Read an Excerpt from Edmund White’s New Novel ‘Our Young Man’
Author: William Johnson
April 21, 2016
This month, Bloomsbury is releasing Our Young Man, a novel that explores the joys and pitfalls of living a life dedicated to physical beauty, from acclaimed author Edmund White.
From the Lambda Literary Review:
Edmund White’s work has long been interested in the allure of facades. In The Married Man, he showcased what grand heights a love affair can reach when rooted in illusion and misdirection. Likewise, his memoir City Boy: My Life in New York in the 1960’s and 70’s enchants the reader with a selective recollection of mid-century glamour, both of the down-at-the-heels and champagne varieties. Set predominantly in the 1980’s and ‘90’s against the backdrop of AIDS, his latest novel, Our Young Man, interrogates the crucible of vanity prevalent in modern gay life
Although Guy was thirty-five he was still working as a model, and certain of his more ironic and cultured friends called him, as the dying Proust had been called by Colette, “our young man.” For so many years he’d been actually young; he’d arrived from Paris to New York in the late 1970s when he was in his late twenties but passed as nineteen. He’d been the darling of Fire Island Pines the summers of 1980 and 1981; everyone in the Octagon House was in love with him and he was a good deal more egalitarian and participatory in chores and expenses than he needed to be, splitting the grocery and house cleaning bills down to the last penny, even when he skipped meals or entire weekends.
Everyone adored him, so he could have skimped on his share. He was making $175 an hour as a model for a whole host of beauty products, which was a lot of money in those days; he made more in two hours than his housemate, the young journalist Howard, earned in a week, or Howard’s lover the mustachioed Cuban bartender Martin took in at Uncle Charlie’s in tips on two or three shifts. Even his heavy French accent made him all the more desirable; one of their most besotted housemates, Tom, started taking French lessons but could never master a whole sentence.
Nor was he stinting with his favors. He’d swallow an after- dinner concoction Ted would assemble of acid, tranquilizers, Quaaludes, and the odd yellow jacket. After a strenuous night of dancing at the Sandpiper he’d be found nude at dawn, splayed in the surf with three other amorous beauties or massaging a Croatian fellow model on the deck by the pool as they sipped big shaggy joints of Acapulco gold.
He liked the Pines, since the muscular men there were bankers or lawyers or surgeons and not just gigolos, as comparable studs would have been in Saint-Tropez, lounging around on the decks of moored yachts (or “laying out in the sun,” as these American guys all said, though Guy knew from lycée English class back in France that it should be “lying”; the French, he thought primly, would never have made a similar mistake in their own language).
He was from Clermont-Ferrand, a big, dead, dreary industrial city in the heart of France, lava-black, cold in the winter and suffocatingly hot in the summer, and now he sent home a thousand dollars a month from New York to his pious mother, who arranged the flowers for the altar, and his Communist father, a Michelin factory hand who’d been laid off for twenty years, living on welfare and drinking too much red wine (his first coup de rouge he downed at eleven every morning, an old habit from his working days).
Guy had always known since his grandmother had told him that he was unusually handsome, with his jug ears, full inviting upper lip, and dark intense eyes the color of burnt honey; only the brightest sunlight discovered the amber spokes in them. He’d played soccer in the streets since he was a six-year-old and had the round ass to prove it, itself as firm and slightly giving as an inflated soccer ball. He was six-foot-three and towered over his friends but he was always disastrously skinny and his nickname had been “Sec” (“Dry”) because that’s what the French called those who hadn’t an extra gram of fat on them. When he was seventeen he began to fill in, but just about then he turned moody (boudeur) and started smoking and skipped classes and resigned from being the crozier at church—in fact he slept in on Sundays and missed mass altogether; the omission made his mother cry and his father smile. His parents quarreled once a week and his father, drunk, broke furniture and his mother pronounced bitter reproaches in a soft speaking voice, precise, hateful condemnations which she’d devised to wound and which she muttered expressionlessly.
There were two younger children, a boy and a girl, the nearest, Robert, five years younger, and the girl, Tiphaine, a dozen—both of them presumably the result of Saturday night rapes visited on his outraged mother. The little kids were mousy and unattractive, although Tiphaine seemed to be gifted in math and Robert loved his father and was loved back; their companionship made Guy feel all the more isolated. In the autumn Guy’s father and Robert always left on a weeklong hunting trip to the Sologne to which Guy was never invited.
Guy went with a girl, a friend from lycée, to a session with a professional photographer; she had her heart set on being a top model, though she was overweight and spotty. Everyone in France said “topmodel,” as if it were a bound form. The bored photographer, to whom she was paying five hundred francs for her “portfolio,” ended up taking as many pictures gratis of Guy as of Lazarette. He told Guy that he should pursue modeling. Guy stored that hint away; it might be his passport out of Clermont-Ferrand. Although he was a little rebellious, nevertheless he was a good boy and “projected” goodnes—which later would be the downfall of many a person.
