Tom Cardamone has made a mission of rescuing Gay writers and their writings from the dustbin of history. His The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered (2010) lists twenty-eight Gay literary forefathers, as remembered by current Gay writers. In his latest anthology, Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, he focuses on a single writer, and his mission is somewhat different: celebrating a giant of Gay letters who has little chance of being forgotten.
(Full disclosure: it shames me to admit that I have arrived so very late to this party. Of White’s body of work, I have read only his most recent The Unpunished Vice, and, well, The Joy of Gay Sex–not that one exactly reads the latter, at least not from cover to cover. I read the former as an advance reader’s copy, but I encountered the latter as a closeted teen in a Waldenbooks at a mall in a nearby city.)
In any event, I have been given an excellent road map to rectify this lack. Crashing Cathedrals is a hefty book: clocking in at 443 pages (plus author bios), it contains 33 essays written by a veritable Who’s Who of Gay literati, discussing 30 different titles authored by White. The heft is not surprising, given that White’s oeuvre is scarcely insignificant: he has written both fiction and non-fiction—novels, biography, memoir, essays, and reviews—during a career that spans decades, from just after Stonewall, during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, White’s “exile” in Paris, into the twenty-first century. Most of these tributes were written specifically for this volume, but it also incorporates nine reprints, including the introduction to the Modern Library edition of A Boy’s Own Story by Allan Gurganus, as well as contributions originally published online in such venues as the Lambda Literary Revue and Chelsea Station. (Again, not surprisingly, the title with multiple essays is the classic A Boy’s Own Story, with essays not only by Gurganus and Robert Glück, but also Brian Alessandro, who worked with White’s own husband Michael Carroll on a graphic novel and screenplay of this seminal title.)
The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with White’s first novel Forgetting Elena (1977) and closing with his most recent memoir The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading (2018). Although one may read the essays in any order, I suggest reading them consecutively: as one reads the essays sequentially, one not only learns about White’s development as a writer, but also learns about the arc of his own life story. Thus Cardamone’s volume not only serves as a bibliography of White’s oeuvre, but also functions as a biography of sorts for him.
Lest one think that this volume is purely a pedantic series of obtuse critiques of White’s writings—with copious footnotes—most of the essays contained herein offer not only discussions about the specific work by White in question, but also personal reminiscences about “Ed”–where and when the essayist first encountered the work under discussion, and sometimes even how and when the essayist met him in person. And since most of the contributors are likewise writers, it is just as relevant knowing how White the writer influenced their work, as knowing how Ed personally mentored and inspired them. By reading this book, one not only gets a sense of Edmund White the writer, but also of Edmund White the person, and this festschrift is as much a tribute to the latter as to the former.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske