three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
By: 
Edmund White
user_rating: 
0

737062.pngAward-winning author Edmund White, a professor of creative writing at Princeton and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has published eleven previous novels, six works of nonfiction, three biographies, three memoirs, and a play.

The Story: In the early 1960s, Jack Holmes graduates from college, and fleeing his Midwestern roots, he travels to New York City. There, he meets another recent transplant, snobbish Southern blueblood Will Wright, while working at an upmarket cultural magazine, the Northern Review. The two men soon forge a close friendship, but as their adopted city teeters on the brink of social revolution, their relationship manifests the changes taking place around them. Unexpectedly, Jack falls deeply in love with Will, and realizing that Will can never return his affections, he launches himself into a series of furtive and unsatisfying affairs with other men while struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.
Bloomsbury. 400 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781608197033

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"This dynamic between Jack and Will is an ideal means of delineating the difference between gay and straight sex from the male perspective (the novel’s overarching theme) in ways that seem fresh and real and free of cliché. … White neither sentimentalizes nor overemphasizes Jack and Will’s friendship: it’s as complex and filled with tension and unspoken conflict as any close relationship, but because the two men speak so un-self-consciously about their bodies and their sexuality, they transcend it all." Kate Christensen

Seattle Times4 of 5 Stars
"The novel maintains an artful balance between social history and individual tale. Changes in sexual mores, sexual politics and social prejudices serve as a narrative backdrop that’s only half-registered while Jack’s and Will’s personal and professional concerns take center stage, White being well aware that people are often more absorbed in their own dramas than the times they inhabit." Michael Upchurch

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jack Holmes and His Friend is an impressive and thoroughly enjoyable novel, although far from a perfect one: its two female characters … resemble cardboard cutouts with convenient characteristics grafted on to them; White refers obliquely to Jack’s disastrous childhood too much for us to ignore and too little for it to be of genuine interest. … But the peculiar, individual and persistent nature of Will and Jack’s friendship is its great strength, and one that marks White out as an immensely gifted chronicler of the intricacies of the human heart." Alex Clark

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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." Matthew Tiffany

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Sex still fascinates 72-year-old Edmund White, whose prose is always most alive when it sneaks underneath the sheets. … But the story’s fully clothed passages are told with bored indifference, as though White is as eager as his characters to get to their next sexual romp." Adam Markowitz

Critical Summary

Throughout a career that spans nearly 40 years, White has demonstrated a finely honed talent for characterization, setting, and dialogue, and Jack Holmes and His Friend, part love story and part cultural history, displays the author at his best. However, judging by the reviews, the visceral, exuberant sexuality of the narrative often overshadows White’s keen insights and elegant prose. Rendered in vivid, intimate detail, the characters’ exploits divided the critics, who alternately labeled them as "filthy" (Entertainment Weekly), "raw, elegant, direct [but] too precise to be erotic" (New York Times Book Review), and "tiresome to read" (Minneapolis Star Tribune). Witty, poignant, and explicit, Jack Holmes and His Friend cleverly maps out the early gay rights movement with a single friendship.