Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Jack Holmes and his Alter-Id: a review of Edmund White’s latest novel

at Amazon

Jack Holmes and His Friend, the latest novel from Edmund White, is a novel with two narrators, Jack Holmes, a gay man, and his best friend, Will Wright, a straight man. Together they weave this tale, describing their relationship of mutual support and attraction. Characters in the story are forever tempted to call it a love affair, but the word love is sadly inappropriate when we are talking about two completely self-centered creatures as these. They admire and complement each other but all for their own personal gain. In the terminology of the Freudian psychology that pervades the story, they are not alter-egos, but rather alter-ids, feeding each other’s compulsive hedonism from their own isolation. When they have sex with other partners, they are really consummating the romance between them, but when they come face to face, they are cold fish. This relationship is a collaboration between men in separate cells, every feeling passed from between the bars on the tips of fingers that can barely touch, every thought etched miniscule on a scrap of paper to be rolled up and pushed through a crack in the wall and then masturbated to in silence.

Jack and Will come to New York in the 1960s to make their way, and they work together in the offices of an upscale magazine. Jack narrates the first segment of the story in which he slowly becomes comfortable in the gay lifestyle that he has chosen for himself: that of well endowed and carefree one night stander who often does not bother to remember the names of his tricks. But one name he can never forget is that of Will Wright, the “Mr. Right” that he obsesses about. He knows quite well that Will is straight, that he is the one man in his life who will never succumb to Jack’s good looks and his physical assets, but that knowledge seems to fuel rather than discourage his ardor. In the the second installment, Will Wright takes up the story, bringing the reader into the 1970s and describing his own dissatisfaction with middle-class monogamy. He envies Jack’s libertine ways and becomes fascinated and finally seduced by Jack’s subtle manipulations, thus making unwise choices that nearly destroy his marriage. When Will’s wife creates a scene in Jack’s office, saying “You’ve stolen my husband!” she does not mean that in a sexual way, but in a psychological way, and she is right.

Yet, the seduction is the whole story for Jack and he has no Act Two for that particular tale. Now that he has Will, he doesn’t need him anymore. In the third part of the story, told from a detached narrator’s point of view, the two drift apart, Jack toward a relationship of convenience with an older man, and Will back to his wife. Neither of them ever open up in love to anyone, neither of them seeming to learn anything from their foolish ways.

This novel will not appeal to everyone, as it is a rather sad story full of missed opportunities and deflected pain. Yet, it is moving, cautionary and perversely entertaining. Whereas such a narrative could be leaden and bitter in less able hands, Edmund White brings such artistic talent and such human insight as well as worldly sophistication to the story that even the most unpleasant incidents can delight the reader. We don’t end up loving these characters, but we do wish them well, if only to keep them from hurting anyone else in their travels through life.

For a more personal take on the story, see my post on the Nickel Fare Facebook page. In that article I look at the ways that Jack Holmes’ New York differs from my own, and how Edmund White’s protagonist differs from my own.

September 3, 2012 Posted by | literature | , , | Leave a comment