Our Young Man
By Edmund White
Bloomsbury USA. 304 pp. $26
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Chris Baltz
nolead ends Esteemed novelist and memoirist Edmund White's latest book, Our Young Man, centers on the aptly named Guy, a gay French model living in New York City.
The novel follows Guy's life in the modeling industry from France to Manhattan, through hedonist parties and relationships with older, and then younger, men. Blessed with almost unnatural good looks, Guy remains exquisitely handsome, able to pass as 20 in his 40s.
Defying clichés of fabulously good-looking models or celebs, there are few hints of vapidness or vanity about him. As a narrator, he is always internally aware of how he looks and how he can use his gift to his benefit. Yet there is also a fundamental goodness and decency to Guy.
Early in the novel, he begins a short-lived romantic relationship with an older man, motivated primarily by thoughts of obtaining a beach house. Later, though, when this same man is dying alone from AIDS, Guy continues to visit and care for him.
Guy's attractiveness as a character is enhanced by his general wit and insight. His commentary on the differences between France and America are amusing and thought-provoking. He recalls being called "down to earth" as "America's highest and weirdest compliment."
In moments like this, White pulls from his own biography: an American, born in Ohio, who spent years in France and New York. In this sense, Guy's life trajectory is a mirror of White's own.
It would be an exaggeration to call the book an AIDS novel, but the specter of the disease lingers in the background. The lack of awareness Guy and the rest of the world have about the disease - how it spreads, what causes it - is especially chilling.
"He knew Guy was scared ... of this gay cancer thing as long as it lasted, maybe another year," naively thinks one character. We have the sense that at this moment in history, the entire gay community is sitting quietly on the edge of apocalypse.
From his early self-discovery as a gay man to his maturity, Guy is no prude when it comes to sex, nor is White in describing it. The frank descriptions of the physical workings of gay male sexuality reflect the often shifting relationship dynamics between Guy and his lovers.
And while Our Young Man is not an overtly political work, it performs the important task of helping reclaim the subject of physical love between men, one all too often restricted to polite euphemisms and subtle hints. For this reason alone, Our Young Man stands as an important novel.