Monthly Archives: February 2022

A Previous Life – Edmund White (Bloomsbury Publishing)

Review for readers: A Previous Life, Edmund White’s thirteenth novel and thirtieth published book, comes as the author enters his ninth decade. This book floats like ball lightning, effervescent with crackling wit and erotic energy. A married couple ensconced in a Swiss chalet gamely share memoirs of their sexual pasts. The confessional tone pushes aside convention to revel in the love lives of oh-so-snobby-yet-oddly sympathetic and rich (and hung) Italian Ruggero and his younger American wife, the neurotic-yet-determined Constance. Oh, how these characters inhabit their namesakes! In typical White fashion, there’s some thinly veiled autobiography at play, but with a striking twist: here Ed makes the scene playing himself, literally in the third person, as Ruggero’s former lover. The sexual candor of their affair surpasses that of his novella Chaos and the “My Master” chapter of My Lives. Coupled with that candor is next-level humor that literally had me laughing out loud more than once, to the point where I startled the other guests at a cavernous restaurant that I thought was empty save myself and a handful of distant waiters. Even more, he’s writing his character posthumously from the year 2050, in a future free from any science fiction score-settling.

The dynamic vibe of A Previous Life is so diametrically opposed to the solitude-laden and trauma-obsessed literature currently cluttering shelves out there that I’m curious to see if it will get the recognition it deserves. This book is primarily a European novel. It blows past American fixations on pop culture and the intricate architecture of introversion that passes for art but forgets to ever entertain. Even the self-flagellation Ed lathers on himself is delivered with so many winks, so many asides, that I just can’t help but wonder: do modern readers know how to have this much fun with a book?      

Review for writers: A Previous Life, Edmund White’s thirteenth novel and thirtieth published book, comes as the author enters his ninth decade. If it’s already on your shelf or in your Amazon queue, the beach book of the season awaits, enjoy! Everyone else: we need to talk. I’m particularly addressing gay writers here. When in conversation with other authors about White’s work, I typically receive embarrassed or stilted confessions that they’ve only read three of his books, it’s always the same: A Boy’s Own Story, Genet: A Biography, and City Boy. Maybe The Burning Library. Exclamations of awe and acts of self-deprecation follow. If we’re friends, I gift them a copy or two of some favorites among his other books, gently exhorting all: this is a once in a century-never-to-be-repeated talent that deserves your close attention. White has carved out a reputation and standing in the literary (straight) world that deserves study and emulation. This isn’t because he’s the “best” gay writer, but because he’s among the best American writers. For many contemporary authors the rush to capture the zeitgeist is ultimately a limiting experience for the reader; when it comes to gay books of late, I’ve been reading competently structured stories with little bearing on life. Art imitating art imitating art is sculptural. This is why you should read A Previous Life: the crossed swords of these fictional memoirs and the unintended fallout contain real desire, hot recriminations, people everywhere entangled with one another, hope is fleeting, love is real and death lurks like a big black iceberg. Also, the sex is fun and passionate, and loaded with miscues and kink. And don’t stop here, pick up the titles you missed. Start with Hotel de Dream (Ryan Murphy, I’m talking to you. This one would make one hell of a miniseries). Read his entire oeuvre. Get with it, boys; it’s really quite simple: great writing is less about cracking the code and more about chasing love and reporting back.    

For more on A Previous Life, check out this conversation between Edmund White and Brian Alessandro here.

Reviewed by Tom Cardamone, editor of Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book, and the author of the Lambda Literary Award-winning speculative novella Green Thumb as well as the erotic fantasy The Lurid Sea and other works of fiction, including two short story collections. Additionally, he has edited The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and co-edited Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs.

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Judge Me, Judge Me Not: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery – James Merrick (Butterworth Books)

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James Merrick, an eighty-something gay man, chronicles his lifelong struggle for self-acceptance in a memoir that will be nostalgic for older queer readers and educational for anyone.

Merrick chose a linear approach to telling his story, which felt (ironically) refreshing, as flashback/flashforward narratives predominate so much of modern memoir and fiction. His intention is also uncomplicated from the start to finish. Through reflecting on his life’s journey, he hopes to share with readers the deep impact of homophobia on how we come to understand ourselves and navigate the world.

He grew up in a white, Evangelical, working class family in southern California. He was aware of a sense of ‘otherness’ early on. He lacked the traditionally-gendered interests of other boys and found himself more comfortable with an intimate female friend who he went on to marry, start a family with and sustain an over three-decades-long marriage even after he came out as gay. 

Primary among Merrick’s concerns is the harm of Evangelical bigotry. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s, he didn’t know that gay men existed or that his otherness was an evolving gay identity. Whenever he became aware of being attracted to men, he was overcome by religious-based fear and shame. Merrick portrays that internal conflict through debates by the “companions” in his head, who alternately make the case to banish, subjugate, minimize, or rationalize his inclinations. Beyond the wounds of religious condemnation, the author adds that his psychological strife was exacerbated by flashpoints in the sociopolitical conversation about gay men over the decades: the pathologization of homosexuality in the 1950s, casting gay teachers as pedophiles in the 1960s, and the anti-gay fearmongering by politicians and religious leaders in response to the AIDS pandemic.

Like many (most?) men of his generation, such forces were sufficiently terrifying to keep him in the closet for most of his life, until the early 1980s. He had the opportunity to move his family to Puerto Rico to take a teaching position at a U.S. Naval base, and through various social contacts, began to meet gay men and have sex with them. Still, he kept his gayness secret from his wife and family, disbelieving that an openly gay life was possible career-wise and emotionally.

Merrick provides great detail in describing his affairs, demonstrating his growth from clandestine encounters to love affairs that showed him the way to sharing his life with another man. He pours quite a lot of story into the book, having eight decades to cover, but like most lives, some parts are more riveting than others. Toward the end, when he tells the story of fighting for legal status for his undocumented Mexican husband amid the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant hysteria, one turns the pages rapidly. In lengthy passages of fights with the voices in his head and reminiscences of the physical attractiveness of his past lovers, not so much.

Still, Merrick has recorded an important history of how gay men managed through a hostile climate, from pre-Stonewall, post-Stonewall, AIDS, and the recent resurgence of white nationalism and its close cousin, LGBTQ+ scapegoating. A good book for readers who are struggling to come out themselves and those with interest in gay history.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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