I met Edmund White this summer at a lunch held in a friend’s house during Blue Metropolis. He was quite elderly,his mobility was limited, but his mind was sharp and his eyes sparkling and grasping. As he ate pastry after pastry, he stared at a young, smart Asian boy who did art-drag performances, openly enthralled. I’d only read his articles in the New York Review of Books, so I was the outsider. The theme of the discussion was “Writing Queerly in the First Person,” which I didn’t think sounded very promising, but Edmund turned the conversation to historical fiction and the discussion was worthwhile.
When I got home that evening I pulled my copy of A Boy’s Own Story off the shelf and promised myself that, come what may, I would force myself to read beyond the first few pages—which I’d never gotten past before. What I found when I did was unexpected. The book begins with knowing adolescent sex (rather than fumbling toward it as the point of arrival) and proceeds from there. It was a shock that was stoked—like a well tended fire—for the rest of the book.
The book was ultimately a portrait of the artist as a young man that reminded me of Joyce’s but with very different aesthetic aims and investments in its story. The foundation here is White’s precise agile language, which makes possible a frank, non-pornographic, explicit, non-apologetic representation of gay sexuality as the starting point for a portrait of coming of age rather than its terminus. This is not a novel that creeps toward sex hoping to get a glimpse without fainting away. It walks up, throws back the curtain and accepts that kids have sex, that gay kids have gay sex and then follows the story from there. The results are thrilling and all these years after it was first published, it still feels fresh. I’ve never read anything like it.
Ultimately, the book is not about sex, but about art, education, power and the effort to become an autonomous adult. Two moments remain with me. The first is the long scene of the boy as an 18 year-old spending time with the lesbian woman learning that his two mentors in the book shop were queer and knew he was and nurtured him when he was young. The second was the final scene where the boy finally masters himself by destroying a teacher with a cunning and brutal use of sex and institutional policies. The teacher’s mistake was to view the physical child as an emotional child, which he most certainly was not.