable to have children, he tells us: ‘I found this news reassuring, though I was careful to look sympathetic.’ Discussing his love life with the long-suffering Jack, he says: ‘I wonder why she adores me.’ A question which must trouble the reader, too.
By contrasting and interweaving the lives of these two New Yorkers across several decades, White examines the differences between gay and straight mores. The extreme promiscuity of the gay world in the pre-Aids 1970s may be, in White’s word, brutal, but it has a bracing honesty (and, after the event, a kindness) which is absent from Will’s greedy and repulsive extra-marital adventures.
All of this is tremendous fun. It is impossible not to like Jack and to be amused by the exploits brought about by his enormous penis, almost a character in itself, a sort of penile Candide. The first sex takes place on page 37 and continues in, as it were, glorious Technicolor throughout. No other writer is so good at describing pubic hair.
If this were the book’s only qualities, it would be delightful enough. But White is also a marvellous writer. Barely a page passes without some arresting metaphor: ‘carefully brushed grey hair’ is like ‘wings under which the egg of his baldness was nesting’; a skinny boy’s ‘clavicle came swimming out of his shoulder like a spatula in batter’; someone blinking is ‘the equivalent of inching open a fan, then snapping it shut’; a girl’s ‘glossy black ponytail perched on one shoulder like an expensive pet’.
The social observation is just as sharp. When young, ‘Jack and his friends were always ironic, but often they didn’t know if they were serious or not about any given subject. Irony was just a way of feeling superior instead of insecure.’And the best line in the book: ‘No man in history has ever thought his own face looked dishonest.’