At a certain point while preparing for my interview with the novelist, memoirist, and editor Edmund White, I had to ask myself: What could I possibly say about a certain segment of gay life that Edmund White hasn’t already said beautifully or unflinchingly? “What we desire is crucial to who we are,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir City Boy. “People also like to slur someone who’s very good-looking; beauties are often branded ‘sluts’ or ‘whores,’ though these words make little sense in a sexually permissive age. What, in fact, do they mean? That someone likes to have a lot of sex with a lot of people? What’s so bad about that?” he asked in the ‘Beauties’ entry in the original 1977 edition of The Joy of Gay Sex, which he edited. And then there’s this astounding paragraph from his 1980 travelogue about regional gay culture, States of Desire:
The nature of gay life is that it is philosophical. Like Nietzsche, though in a different sense, we could speak of the “gay science,” that obligatory existentialism forced on people who must invent themselves. Most people’s parents are heterosexual (so much for the role-model theory of sexual orientation), and everyone is raised to be straight. Once one discovers one is gay, one must choose everything, from how to walk, dress and talk to where to live, with whom and on what terms. The baths return us to that point of choice, “To the morning of starting out, that day so long ago,” as a line by John Ashbery has it. There we curl up on a couch with a stranger and tell him everything.
White calls his new book, Our Young Man (out this week), a “meditation” on youth and beauty. Set largely during the early ‘80s in New York City, it follows Guy, a successful model who’s approaching 40 but finds himself routinely mistaken for someone 15 years younger. Guy flits through the city amassing lovers and property (often paid for by the older lovers), taking jobs, and breaking hearts.
We meet Guy at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, but the novel does the remarkable work of telling Guy’s story with playfulness and enough air that although it’s a substantial work of storytelling, it floats. The dialogue between Guy and his lovers (like Kevin, a Midwestern transplant in his early 20's) is deceptively banal, as it reveals the interplay of selfishness and generosity inherent in conversations driven by carnality. Our Young Man thinks deeply about shallowness.
A few weeks ago, White had me over to his Chelsea apartment to talk about his book, his life, and gay life as he’s experienced it. Our conversation lasted over 90 minutes and featured a few cameos from White’s husband, writer Michael Carroll. Below is the part of our conversation concerning Our Young Man. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[There was a video here]
Gawker: Something that’s interesting to me about [Our Young Man] is that even though it’s about the [plague] AIDS era, there’s a certain lightness to it. I’ve never seen the onset of AIDS, which I think of as the single most horrifying scenario that I can imagine, one where everybody around me started dying and nobody knew why, there’s nothing scarier than that to me.
Edmund White: That’s right.
It’s interesting, though, that the tone of the book is relatively light and playful throughout, even while this stuff is happening.
How did that strike you?
Well, I appreciated that perspective, because it’s not like just because this thing was happening, it doesn’t mean everybody just gave up and sat around waiting to die.
There had to have been fun and joy.
And a lot of a sense of humor, ‘cause that’s gay people.
But also, I think the book is a formal exercise in fluidity...
Wow, that’s so nice to hear, thank you.
...In terms of the passage of time, where it’s like all of a sudden there’s a Discman in there. GRID becomes AIDS. There are no formal announcements, you just see it shifting, as time does. And also the perspectives are constantly changing, almost paragraph-to-paragraph by the end. You’re jumping from head to head to head. And so I think there’s a lightness of being that this book bespeaks.
That’s one of my favorite qualities, so I’m thrilled to hear you say that. Calvino, the Italian writer, was going to give these lectures at Harvard and it caused him to die, he had a stroke—he was anguishing over those. But anyway, he named five qualities that he liked most in literature and one was lightness. It always has been one of my favorites, too, like in Candide or in Stendhal novels. Lots of different novels have that quality. I don’t want to get too serious for you...
No, get as serious as you feel, please.
