This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.
Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.
The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.
These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.
These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.
In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.