One weekend Guy went to Paris with some pilgrims from his church; although he claimed to be an atheist he wanted to see Paris and agreed to participate in the huge youth rally mass that was being held in the Parc des Princes. But on the day of the mass he snuck off and took the Métro to Saint-Germain-de- Prés, which he’d read in a magazine was the artistic center of the capital. He sipped a coffee and studied Le Soir at the highly recommended Café de Flore for two hours, and when he got up to leave a friendly-looking middle-aged man sitting by the window waved him over. “Hello, hello,” he sang out in a loud voice in which Guy could detect just a hint of irony, or was he, Guy, being the provincial paranoid?
Guy had on his tightest black pants and most beautiful baby- blue sweater, though it was really too warm for a sweater. He’d spent an hour before the mirror at the hostel nursing his hair into little sheep curls and had twice gone through all three outfits he’d brought with him. Tiphaine always ribbed him for being more vain than a girl, but their grandmother, overhearing her, had said, “He’s obsessed with his looks and clothes like any normal teenage boy.” Although she’d retired to Clermont- Ferrand she’d been a cashier (“Madame Caisse”) for forty years at a popular Parisian café. She kept her eyebrows plucked and lips painted magenta with a brush even now. From the waist up she was always impeccable, though her skirt was stained and twisted and her shoes worn down; on the job only her top half had been visible to customers and even now that was all she cared about. She chain-smoked Gauloises and drank a shot of cognac every night after dinner. She had a certain Parisian sauciness that the rest of the family lacked and a salty Titi Parisienne way of talking like the actress Arletty.
The man at the Café de Flore invited Guy to join him for a drink. He said, “It’ll just take a second of your time and it could change your whole life.” Guy’s heart was racing but he thought no harm could come to him, could it, in such a public place. Surely he was safe here, wasn’t he?
The man, who was bald but had very shaggy eyebrows to compensate and was wonderfully well dressed in a gray sports jacket the color of a cloud and a flamboyant red and gold silk pocket square, said his name was Pierre-Georges. As soon as Guy had ordered a Suze, which he thought was sufficiently elegant and its yellow color would work to enhance his brown eyes, Pierre-Georges said, “You’re the best-looking man in Paris today. Surely you’re aware of that.” He handed Guy his card, which had the words scouting agent printed in embossed letters below his name and above his details. “It’s my business to know these things.”
Guy was surprised, not because he doubted the man’s verdict but because he hadn’t picked up that anyone was studying him. His worldly-wise grandmother had told him only two months earlier that he had the sort of good looks that weren’t dazzling but only slowly dawned on an observer.
“You could be a model!” the man said. “Are you already?” Maybe his grandmother was wrong and had just been quoting some striking Parisian observation she’d overheard.
“No,” he said, deciding to set the bar very low and make himself sound naïve and folkloric. “I’m just a simple boy of the people from Clermont-Ferrand and this is the first time I’ve ever been in Paris.”
Pierre-Georges pressed a smile away with his fingertips and asked, “Age?”
“Seventeen.” “Lycée?” “Terminale.”
“So in a few weeks you’ll be free to work?” “Yes, sir.”
“Do you have any objections”—again the fingertips pressing the smile from the lips—“to living in Paris and traveling to New York and Milan?”
He decided to play the ingénu (which in fact he was) and said, “Are you kidding? That would be a dream come true.” He knew that a cool, blasé tone was beyond his means; he thought Pierre-Georges would prefer to discover an innocent (Guy was a born actor and could even consciously perform himself).
He took a bus up to Paris a week after the youth rally and Pierre-Georges arranged to have his hair cut and straightened and lightened. He was dressed by Pierre-Georges in loud plaids and a tight-fitting paisley shirt, with long collar points and darts in the back, tight puttees, and English winklepicker shoes, all the ghastly fashions of the early seventies. He learned right away to keep changing his pose. (“You’re giving me repeats,” the wiry little photographer had had to say menacingly only once.) Guy pivoted and smiled or frowned, touched his face or jumped in the air or stared shamelessly at a spot on the wall, all the poses he’d observed in L’Uomo Vogue. The photographer and Pierre-Georges discussed him as if he were more or less a desirable side of beef who could not hear them.
“Great bones,” the photographer said.
“But his nose is a little shiny on the left side,” Pierre-Georges pointed out. “And there’s no notch between his nose and his forehead.”
“But that’s very ancient Greek,” the photographer argued. “Very chic just now.”
“He needs to work out,” Pierre-Georges declared. “A little, not much, just some push-ups and curls and bench presses, high reps and low weights, just to fill out his chest and give his biceps some definition.”
“Straight or gay?” the photographer asked.
“He reads straight,” Pierre-Georges said. “That’s all that counts. All the new male models are straight and married.”
“Nice hands,” the photographer added, “but he needs a manicure, no varnish.”
“Guy, you should throw your shoulders back; the hollowed- out chest look is only for women. And stop smoking! Nothing ages your skin more. If you wanted to do some German catalogue work, swimsuits and underwear, bare-chested, I’d have to burn those two moles off your chest.” Guy’s hand instinctively rushed to his chest to protect it.