...But one of my favorite people is a Russian guy who wrote a book called The Psychology of Art in the ‘20s, and his name was Vygotsky, and he said, “If you read Aristotle or any of the traditional aestheticians, they talk about how the figurative language should be doubling down on the message of the book.” He said, “Actually, that’s wrong. They’re all wrong. It’s almost the opposite—in a lot of great literature, there’s kind of a gloomy trajectory to the plot, but all the figurative language is kind of light and breathy, and that tension is artistic.” I think that makes great sense. It’s a principle I like.
I partly wrote this book because I had a heart attack two years ago. I was in the hospital for 40 days, and I’m just gulletted like a trout, and it was also gloomy being in the hospital that long, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll just write something about beautiful people having fun.” It obviously couldn’t just be that, but I thought I would tap into a bigger, brighter world, you know? It sort of cheered me up, at least.
You referred to this book as a “departure.” Tell me about that.
It’s not autobiographical. I have written a couple of historical novels—one called Fanny, and one called Hotel de Dream. This one’s barely a historical novel. It’s, at least in my mind, fairly recent. But I wanted to write about people who weren’t me, and I don’t even know them. I did work for Vogue for 10 years, freelance, in Paris and I interviewed lots of dress designers and people like that. Azzedine Alaïa is one of my best friends. I interviewed Yves St. Laurent, different couturier, but I was supposed to be covering cultural life, not fashion. As you can see [points to his clothing], I know nothing about fashion.
But I’m intrigued by that world. Grace Coddington lives here in the building and her lover is a man called Didier [Malige], who’s the world’s most famous hairdresser. Didier brought down for me to meet one of the highest paid male models in the world called Clement, a very cute 22-year-old Frenchman who’s been a model since he was 15. He was fun to talk to and straight. A lot of it, most of it, was fantasy.
I recognize you in this book at different points. Facial isometric exercises, strict dieting, the philosophy about dick size—Kevin’s [small] dick size is mentioned every time his dick is mentioned and in The Joy of Gay Sex you talk about how people need to get over dick size, that it’s a thing where guys whose dicks are small are nervous about it and guys whose dicks are big are embarrassed about it. There’s the Buddhism, too, as in A Boy’s Own Story. The book seemed very you.
I guess when you write fast, and I do, you kind of dredge up these things that you already know about. I probably made too much out of that dick size, but I had a really good friend who was literally a billionaire, but he was quite tiny. He moved out to L.A. from here, he was a rich Texan who had to spend like a million dollars a month to keep his taxman happy. Anyway, he bought a glamorous, beautiful house and he teamed up with this beautiful blonde, and they got married. They were the first gay people that I ever knew that got married, like in the early ‘80s. I said, “Well Duke, why did you marry him?” He said, “Well, he’s the first person who ever let me fuck him. Because I’m so small, everybody always assumed that I’m a bottom, and he’s so gorgeous, and it was great to be a top to him.” They had a messy ending because Duke got AIDS and the lover sued him. It was kind of like a Liberace deal. Anyway, that whole idea of...I don’t know, I guess, some of the sexual possibilities...in Kevin’s case it’s that he’s so proud to be the top and he’s never been allowed to be with other people or wouldn’t be. I was playing with the politics of dick size, which I think is a real subject.
Absolutely. I appreciated that. I’ve long appreciated your attitude on it. It felt political, that part. I have no real sense of what it was like to be cruising in the ‘70s, other than what I’ve read and watched, but today, before you even say a word to somebody, you know what their dick looks like and how big it is. Or at least what they claim. Rarely is it true. Rarely are the things said online...
It’s a gay aid.
Exactly. It’s the same thing when it comes to topping and bottoming. There have been so many times where I brokered a hookup where I was going to bottom and ended up topping. How do you get a top to bottom? Mount him. That’s not even a joke. That’s just the truth. It’s just strategy.
What we used to say in the ‘60s was: Today’s trade is tomorrow’s competition.
But at the same time, who’s going to deny the greatness of a big dick?
Even [being] level-headed about it, it’s hard not to fall prey to those...distasteful tropes.
I was talking to a beautiful boy the other day because there’s going to be an article about me in GAYLETTER. Slava Mogutin who interviewed me said, “Well, what should we do for the pictures?” I said, “We’ll have five naked twinks sitting on my lap.” And so he did.
