One of the books I brought to Mexico was Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream. I’d just read A Boy’s Own Story and, after listening to Edmund talk about the book over lunch, I’d decided it should be the second book I read from him.
The novel’s origin is a short letter—which, as a note at the book’s end explains, may have been fabricated by an early biographer (but perhaps not)—a short letter that speaks of Stephen Crane’s accidental encounter with a gay hustler and the first pages of the book he decided to write about the boy. The pages, if they existed, were burnt in order to protect Crane’s fledgling celebrity.
White’s book imagines Crane in the final weeks before he died of tuberculosis, restarting and dictating the novel to his wife, the former Madam of the Jacksonville brothel, Hotel de Dream. As such, it narrates two stories: one of Crane, his health declining but troubled still by his passionately felt literary ambitions; the other of a young hustler in New York and his relationship with an older, married bank executive.
Both Henry James and Joseph Conrad make appearances in the frame narrative, in letters and in person, and White offers convincing—and funny—portraits of both. An interesting survey of Crane’s life is also presented. The hustler’s story offers a tour of a queer New York absent from typical histories and fiction.
The center-piece of his story, however, is the lover’s decision to commission a statue of the boy. The commission leads to the boy’s and his own downfall but the statue as a literary symbol is quite powerful and moving, and makes this book about artists a meditation on Art.
Given the tragic nature of the stories told and the carefully artful construction of the fiction as historical fiction, it’s surprising to me how funny this book is. Over and over as I read, I would be brought short and laugh out loud. Many parts I read aloud to the Beav, which is something I just don’t do, and he would laugh too. And so, the book impresses me because it seems so delicate and light, even trashy, and yet, that filigree of jokes and period slang and literary history, carries the weight of tragic action and themes. This doubleness makes it an easy book to enjoy but a hard book to pin down or get out of your head.
I’m becoming a fan of White.