When it comes to affairs of the heart, the titular characters of the new novel “Jack Holmes and His Friend” are inept, but charmingly so. Spanning over two decades before and during gay liberation in New York City, the book chronicles the unrequited love that reluctantly gay Jack feels for his homophobic best friend Will. Contempt stokes the flames of desire in both men’s volatile romantic relationships and even in their own friendship. But social taboos never break the odd couple’s bond and, ultimately, they draw the two closer. We asked author, critic and professor Edmund White for his thoughts on love and the pursuits of happiness.
Jack’s most valued friendship is with Will, who he never crosses the line with. Do you think one can be friends with another if sexual attraction is an ulterior motive?
The person in love spends all of his time wooing and studying and adjusting to the whims of the other. Part of friendship is that total concentration on another person. Love is a good motivator.
Have you had any friendships like Jack and Will’s?
I’ve had close friendships with gay men who didn’t reciprocate my sexual feelings. So I know what it’s like. A friend of mine said, “I think that Jack seems so childish. Only a teenager would feel that way.” But in my case, I really was hopelessly in love with a friend of mine for years.
While we get to know both friends intimately, the title and chronology of the book put Jack in the forefront. Yet Will is the one written in the first-person.
I wanted Jack to remain mysterious; I wanted a change of pace when I got to Will. I thought it would be a challenge to write in the first-person about a straight man. It’s what novelists like to do; to imagine what a different existence is like.
The characters judge themselves more harshly than the outside world does. What advice would you give a writer like Will who can’t get past his own demons in order to fulfill his dreams?
You need to forget the outside world for a while. If your motivation is to have everybody envy you, it’s never going to be satisfying. You have to take pleasure in the act of writing. Oftentimes I suggest to my students that they take moments from their lives but have other people lead them. I gave Jack the trajectory of my early years but he’s not like me. He’s not ambitious, he’s not a writer, he’s better looking than I was [laughs] and so on. And he’s closeted until way into his 20s, which I never was.
Jack disassociates himself from gay rights movements. Do you think, in 2012, either Jack or Will would support gay marriage?
Jack is pretty conservative. The two boys share that — they’re both stuffy, upper-middle class people who have a kind of Mitt Romney quality. It was another way I could distinguish between myself and Jack. I was active in gay liberation; I was at Stonewall and one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. That’s almost the opposite of Jack, who’s not sure he wants to be identified as gay. I think they probably wouldn’t like gay marriage. Though he’s a lapsed Catholic, Will has Catholic values. And Jack wouldn’t see the point. Even though at the end he has a partner he’s dedicated to, he would reject something that seemed too gay. Marriage would seem too gay to him.
A historical dimension
“In the beginning, in 1962, Will thinks he’s very noble to have a gay friend because he’s terrified that people might think he’s gay,” says White about exploring shifts in perceptions toward the gay community in the book. “But by the ’70s, Will sees it’s chic to be gay. Gay people have been on a rapid cycle, oppressed in the ’50s, exalted in the ’60s, even glorified in the ’70s and then almost wiped out in the ’80s. That was something I wanted to capture.”