[21 June 2009]
This particular moment in gay history provides an interesting context when reading Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. First published in 1982, the narrator reminisces about his coming-of-age as a gay adolescent in 1950s America. White, writing at the head of a decade that would witness the effects of AIDS and the formation of a new gay consciousness, presents a narrator that doesn’t use the term “gay” but the clinical “homosexual”. The narrator is not proud of his sexual “problem” (he certainly wouldn’t march in a parade) and he can only imagine himself in an adult relationship with another man as a romantic fantasy. The world of the novel, at first, seems far from our contemporary discourse on civil unions and marriage equality.
Or is it? I’m certain that the daily lives of many GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender) kids remains a struggle. And don’t all teenagers, regardless of sexual orientation, yearn for their own community? In the past 20 years, more coming-of-age fiction from queer writers of various ethnic backgrounds, social classes and religions have charted the diversity of GLBT lives. White must be one of the first in American literature to have written so honestly and unapologetically of the young gay experience and his novel continues to be a powerful, beautifully written account of male adolescence and the anxieties of sexual awakening.
We first encounter the nameless narrator of A Boy’s Own Story on a boat with his distant, workaholic father while they entertain the sons of a family friend. Pleasure boats, cigars, the cottage, and a pet dog named Old Boy set the stage for a leisured upper-middle class American family in a post-war idyll. Soon after, White details the narrator’s first sexual experience with another boy in realistic, unsparing language. Despite being only 15, the narrator is already disappointed with love, how the experience differs from the romance in his mind. The novel moves outward from this incident following a narrative that moves backward and forward in time up to his days at boarding school. (A Boy’s Own Story is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony.)
The narrator presents episodes from his adolescence which focus on the cast of eccentric characters that move in and out of his life. His mother searches unhappily for a second husband while his sister, demonstrating more social and physical power than her brother, gets her school friends to steal their father’s belts only so that she can whip them. His father keeps an idiosyncratic schedule, runs away with his secretary, and doesn’t believe that men should ever use a word like “love”. Meanwhile, the young narrator plots with a hustler to run away to New York City one day, and confesses his desire to always be near his father the next.
His exploration of, and battle with, his own sexuality provides the novel’s overarching tension. His main tools against his homosexuality are religion, psychology, and education. All three institutions are more or less ridiculed throughout the novel. White is a bit heavy-handed with some characterizations, entertaining as they may be, such as the speed-freak psychoanalyst who discusses his own problems in sessions while offering a stream of Freudian psycho-babble. The teachers the narrator befriends or lusts after are more subtly drawn, the relationships and motivations more complex.
The narrator’s voice—by turns lyrical and brutal, expansive and introspective—is White’s greatest triumph in A Boy’s Own Story. He elevates what could have been a clichéd, the self-hating gay, into a fascinating study of sexual reckoning. The novel’s resolution does not come in the form of a group hug, tragedy, or transcendence, but in a far more interesting (and darker) moment when the narrator realizes the power of sex and considers this act as his own rite of passage to adulthood.
Despite these rather heavy themes, the narrator’s wit provides moments of levity such as when he states with great certainty that attending an all-boys boarding school will be the cure for his homosexual desires. White’s language melds the colloquial (“cornholing”) with the metaphorical. Of the psychologist’s couch he writes, “I felt somewhat abashed by the couch’s very explicitness, as though it were someone’s beautiful mother who wouldn’t cross her legs, who had even decided to flaunt her most intimate charms.” The narrator detects his own homosexuality as a “Lysol smell ... the rubber-wheeled metal cart of drugs and disinfectants”. Like the narrator himself, the reader takes comfort in the boy’s vivid imagination and metaphors, the way he can lose himself in the art, literature, and music which permeate the text.
I first read White’s novel as a teenager and was struck by its brazen, intimate tone and how easy it was to relate to the narrator’s struggles despite the decades that had past, and the progress that had been made. White’s novel is often called “autobiographical”, and certainly the lack of details regarding names and places belies the confessional, but the evasiveness also serves as a technique for allowing the reader to go beyond merely interpretation: this boy’s story can easily become our own.