20 December 2009

Book Reviews: City Boy and Hotel de Dream by Edmund White


City Boy
My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s
Edmund White

With one notable exception I have always felt like I should like Edmund White more than I do. He has written some good novels, lots of reviews and criticism, and a big ol’ doorstop of a biography of Genet. But overall I am somewhat ambivalent about his work. I thought this memoir of his would be kind of interesting. And it indeed has some interesting tales of life in New York before it was the safe, tourist-friendly city it is today. But it also has a streak of New York exceptionalism that drives me a bit crazy. The same kind of exceptionalism that make New Yorkers feel (and exclaim repeatedly) like they are the only ones in the USA capable of pulling together in a crisis (like during the 1970s blackouts). Like if an attack of 9/11 proportions would have happened in Chicago or Des Moines or Seattle, citizens of those backwater towns would have turned away and let the dead and dying fend for themselves. Underlying most of it, White also seems to be what I call a New York City bumpkin. New Yorkers so enamored of their island life and its insular, self-congratulatory social, political, and artistic milieu that they sometimes sound a lot narrower than their supposedly cosmopolitan existence would have you otherwise expect them to be.

So, I am not going to say much more about this memoir and instead focus on one of his novels that I truly like, and think more people should read.


Hotel de Dream
Edmund White

This is a wonderful bit of historical fictions that imagines the final days of American author Stephen Crane (1871-1900), famous for such works as Maggie, Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage. Apparently there is some (perhaps apocryphal) evidence that Crane was working on novel about a male prostitute whom he had met (in a platonic way) when the boy came to him begging for money.

In Hotel de Dream, Edmund White not only imagines “what if” Crane had written that novel, but he actually supplies the imagined Crane manuscript that forms a book within a book. And both White’s narrative of Crane’s final days, and the imagined manuscript fragments are interesting and beautiful. White provides what feels like an authentic look into the life of a turn of the century boy prostitute in a way that is engaging and sensitive. In the process White finds a way of filling a gap in a historical record where gay lives often go ignored.

I think this is a really fine book. I will let Ann Patchett have the final word:
The book is a marvel of the subtle layers of storytelling, and at every layer it is fascinating, tragic and utterly beautiful.

4 comments:

  1. Ha ha - just had to comment and say good job in articulating that New Yorker attitude which I've come across several times in memoirs and autobiographical essays written by NYC denizens. One particular outcome of this attitude is that some come to regard their non-NYC upbringing as tremendously exotic. The "wilds" of a Philly middle-class suburb for instance. :)

    - Christy

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  2. I havent read either of these books by Edmund White though I have read quite a lot by him. I am looking forward to both of them now. Am not sure if City Boy is out here yet!!

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  3. stoppingpoint: What's worse is when you come across the attitude in real life.

    Simon: Hotel de Dream is good, but you won't miss much if you skip City Boy.

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  4. I think you're right about City Boy and mostly right about New Yorkers, at least my experience of them in books. The times I've been to New York I found New Yorkers to be very friendly, basically down-to-earth people. They are all in a bit of a hurry to get where they are going, it's true. It could just be the circles I move in are not those Mr. White moves in.

    I just finished The Bronx is Burning, which is also about New York in the 1970's. I would not say they all pulled together during the blackout. Quite the opposite really.

    I will look for Hotel de Dream. Sounds very good.

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