In his 2004 essay “Writing Gay,” Edmund White tells how his father, coming to see one of his plays, asks him beforehand, “‘What is it about—the usual?’ which was his way of referring to a gay theme.” His new novel, Our Young Man, is about “the usual,” from an Edmund White we’ve met before but are always happy revisiting—smart, worldly, erudite, well-connected, and funny, in this case writing about gay society in early 1980s New York as seen from the point of view of a newly arrived French male model. It’s a witty reversal of a reliable Jamesian formula White has used elsewhere—the naive American going to a sophisticated foreign place, often France, making endearing gaffes, his goodness and healthy frankness finally conquering the wily and scornful natives.
Here the protagonist is Guy Dumoulin, a beautiful and nice young man from the sticks—Clermont-Ferrand, an industrial city in the center of France. Visiting Paris at the age of seventeen, he is noticed for his beauty, and from there embarks on a career as a model, which soon takes him to New York. In America, he is a huge success, makes a lot of money, and finds that everyone wants to sleep with him.
One advantage of telling the story from Guy’s point of view is that it gives White a chance to comment on American society through the eyes of a detached and astonished foreigner: “Here in America folks appeared to be vulgarly friendly,” though you have to accommodate their “strange allergies and food dislikes.” He learns not to call servants servants: “Americans with their fussy egalitarianism preferred the word ‘help.’” Their main courses for some reason are called entrées, and they like music and candlelight in their restaurants, unlike the French.
Most of the time, events are seen from Guy’s perspective, and he’s a fairly reliable narrator, “good at imagining things from another person’s point of view,” in this resembling the author; often Guy’s observations come to seem like White’s, who is a leading historian of the gay community. Looking at a group of revelers on Fire Island, “they’re drunk now,” he says,
and optimistic, but they will soon be squabbling over household expenses and hoping they’ll find love later in the Meat Rack. They’ll be arguing. “Why did you buy that expensive leg of lamb?” And they become especially cross at the beginning of September when they realize the summer is over and…they haven’t bagged a beau for the winter and they’ve maxed out their credit cards….
An American friend asks Guy if all French people are like him:
“So sure of your opinions? Americans are never that sure about what we think.”
“Yes, we have definite standards and we’re very confident about our taste. We learn at an early…
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