Do you like twinks?
No, but they’re pretty. One of them was this boy who I’ve become really friendly with. I think he’s so nice. He’s a serious person who’s intellectual and artistic and everything, but has a beautiful ass, and is just a beauty. He was talking about how he’s a bottom but that he always falls in love with other bottoms. I think that oftentimes happens, that maybe in sex if you’re a bottom, you look for a top. But in affairs oftentimes, I think bottoms get together. Partly because there are more of them, but also because they’re sweeter.
Strict roles, I don’t necessarily believe in, per se. I’m more inclined if a guy says he’s a total bottom. That I believe. If a guy says he’s a total top, I never believe that.
Michael Carroll: Nobody who wasn’t a total bottom would ever say that.
Right, exactly. It’s true from a societal perspective. It takes a little bit of courage to be like, “No, I want to get fucked all the time, that’s it.” A guy who’s a “total top,” it’s like, “Yeah, you just wanna uphold this idea of what masculinity is to you.” Everybody wants to get fucked. In a look at every single piece of data I could find that gauged it, the vast majority of gay men identify as versatile.
My friend Will said versatile means that you’re a bottom who doesn’t douche.
I said to this straight man friend of mine, “I feel sorry for you guys because you have to do all the fucking.” He said, “My wife fucks me all the time with a dildo.”
That’s amazing. But that is obviously an approximation. I’m sure that’s a wonderful experience for them, etc., but she doesn’t actually have a dick.
Yeah, because he’s older. It’s not like he’s 12. He’s 20's, 30's, 40's, Guy. I did want to choose somebody who’s very beautiful but naive. I’ve heard of a number of gay male models who’d gotten into the business because they went along with girlfriends for the girlfriends to get their portfolio and the photographer said, “Wait a minute, you’re the one.” Just the whole thing of his going off to Paris on some youth mission thing, church, and falling into it, all of that resumes a lot of the stories I’ve heard about how people got into the business. But it isn’t a coming of age.
How can somebody who doesn’t want to be of age come of age? He does develop and I liked that by the end, you get to see his generosity. He does exist a lot of the time on a very superficial vibration. Even when he’s sad, he’s sad. There’s not a lot, but again, the book keeps moving, keeps flowing, so there’s not a lot of time to spend on that. I think it’s interesting that the Baron is your age, and he’s really pathetic. Is there self-hatred there?
No, there used to be a guy on Fire Island that we called Nuts and Bolts because he had so many operations and so many hearing aids and things. He was always surrounded by beautiful boys because he had a huge yacht in the harbor. You could say it’s self-hatred, but that would take a psychoanalyst. I don’t think of that as me. And I’m not that kind of a masochist, but I know people who are. For me, he’s funny. He’s a funny character. But I think Fred is the most sympathetic character. I don’t know why. I met briefly once a guy in Hollywood who was a producer and he had come out at age 60 and was determined to be “A-list,” you know? And to have all these hair plugs and all this painful surgery and dieting and everything, and I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting,” to come out so late and in the AIDS era, and also the idea that you don’t have much sex but you’re dying of AIDS.
The book is about the obsession with youth in gay life, and as a man in his 70's, how do you feel about that? Is it like the dick size thing where you understand intellectually that it’s ridiculous, but at the same time, who can deny a big dick? Who can deny a young, virile guy?
Uh, probably. Yeah, that sounds right. (Laughs.) Certainly, youth and beauty is one of the great themes of gay life, and I think we’re uniquely positioned to write about it and think about it. It’s not a very preachy book. There’s no message but it is kind of a meditation on those themes.
Which I love because those themes are so “superficial.” I’ve been yearning for a book that explores them in an intellectual way. There was this stupid internet controversy, this country singer-turned-pinup thing, Steve Grand, said that it’s very easy to hate him because he’s young and good-looking and white and gay. And it was like, “Cry me a river,” right? But at the time time there is a sort of distaste for...
