Our Young Man
By Edmund White
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
With allusions to Oscar’s Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’, this new novel from Edmund White narrates the story of Guy, a head-turning French male model who never seems to age. Even when he is in his forties, Guy can pass as a young man in his twenties. He doesn’t have a portrait in his attic – rather he has a fanatical regimen of self-maintenance for his face and physique. This regimen includes facial isometrics, Retin-A cream, subscribing to 11 hours sleep a night with cucumber slices on his eyes, mud on his face, and moisturiser on his knees and elbows. Though towards the end of the book, when heroin chic is the new fad in the fashion world, Guy must resort to cocaine and soup to achieve this ‘ethereal’ new look.
Guy is discovered in a Parisienne cafe at age seventeen and launched into the fashion world by his Svengali, Pierre-Georges. Immediately successful in Paris, Pierre-Georges takes him to New York and launches him there, while also taking control of Guy’s personal life and sexual favours. He wraps up a deal with a submissive European baron to gift Guy a house in exchange for one night of pleasure in the baron’s dungeon. This transaction is one of the novel’s wittiest scenes; while another highlight has Guy on a date with a besotted elderly admirer in a restaurant, bedecked with mirrors in all directions. Guy is befuddled by the complexities of American slang and distracted by his own multiple reflections. But it is Pierre-Georges who dispenses the novel’s best lines, a volley of withering put-downs delivered with perfect Parisienne authority and scorn.
Some critics have carped that this is not White’s best novel, however, White’s gay male readership will likely disagree. The setting is enticing – the golden age of gay life in Paris, Manhattan and Fire Island in the 1970s and 1980s, though the shadow of AIDS does increasingly fall across the narrative. White lived in Paris for seventeen years and has written extensively about Americans in Paris, but here he reverses that story of the fish out of water with great élan. White also wrote for Vogue for years so possesses the insider view of the fashion world and its foibles and vanities; though he also credits writer and ex-model Brad Gooch for his input on that realm. Our Young Man is a candid and extremely entertaining depiction of gay men’s lives (and sex lives) set against a thoroughly captivating period backdrop. It’s also delivered up with wit, authority, and in highly readable prose.