Our Young Man
Edmund White
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Buy *Our Young Man* by Edmund Whiteonline

Our Young Man
Edmund White
Bloomsbury USA
304 pages
April 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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White’s flawless novel showcases a lyrical intensity, singing the songs of praise for the unrestrained ways in the dark venues of promiscuous man-to-man sex. Beautiful Frenchman Guy--originally from Clermont-Ferrand, a dreary industrial city in the heart of France--pursues a modeling career which will soon become his passport to fame and fortune. It doesn’t take long for Guy’s new manager, Pierre Georges, to finagle him into some lucrative contracts in America, “a place where the money is.” Quite an achievement for this unassuming man who has grown up poor and, for nearly a decade, has worked to become the most photogenic darling of Paris.

Realizing the power of his profession to shape those closest to him, Guy heads for a new start in New York, a city in which he might be finally out of his depth as he careens between Fire Island’s pre-AIDS promiscuity, into some cleverly-judged social climbing, then into friendships with older men enchanted by Guy’s good looks. They shower him with expensive gifts, including a sports car and a vacation home. At his first weekend on Fire Island, accompanied by wily Pierre-Georges, Guy meets Walt, the first in a series of men who like “to cup his hot buttocks” because Guy is so beautiful and irresistible--a sort of Manhattan socialite and Frenchman with a high ego who also possesses a surprisingly friendly and down-to-earth manner.

White constantly surprises us with valuable insights into the world of these shirtless, muscled, and tanned men from The Pines, its era of disco floors and cruising areas and of fashion and slim bodies. Moving to the East Village. Guy meets “walrus like” and sexually “unrespectable” Baron Edouard. Allured by his depraved new friend, Guy jumps into Edouard’s S&M activities with all the hesitation of a naive foreigner, deciding to meet him at the notorious Meatrack so that he can be a cipher for all of Edouard’s dog-fuelled fantasies.

Like Edouard, other men (Columbian Andre and Midwestern Kevin) come to admire Guy’s combination of celebrity and anonymity, this man who wishes that he could stay forever as young and charming as the model covers he has become famous for. But fame, of course, comes at a price. Throughout the course of his time in New York, Guy realizes how lonely he is and how starved for affection he has become. Life in America has made it “harder and harder for him to breathe,” as if he were passing through some sort of “dangerous force field.” Even when something beautiful induces a melancholy in Guy, he sneers at himself for being so narcissistic in a life where “beauty is considered to be the only a way of making money.”

Recalling Wilde’s Dorian Gray, White's hero wishes that some day he could cancel the deal and be normal again. Fate has other plans. The dawning reality of a midlife meltdown beyond the youth-oriented focus of the fashion world looms, as well as the new illness called GRID, the gay cancer that wipes out “a whole house on Fire Island” then infects Fred, a gruff but affable Jewish film producer from Hollywood whom Guy meet at dinner. Fred’s kindness and obvious interest and openness provide a balm for our handsome model. Plagued by the superstition that he can preserve his youth only so long as “nothing touches him,” Guy finds himself challenged again and again by his father’s sudden death, by Andre’s looming plight, and then by Fred’s imminent death. Although Guy is blessed with looks and money, he craves something that could stun him into eternal youth and into “immobility and imperviousness.”

With Kevin, carnal lust soon falls into true love; with Andre, passion later becomes a crime. The characters and the scenes are perfect, as is the full splendor of White’s dark wit and clever sarcasm. Intent to portray the tender nature of his hero’s personal failings, White tells us that sometimes the world is dangerous for the soul, especially when its rules are not followed. Although always sexually graphic, this is not a moralistic story but one that is a fierce and unrepressed exposition on the price of beauty, as well as an exploration of how we can often only see ourselves through someone else’s gaze. Guy’s journey is the recognition that he’s lived so much of his life for sexual love, leading him to discover how unfair it is that his own particular fate is decided in a language that is not actually his own.

Beautiful Guy is used to being indulged and pursued, but underneath he’s terrified he’ll outlive his fatal appeal. Finally there is peace and accommodation, as well as diminished expectations, a life lived in small moments. Out of all the pain, heartbreak, and the surprising ramifications of a lover’s loyalty, we at last behold a young man who sees himself as who he really is: a symbolic angel of mercy who will survive and prevail.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2016

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