Not too long ago, I was hanging out at the Ramble in New York’s Central Park (well, okay, Joe was out of town and I was cruising) when I met an older gentleman who wanted to talk to me about the Violet Quill generation of gay authors.
Which sounds weird and unlikely, like the artificial set-up of a blog post. But it actually happened.
At first, he was cruising me. He walked by and walked by again. That’s how it goes. I considered it (he was older than I usually go for — much, much older, in his sixties, but what the hell, I’ll be fifty before you know it). There were too many birdwatchers around, though. Apparently NPR had done a story about birdwatching in the Ramble the week before. They were everywhere.
So we just sat, watching the birdwatchers.
We made chit-chat.
I told him that the first time I’d ever come to Central Park, a writer friend had brought me up there. That was Ethan Mordden. He knew Ethan, or, rather, he knew of him — mostly as an opera critic, “but, oh, yeah, he wrote those Buddies books, too, didn’t he?” The conversation proceeded from there to Mordden’s more famous rivals and sometime-friends, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, etc. The Violet Quill.
I don’t think Ethan was ever technically a part of the Violet Quill group. Maybe. I’d ask him, except that he hasn’t spoken to me in decades, because, I think, I forgot to return one of his calls one time. Also, I stole a line of his in my first (and only) novel. “‘Little lamb, who made thee?’ said the drag queen to the young hustler.” I don’t know why I did it. I mean: I knew he was going to read my novel. It’s not like I was trying to sneak one by. We were asking him for a blurb (which he didn’t give me) I guess I thought it was a tribute or something. He didn’t take it that way.
Anyway. Back to the Ramble.
I thought it was quaint that this guy spoke of Edmund White as if he were still considered a major talent. I don’t know anybody who reads him anymore. He’s at the Cynthia Ozick level, if that makes sense. He’s at the William Gaddis level. He’s at the John Hawkes level. Respected, for sure. Remembered rarely. Read when remembered.
Photo of Edmund White by David Shankbone. Taken from Wikimedia Commons. Presumed to be licensed under Creative Commons.
The guy was pretty much “of his moment” in a lot of ways like that. For example: he thought maybe AIDS was spread by the government on purpose. For another example: he thought Brooklyn was a scary place, and didn’t understand why “you kids” want to live there now. I mentioned he was in his sixties, right? Also: he assumed that “down low” men who just want to get their dicks sucked are actually gay, “in the closet.” Those are all things that I do not think. (The last one, about the closeted down-lows, is a subject for another day, because I’m guessing a lot of you think the same — I’ll set you, um, straight, no pun intended, at some point.)
But yeah. I didn’t burden the guy with my own opinions. I sat and gave him a listen. He was nice; he wanted for me to start writing again.
Everything he said, though, his arguments, assumptions, world-views, attitudes, just the cadence and rhythm of his voice, reminded me of the gay stuff I’d read in Christopher Street Magazine or the Village Voice in the mid-eighties, when I was a teenager in Alabama, still trying to figure out and form my own gay identity. The same exact tone. I’m making him sound stupid. He wasn’t. He was of his time, and of his generation — a very important, influential generation, the Stonewallers, the inventors of how to be homosexual in America in public, in politics, in culture, in general — a generation, and a set of attitudes, my cynical slacker cohort, the much smaller generation just immediately following those guys, had to deal with somehow.
I don’t think we ever publicly rebelled, the way that we were supposed to. We just ripped off their best lines and stopped returning their calls. We didn’t have the energy to try to contradict them directly. But make no mistake: they left their marks on our brains and our genitals and our behaviors. They were our parents in a very real way: they invented us, called us into being.
Anyway, the guy had reminded me of Edmund White, and Edmund White, like I said, is rarely remembered, but is always read when remembered, so I went back home and decided to read some Edmund White, for the first time since the late eighties. Just to see what I thought.
White is better than I thought I remembered.
He still annoys me with his name-dropping, the way he is so impressed by other people’s worldly pretensions (the Légion d’honneur pin on a trick’s lapel). The name-dropping is so thick in City Boy (his memoir of living in New York immediately before and after Stonewall) that every time some random human is mentioned — a cabbie, or the guy he bought a newspaper from, the girl who stopped him on the street to ask directions — you assume it’s going to turn out to be the young John Travolta or the god-daughter of Wallis Simpson or, I don’t know, Mama Cass (who does make an appearance; I’m not exaggerating), and half the time, your assumption pans out.
But as well-connected as he is to famous people, he’s also connected to his subject matter, himself, in a way that I’d like to have been, as a writer.
And at least, in the more recent books (like City Boy), he owns up to his rampant starfuckery and other flaws, even while exhibiting them to their maximum effect. The sentences aren’t as ornate or tricky as I remembered — maybe because I haven’t re-read all the books. States of Desire, A Boy’s Own Story, and City Boy are the ones I have re-read (or, in the case of the last one, read for the first time) during this Edmund White bout. I’d like to get my hands on the first edition of The Joy of Gay Sex. I distinctly remember some fine prose in there, about fist-fucking, comparing the tissue of, I think, the upper colon to wet paper towels. I might even tackle Nocturnes for the King of Naples again, though my only memory of it is one turgid, pretentious sentence toward the beginning, about cruising the piers in New York harbor, comparing that activity to a solemn religious ritual or something.