In Clermont-Ferrand no one seemed to be gay, or at least everyone he encountered was careful not to cruise. Everyone he knew except the priest was married. Like many teenagers, Guy was unfamiliar with himself. He didn’t know what he wanted—except to see the world. He didn’t know what effect he had on others, but everyone tried to please him, even strangers, and even middle-class men and women overcame their reserve to smile or speak to him. He never had to say much to make people open up to him. He liked to say he led a charmed life.
Guy could tell Pierre-Georges liked him but he didn’t know in what way. He seemed to want to perfect Guy’s look and sometimes Guy felt he was nothing more than a plastic doll that came with tiny outfits and a tiny clothes brush. But Pierre- Georges occasionally smiled at Guy in full complicity as if he knew what was going through the young man’s head. Once, when the wiry little photographer was racing about taking shots of Guy jumping in the air as a fan blew his hair, Pierre- Georges winked at the boy. It was absurd! All three of them clustered together in the darkroom improvised in the bathroom: They watched Guy’s features slowly emerge beneath the clear fluid under the red light. The little photographer whispered in awe, “Magnifique! A god.” And Pierre-Georges even muttered his highest praise, “Not bad.”
Guy’s mother, wearing her black, most classic dress minus the lace fichu, which Guy had begged her to forego, accom- panied him to Paris for his first runway show for Pierre Cardin. She was more nervous than Guy and must have told him ten times not to fall off the stage. He acquitted himself without embarrassment and each time stopped at the right spot for a second’s pause, and the photographers loved him; at least more flashes went off when he took to the runway than for any of the other men. He wasn’t prepared for the frantic changes of clothes backstage; the abrupt, hissed orders as the maquilleuse, smelling of cinnamon gum, kept dancing around him on one foot and dusting his face with her powder puff. Pierre-Georges told him he should look angry, even menacing, as if he wanted to punch someone: “That will give you the right look.”
Inexperienced as Guy was, even he could see that Cardin’s loud plaids and vests for men and polyester ties were in bad taste and that orange, the prevailing color, was offensive. The show was held in the immense new Espace Cardin next to the American Embassy. The great man himself was rushing about, muttering orders and folding back collars. Guy noticed that several of the male models had stopped shaving and showed black stubble. He’d never seen that before and thought it must hurt to be kissed by such a man. At the last minute, Cardin himself clapped horn-rimmed glasses on Guy’s face. The lenses, fortunately, were just clear glass, and Guy could see perfectly normally through them. Guy felt a combination of fear and satisfaction on the runway in front of so many strangers. He felt the power of his looks, but it seemed a very limited power and he couldn’t yet calculate its dimensions.
The next day Guy’s face was splashed all over Paris and he was (sort of ) a star (nameless). Pierre-Georges brought to his romantic Left Bank hotel with the view of Notre Dame a whole stack of newspapers. Guy wanted to seem casual and indifferent, but he couldn’t help pawing through the papers, especially the regional ones he read regularly. He could see his cheekbones were so high they cast shadows on his thin face, but he thought he was too smiley and risked looking like a simpleton. Pierre-Georges told Guy and his mother that Cardin wanted to sign him up to an exclusive contract but Pierre- Georges thought they should say no. “I can get you a lot more money,” he said, “by shopping you around.”
Just as Guy was saying, “You’re the expert,” his mother was saying, “Is it wise to turn down a definite offer?” And they all three laughed at this spontaneous revelation of character.
Guy was excited about having his picture all over the papers and millions of readers looking at him. Would they speculate about who he was and what he wanted, or was the whole presentation so glossy it was impersonal? Would people long to know him? Had he already inspired a passion in some stranger’s heart?
Pierre-Georges took Guy and three girls dancing at the Rock ’n’ Roll Circus, a tuxedo disco. The tall skinny girls were decked out in horrible Cardin “space age” dresses of floating geometrical panels over body stockings. (Cardin, he learned, had lent the girls the new dresses from his latest ready-to-wear collection because he wanted his clothes to be seen in Paris hot spots.) Guy didn’t feel confident about his dancing and he wondered if the black light was doing something facetious to his newly processed hair. But Pierre-Georges assured him he looked handsome in black-tie. From there they went on to the Élysée Matignon. When they all got hungry about midnight they went to the Club Sept, which was a table-hopping restaurant and bar upstairs and a small, mirror-lined gay disco in the basement. The music was a wonderful mix; the Cuban disquaire, whom Pierre-Georges called Guy Cuevas, was sitting in a Lucite box and kept playing Marvin Gaye and Dalida.
Guy was secretly thrilled by the blend of gay and straight, black and white, European and American, old and young at the Club Sept and the oddly shaped asymmetrical dishes, spotlit bouquets on each table and the towering wine glasses on green, twisted stems. It seemed very contemporary to him. All of his anguish about whether he liked boys or girls was suddenly resolved and pacified in the dizzying omnisexual pandemonium of the Sept.
Our Young Man © Edmund White, 2016. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury USA.