The interesting thing about physical beauty and youth is that everybody’s attracted to it. And everybody moves toward that person at a party. And then everybody is bitter about it and they criticize him. If you’re beautiful, you have to be dumb. People will say, “He’s a dumb blonde.” It could be a person who’s a straight-A student. It’s just their idea of justice that if they’re beautiful they have to be dumb. I don’t make those generalizations.
Do you consider this book to be cultural reporting?
I do. I think it is. I mean, in other words, if I would get to a kind of juicy passage about being an A-list gay or Fire Island or the friendliness of people on Fire Island, or one of those phenomena, I pride myself on being aware of them and being able to describe them in some depth.
To me it felt dually relevant, not just from a historical point of view—because I think in a lot of ways we’ve condemned ourselves to repeat the past because we don’t know gay history. I’m going to go through a bunch of things you’ve written that I wish people would read, because it’s like Edmund White already said it. We already had this figured out, we had it figured out 40 years ago, and we’re still having these arguments on the internet about the word “slut” or whatever. But on top of that, I think the greater theme is that a lot of the dialogue that happens between these characters on the surface is just sort of like idle chatter. It’s kind of prattle. But it bespeaks a cultural functioning that is worth looking at and examining in the same way that the nothingness of Grindr is gay culture. That space is exclusively gay. You don’t get much more gay in 2016 than a hook-up app. So it’s the same thing where it’s meaningless on the surface, but it’s only meaningful.
That’s right. It’s sending a very strong, powerful, unambiguous signal. I think that’s absolutely right. Since I’m old, I can go on SilverDaddies and find young guys who like old men. Somebody said, “Oh what fun, you’re going to Key West.” I said, “It’s not that much fun for me.” First of all, there aren’t that many gay people there and to the degree that there are, they’re all young people looking for other young people. You have to have a huge population of millions of people to find the handful of guys who are cute and young and who like old men. There are some, but it takes a very specialized scanning device to find them. I think in that way, hook-up apps are useful for people who are sort of marginal like me.
I used to know this Russian dissident who was gay and who somehow got out of Russia and came here, whose name was Gennady Smakov. He wrote a very interesting article in Christopher Street magazine, where he said that if you were gay in Russia, if you ever met another gay man, you were so grateful. He could be 60, he could be 20, he could be 80, he could have leprosy, whatever, you were so pleased to meet him and he would have to be married, you would have to be married, but if you managed it right, you could find a private place to be in once a month. And then your eyes were full of tears of gratitude that you could be with this other man. He said, “And then I came over here, and I go up and down the beach at Fire Island Pines, and there were all these gorgeous men who are 35, worked out, perfect bodies, perfect facial features, and who are bankers making tons of money and they’re all lonely and miserable. And they’re all turning up their nose at each other.” He found that very ironic and strange. It can be a curse, this looksism, let’s say. I’ve been in gay group therapies, where maybe it took the whole weekend for the group therapy, marathon group therapy, and by the end of it, you really are terribly fond of all the people and they seem quite sexy to you, even though they might be ugly. Because you know their story.
Their essence. I guess it’s just a nice change to shift from just on a superficial level appreciating somebody. What has the transition from being able to walk outside and have sex five times a night in the trucks and buildings [on the West Side] versus being 76 and feeling “marginal,” as you said.
I almost never, maybe once a year, get cruised on the street by somebody that I would consider desirable, but thanks to the internet and SilverDaddies, I can meet people and have. I mean there’s a boy who lives down the block who’s I think tremendously hot, and he stops by a couple times a week to get his cock sucked. I’ve known a Mexican guy for about 10 years, and I’m completely devoted to him. He’s married to another man but secretly he sees me. You know, I have all these different studies like that. And also, you lose a little bit of sex as you get older, so you’re not quite so driven.
So it evens out?
So that hasn’t been hard negotiating your ego, or anything like that?
Not that it should be, but that just gives me hope for the future.
Our conversation continued, we moved away from Our Young Man to discuss racism in the gay community, PrEP, STDs, White’s HIV, his sensitivity to criticism, alienating friends by writing about them, and Larry Kramer. Listen here:
[There was a video here]