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Jack Holmes and his Friend – Edmund White

July 17, 2015

JHAHFThis book compares the lives and attitudes of a gay Jew and a straight Roman catholic.

Most people in our group found it very readable. Some observed that the book has an interesting structure. The first part is classic White but he goes astray when the narrator changes person and he writes about things about which he knows less. However, one person really loved the second section where this happens. Some of this section echoes John Irving’s In One Person (and Irving does appear in the acknowledgements).

There’s a better study of obsession in Alan Holinghurst’s The Folding Star.

I enjoyed reading this book (twice) and it still amazes me how English attitudes are way ahead of those in America. I need reminding that many Americans come from small, remote, farms whereas the majority of brits now live in cities and so they encounter a wide variety of views.

Jack is a believable character. Because he doesn’t want to face up to his sexuality he keeps promising that he won’t ‘do it again’. He regards his sexuality as “a vice, a mental illness’. I like Jack and want to know what will happen to him and how things will turn out.

When Jack becomes promiscuous, his internalised homophobia makes him regard all hi8s partners as in some way less than normal, flawed. He can’t date anyone as this shows commitment and he wants to remain a libertine.

He confirms a hunch that many share – that gay men tend to have larger ‘equipment’ than straights because those so endowed get adulation from other men and they continue to seek this until it becomes habitual. Also that gay men give better head than women.

Is there meant to be a double-entendre in ‘Will was the cunning loser with his bland caginess, his refusal to take a stand.’?

Those who keep check of their stocks and shares will appreciate the annual reports for corporations. “They’re these glossy pam­phlets sent to the stockholders explaining why the company’s losses are a good thing. ”

One reviewer asked it believable that Jack would spy on Will in the toilet. Well, if he was that desperate, then yes.

Jack says that he never remembers his dreams and then proceeds to tell his psychiatrist about one of them. He has kept his sexuality from one of his friends and yet suddenly starts telling her about it as if she had always known.

I am not sure whether this description has much literary merit: She shone like an ingot in the banklike majesty of this room; the light outside had just faded, and the gold bead curtains came to life, strafed by the electric lights projected up onto them.

“It seems funny just to say hi in this room,” I said. “It feels like we should be hammering out the Treaty of Versailles or something.”

 There’s an odd spelling mistake on p. 85 where a joss stick is called a ‘doss’ stick. Maybe some sort of Freudian slip thinking of hippies.

I have to look up ‘pseudopod’ on p. 188 and was none the wiser. Also axonometric.

There’s pretentious language: a ship in a bottle is described as being in a ‘vitrine’.

And what is this talk of ‘days in purgatory?’ Years, surely.

I really got annoyed in the second half of the book, where it changes narrators, and Will says to himself ‘thought to self – that is a good idea for a story’ – sometimes three times on the same page.

There is some insight into full body organisms (echoing the work of Wilhelm Reich) which only a gay man like the author, certainly not straight Will, could know about.

JHAHF2The adultery guilt is well told – going to confession to a deaf priest, getting crabs and trying to find an excuse in case you’ve passed it on to your wife.

I just loved hearing of the fear straight men have in locker rooms.

The old gay man’s contempt for gaylib rings true to that generation.

I agreed with the sentiment that straight men become effeminised on marrying – the women choose the wallpaper.

I liked the idea that Pia’s brains were the size of golfballs.

Also the difference in the way gay and straight split up. And the gay man who admits that he is ageing and than there is more to life than playing the stud

This, from Will, is true and needs to be told: “I hate the way Europeans think that puritanism explains ev­erything about America. Anyway, what they mean is prudish, not puritanical. There’s no reason to imagine that the puritans were that prudish. I’d like to write a pamphlet in praise of puritan­ism that would be handed out on every plane bound for America and would explain that it was the puritans who thought up universal free and compulsory education and prison reform and abolitionism.”

The best quotation of all: “At your age it’s hard to believe, but you’ll find out that in the end that’s all anyone has, family.”

Palmer said, “That’s the most depressing thing you’ve ever said.”

And who gets STDS? Not who you think.


“excessively pliable”, “a ‘nice’ boy who knew how to please others”

“a Princeton luster”

“with a woman you could have a real relationship conducted in the sunlight, whereas this homo thing was just slithering around in the shadows”

“I’d come back to the Northern Review after many years away, and even the old people on the staff were too young to have ever known me …. Someone—maybe it was me—had killed two young men …..
Dr. Adams lowered herself into the bathysphere, the better to be laved by the unconscious. When she reemerged, her mouth smoking, she said, “I think the two young dead men in this dream are you and Will. It’s your younger, neurotic selves who are dying off to be replaced by—who knows? It’s a hopeful dream.
His ribs were as visible as hands around a cup.”

“I’d rather come back with a few transcendent memories than an album of snapshots.”

He started to do vol­unteer work for St. Luke’s in the Village; they provided free shel­ter for the local bums, but they needed someone to stay awake and supervise the men lest they steal from one another. One night every two weeks Jack would sit on top of a ladder and survey the loud, sleeping men, or he’d patrol the aisles between the beds. He thought he was no better than they were, except that his addiction was more or less compatible with holding down a job.

He liked the idea of volunteering and doing charity work. He enjoyed going to benefits for the church. He recognized that he had a natural gift for getting along with old rich ladies. He thought they were cute, and even a very grand doyenne of society never intimidated him. He started beaming the minute they began talking together, and he would touch her elbow or even her waist. A few drew back in horror, but most of them liked his physical warmth. He could be very soothing. No one quite knew who he was, but he fell into that vague category of “extra men,” those creatures with good manners, nice clothes, respectable jobs, and no obvious moral flaws. They could be counted on to fill out a table or cut in at a dance. Husbands trusted their wives to them for a night out at the opera or an outing to the Village in search of antiques. Everyone assumed that most of the extra men above a certain age were gay or pathologically sin­gle, but no one wanted to talk about these drawbacks too openly. For one thing, it was very agreeable for a sexagenarian lady to have a handsome, well-groomed younger man flirt with her—why dispel that pleasant mystery?

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