Let’s start with arithmetic. Edmund White’s 11th novel is a book about age and ageing. The young man of the title is a French model called Guy. Like Dorian Gray, Guy never seems to grow old. By the middle of the novel he is nearly 40, but he can still convince people — crucially, a desirable 19-year-old called Kevin — that he’s 25. The other characters constantly comment on Guy’s age. Guy himself obsesses over it and goes to great lengths to hide the truth, pretending not to recognise cultural references from earlier decades. Subterfuge so successful, apparently, that not even Edmund White knows how old his hero is.
On the first page, we read that Guy ‘arrived from Paris to New York in the late 1970s when he was in his late twenties but passed as nineteen’. Fifteen pages later, we hear about Guy’s first visit to the US: ‘Pierre-George sent him to New York for a Pepsi commercial… It was 1980.’ (My italics.) On page 159, Guy takes an Aids test. The nurse thinks he’s made a mistake. ‘It says you were born in 1945, but that should be 1965.’ Guy reassures him that 1945 is correct — which would make him 30 in 1975, and certainly not ‘in his late twenties’ in the late 1970s.
Perhaps this seems pedantic, or beside the point in a novel about an ageless wonder. But the vagueness doesn’t sound deliberate, and that rattles the reader’s confidence in a serious way. In the acknowledgements White thanks his copy editor and says, ‘I alone am responsible for the mistakes of fact, chronology and understanding in the book.’ The sad truth is there are simply too many of these. For example, it seems peculiarly modern for Kevin to be worried, in the 1980s, about a Spanish house guest who once lived with ‘a terrorist named Mohammed’. ‘What if he tries to make a bomb and blows up your brownstone by mistake?’ Kevin asks.
These infirmities extend to the writing, from the overarching structure (buried under reams of repetitive and often contradictory character notes) to the prose. For every successful image (a young man’s spine and ribs ‘like a trilobite fossil’) there are 20 overwritten ones. ‘His abrupt absence left a roaring vacuum behind, the sort you see in a movie when the villain punctures the shell of the airplane and the passengers are all sucked out into the freezing stratosphere.’ Still more problematic are sentences that don’t work grammatically. ‘Guy had swilled three Rusty Nails over shaved ice and then willingly, drunkenly presented Fred with his asshole, with a full-sized replica of the David in the corner.’ In the corner of their hotel room, you assume — you hope! — although in the preceding sentence, Guy and Fred were still in the dining room.
In A Boy’s Own Story (1982), the autobiographical novel that made White’s name as a fiction writer, there is also a character called Kevin. Aged 12, he suggests a spot of ‘cornholing’ to the 15-year-old narrator, who penetrates him using spit as lubricant. It’s a painful, slow process, but Kevin is committed. ‘“Is it in?” he asked. “Yep.” “All the way in?” “Almost. There. It’s all in.” “Really?” He reached back for my crotch to make sure. “Yeah, it is,” he said.’ And half a page later, once Kevin has relaxed: ‘“Want it tighter?” he asked, as a shoe salesman might.’ As a shoe salesman might. More life, in those five words, than in all of Our Young Man. White’s prose style hasn’t aged well. Anyone more persuaded by Kevin the Younger will be pleased that A Boy’s Own Story is now reissued as a Picador Classic, with an introduction by Alan Hollinghurst.