This remarkable novel sees America’s most significant gay writer, now well into his eighth decade, skate decorously through the preoccupations that have marked his literary career since the publication of Forgetting Elena (1973). In a roundabout way, Our Young Man returns us to the world of that first novel, if it is understood as a fantastical reimagining of the tiny, self-invented, artificial and utterly hierarchical gay community of Fire Island. Yet it incorporates elements of the devotional narrative mode deployed in White’s second novel, Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978), as well as the worldliness of the auto-fictional tetralogy for which White is best known. Ranging from provincial France in the 1960s and 1970s to New York in the 1980s – the age of AIDS – Our Young Man is, however, categorically no retread, but rather a sprightly journey through both compelling and uncannily familiar terrain.
White’s consciously skimpy storyline is inspired by an obscure French novel, Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho, though The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s parable of the dangers of perpetual youth, temptation and dependence is more extensively referenced. His hero, Guy, starts out as a provincial French adolescent of little promise – beyond, that is, his extraordinary looks, which prove to be all that he needs. Taken up first in Paris and then in New York, Guy becomes one of the world’s first male supermodels. The novel portrays the extraordinary opportunities available but also, progressively, the confinements that are consequent on them. By the twilight of his career, Guy is reduced to eating the occasional lettuce leaf to retain the requisite gaunt look.
Particularly brilliant is the portrayal of Kevin, a young Norwegian-American from Minnesota, with whom Guy, on spotting him working out in the gym with his twin brother, becomes obsessed. Still presenting as preternaturally young, Guy must conceal a knowledge of twenty years of life to convince Kevin that he is his near peer – or, at the very least, not in the immediately redundant category of gay men over twenty-five.
Still, Guy’s magical good ‘fortune’ – apparent perpetual youth – stretches across two decades. He outlives both his elderly occasional sexual partners, who bestow great wealth and advantage on him, and also a good number of his buffed, muscle-bound hedonistic peers, who are cut down by a plague they cannot understand. The sole constant is Guy’s agent, the mercurial Pierre-Georges (avatar of Wilde’s Henry Wotton), though even his infinite promotional talents begin to give out when Guy fails to win a contest to take part in a commercial shoot for McDonald’s after being paired with a porcelain-complexioned Slovenian girl under half his age.
Our Young Man brings frivolous people face to face with some very serious subjects: our common mortality, the horrors of grief and the complex, indeterminate status of the ‘survivor’. Such themes have marked other White novels, especially The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man (2000). But on the whole, Our Young Man presents history less as tragedy than as farce.
The poignancy in Guy’s concealment of his physical age lies in the fact that, like many gay men, his mind and heart fundamentally remain both childlike – he possesses a winning romanticism – and, less impressively, childish, since his profession encourages narcissism and superficiality. As one might expect in a world caught up in the ephemeral, mirrors prove ubiquitous. At one point, the narrator archly notes, ‘Guy wasn’t paying attention – there were too many mirrors.’ Attire, hair and skin are endlessly scrutinised, lighting is carefully pitched and interiors are fussed over, rejigged and brought into line with the latest sense of the ‘perfect look’. But – to reference another White novel – the beautiful room is empty.
The deepest delusions Guy displays are ones shared not just by his gay peers and those in the world of fashion, but by us all: an unhealthy disdain for the past and the old; a fear-born aversion to the future; and a willing submission to the cult of Now. We are all, as Guy describes it, ‘hooked on the present’. He comes to spurn ‘living his life between quotation marks’ and, in passages alive with the same moral suggestiveness as the closing moments of The Picture of Dorian Gray, evinces a final yearning for truth over beauty. Our Young Man is White’s most elegant, realised and charming novel in decades – vital proof that, in fiction, the old hand can outplay any of the young pretenders.