We are seated by the pool of Island House Key West Resort during their weekly “Naked Sunday” afternoon when Edmund White tells me that he is and always was smitten by male beauty.
Maybe that is why he has written a passionate book about a French gay male model named Guy whose life is smitten by his own beauty, by his friends, by AIDS, by his career and finally by love.
Despite a distracting throng of playful and beautiful men in the pool, I called White’s attention to my questions about that book, the recently published “Our Young Man.”
When I asked him why he wrote the book and what he had in mind for it, he said, “I always try to be original. I try to put together elements in a way that has not been done before. I based “Our Young Man” on a 19th century French novel called Sapho by Alphonse Daudet. I homosexualized it, Americanized it and modernized it.”
In “Our Young Man,” White assembles a gay family that did not have the benefit of LGBT equality and a television-generated concept of the “modern family.”
I wondered if White had that in mind when describing the early 80s New York City household the characters establish.
“I didn’t think of that. The AIDS experience certainly brought gay people closer together,” he said. “I set it in the 80s because that was a time when models first became supermodels.”
He continued: “We all had these men in our lives on Fire Island, in New York, and there was one man in particular that I had in mind when writing Guy. He was an American model who was living in Paris. I went out with him several times, as did Brad Gooch (model, author of “Smash Cut” and one of White’s resources for “Our Young Man”) He spoke no French, but it was amazing how much English the Parisians were able to speak to him.”
I spouted a rather tedious contemplation about whether White’s character Guy was good, bad, noble, narcissistic, vacuous, wise or whatever. White put an end to this by reminding me that “Guy refers to himself as a black hole in space. Americans like to think of people as either good or bad. They are less at ease with the reality that we all contain a variety of virtues and flaws. Some say Guy reminds them of Dorian Gray, but that isn’t fair. Still, he is no saint. Near the end, he says he won’t go with his lover to Peru because it would ruin his complexion.”
I changed the subject, invoking “the Baron” a frightening character who is into extreme sado-masochism. When I said that I pictured him looking like Karl Lagerfeld, White laughed.
I then invoked another character, “Fred,” who has come out of the closet late in life, falls in love with Guy, buys him a house and becomes HIV-positive. When I suggested that in the movie version of “Our Young Man” Fred be played by Cate Blanchett, White roared, I assume with approval.
I told White I had one complaint about the book, the fact that he did not write a three-way sex scene involving Guy and the two young blonde identical twins from Minnesota.
“That wouldn’t happen because only one of the twins is gay. I think that in many cases of identical twins, they may have sex with each other, but often, only one is gay,” he said. “This disproves the notion that there is a gay gene. If there were a gay gene, both identical twins would have it.”
When I told White that I had not wanted this book to end and that I was now hoping for a sequel, he said that many of his readers have asked for a sequel.
I wondered if, in the sequel, Guy would become less interested in his own beauty and in the beauty of other men, and perhaps turn to having sex and romance with odd looking and quirky men.
“Well. I think as you get older, more and more people seem beautiful,” he said. “I now find almost anyone male attractive.”
I wondered if Guy would eventually lose his lovers when he lost his looks.
“Yes, that is always the way of it,” he said dryly.
“Our Young Man” is engrossing and delightful, not only because I lived through those years, admired men of great beauty and shared with my peers the fresh hell of AIDS in its first years, but because White is one of the few writers at work today whose prose is reliably lyrical and pleasurable. Many of us read his books repeatedly just to revel in the way he sequences his words.
In “Our Young Man,” White does not shy away from what he calls the “cock and balls” problem: the fact that many straight readers find gay romance appealing but may not want to read depictions of messy gay sex. There are pages that will make the ladies who lunch gulp.
When I asked White what he is now working on, he said, “I’m writing something about the activity of reading books. It’s not as boring as it sounds. In this next book, I write about how reading books and having sex at the library are fused for me. I cannot have one without the other.”
Having had my first sexual experience in the men’s room of the Hartford Public Library, I intend to be first in line for a copy of that one.
To order Our Young Man: Amazon.com/Our-Young-Man-Edmund-White/dp/1620409968/