Two men try to navigate a friendship beset by an attraction that is not mutual.
The inner turmoil of a protagonist coming to terms with his homosexuality can present a delicate balancing act for the fiction writer. The character's interminable, unrelenting preoccupation with how he is presenting himself can make for stirring drama. It can also make for an unrelenting slog for the reader, trapped in a conversation with someone who keeps hammering on the same set of frustrations.
In his latest novel, "Jack Holmes & His Friend," Edmund White does a remarkable turn of writing, in that rather than try to walk a thin line, his narrative wraps itself around that balancing act.
Set in the early 1960s, the first part of the novel veers in and out of that repetitious slog as the reader learns about Jack, a country boy who moved to a big city and is not entirely sure of which gender he is -- or should be -- attracted to. The "friend" of the title is Will, a co-worker who receives the brunt of Jack's adoration.
White has a keen talent for setting and dialogue. The story is firmly placed in its era and has a studied preoccupation with social mores reminiscent of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. On the other hand, there is a great deal of kvetching about Jack's unrequited affections and a soul-searching that seems overly simplistic while also occupying pages of space. It's also worth noting that there are a good number of fairly explicit sex scenes, which grow tiresome to read and add little to the story.
Just as the reader's frustration with the same three notes being played over and over reaches a "do I want to keep reading this book" level, though, White shifts the narrative forward in time and turns the third-person narration over to first person with Will's perspective. Nearly a decade later, the story now finds Will with the dust well settled on his marriage. After many years out of touch, Will runs into Jack, leading him to reconsider his quiet life. By the end, both men have seen dramatic shifts in who they are and how they relate to the world around them.
White is to be credited for keeping these two men chaste in their relationship with each other and diverse in the frustrations they each experience. Both Will and Jack have desires that, by the novel's end, remain unrequited; lessons remain unlearned, and insights come at a cost. Though the novel ends, it doesn't do so neatly, with the loose ends tied up. What remains is that delicious frustration that, like Jack and Will's struggles, make you want to go back to the beginning and watch it play out again.
Matthew Tiffany is a writer and counselor in Maine. He blogs at condalmo.com