Edmund White majored in sexual explicitness with his boldly autobiographical trilogy--A Boy's Own Story
, The Beautiful Room Is Empty
, and The Farewell Symphony
. Now, explicitly as ever, he trains his unflinching eye on a new subject: a young man's death from AIDS. Austin is a fiftysomething American expat in Paris; Julien is a young married man he meets at the gym. Much to Austin's surprise, Julien calls him and soon they are sharing a bed and a life. The Married Man
is White's Henry James novel: the first couple hundred pages show us a satirical portrait of young Julien as a stuffy Frenchman and a more elliptical portrait of Austin's apprehension of French culture through his lover. With Julien, "Austin was always learning things, not necessarily reasoned or researched information but rather all those thousands and thousands of brand names, turns of phrase, aversions and anecdotes that make up a culture as surely as do the moves in a child's game of hopscotch."
But White wants to take us all the way to the end of this relationship. Austin is HIV positive, and it soon becomes clear that Julien has AIDS. As Julien's health unravels, the two travel to Providence, to Key West, to Venice, to Rome, and ultimately to Morocco. The author coins a darkly appropriate phrase for this urge to move: he calls it "AIDS-restlessness." White, in fact, unveils a whole gallery of startling images as Julien nears death. Julien is "the bowler hat descending into the live volcano." Thin and brown and bearded, he looks "like the Ottoman Empire in a turn-of-the-century political cartoon." Though he can't read it, Julien acquires a copy of the Koran. "It was the perfect book for a weary, dying man--pious, incomprehensible pages to strum, an ink cloud of unknowing." White has found a language both magical and clinical to describe a horrible death. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
In recent years, veteran novelist White (A Boy's Own Life; The Farewell Symphony) has turned to transatlantic themes (as in his biography of Genet). This Jamesian turn continues in the tale of Austin Smith, an expatriated scion of decayed Southern gentry, who lives on Ile Saint Louis, in Paris. Austin, an expert on 18th-century French furniture, is HIV positive but healthy when he becomes the lover of Julien, a married architect more than 20 years Austin's junior who is in the process of divorcing his wife. Throughout the first half of the novel, Austin maintains a protective distance, allowing him to see, all too clearly, Julien's pretensions and foibles. Austin keeps his HIV status secret from Julien until the latter gets the flu, which frightens Austin into a confession. When Austin gets a job teaching in Providence, R.I., he brings Julien with him. But a complication with Julien's visa, and Austin's restlessness, have the pair repeatedly flying back and forth between America and France. Meanwhile, Julien is diagnosed with AIDS, and his health disintegrates. The couple become a frustrated threesome when Austin feels responsible for a whiny, dim ex-lover named Peter, also dying of AIDS; Peter and Julien instantly detest each other. White's candor about the ways egotism is incompletely subsumed in love shows up in many wonderful touches; White illustrates perfectly, for example, the ways in which Austin's generosity to Julien and Peter, both much younger men, infantilizes them. His descriptions of Paris, Venice and Morocco are infused with an almost Matisse-like sensuality, but sometimes the author's evident intelligence seems wasted on his self-absorbed characters. In the perspicuity of White's art, however, even the vapid Julien, dying in Morocco, evokes pathos and terror, bestowing this love story with a classically tragic aura. BOMC featured selection; QPB selection; Reader's Subscription selection; to be featured in BOMC's new, as-yet-unnamed gay and lesbian book club. (June)
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