Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Edmund White - The Poetry of Ordinary Gay Life

I first became aware of Edmund White through the power of graphic advertising. Working on my libido, viz a photo of a classically beautiful guy in a perfect faded purple singlet as the cover of 'A Boy's Own Story' (1982):

A great read - something of Jean Genet's mix in language of poetry and ordinary life, but different. Where Genet's palette is the underworld of pimps and sex workers and petty crime, White's is that of the middle-class ordinary-every man. The novel is in the coming of age and out genre, and set in America of the 1950's and onwards, forty years. With its very heightened poetic language appropriate for a writer's autobiography. First person narration.

In the following extract, the author as central protagonist heads into a beat area downtown, and tells us of the picking-up scene, both as omniscient observer and as participant:

'That man's embrace around the waist set me spinning like a dancer across the darkened stage of the city, my turns led me to Fountain Square, the centre. After nightfall the downtown was nearly empty. A cab might cruise by. One high office window might glow. The restaurants had closed by eight, but a bar door could could swing open to impose on me the shadow of a man. Shabby city of black stone whitened by starlings, poor earthly progeny of that mystical metal dove poised on the outstretched waist of the goddess of the fountain. ... At last a driver would pause before a young man who'd hop down and lean into the open window, listen - and then the young man would either shake his head or spit, or, if a deal had been struck, swagger round to the other side and get in. Look at them: the curving windshield whispers down the reflection of a blinking neon sign on two faces, a bald man behind the wheel whose glasses are crazed by streaks of green light from the dashboard below, whose ears are fleshy, whose small mouth is pinched smaller by anxiety or anticipation. Beside him the young man, head thrown back on the seat so that we can see only the strong white parabola of his jaw and the working Adam's apple.'

I love the unexpected imagery. It strikes you fresh, so that you savour meanings that can often go unnoticed in the driving forward of a plot. Particularly when the action is compeling, as it is here.

Images such as the dance metaphors of the beginning of this passage. From the arm around a waist (as in a waltz). Thru the certainty of the choreographic movement of 'spinning' towards the beat, and the 'turns' (of pirouettes) into the centre of the scene. It's night so the continuing theatre metaphor of the 'darkened stage' works well.

And I love the way he pre-figures the pick-up action - in the cab 'cruising by'. Taken up a few moments later with a driver stopping before a worker to negotiate. A successful transaction leading to a 'swaggering round' to the passenger's door, another calculated movement as in a dance.

And the language is fine on so many other levels.

Hustlers of this extract and that might have been picked up in the 1950 somethings seem to be suggested in these vintage photos:

Maybe these guys are not in the fine and poetic mould, but they have a certain kind of appeal. To me. To you?


  1. Yes, there is an appeal. Love those vintage photos.

  2. A very fine posting and homage to Edmund White!
    This is my first visit to you blog, and "I'll be back"...

  3. I'm addicted to these wonderful vintage images, so curious about the cirumstances at the time the photo's were taken, fantastic blog, thank you!!

  4. hey anon, yeah, i find them pretty addictive. and you wonder what their lives were like too - i guess if they were brave enough to be photographed, they were not too repressed in terms of the time.