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Originally published Saturday, January 28, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

Friendship between gay and straight, in White's 'Jack Holmes'

In Edmund White's new novel, "Jack Holmes & His Friend," two men — one gay, one straight — navigate a tricky friendship against the changing social backdrop of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s.

Seattle Times arts writer

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'Jack Holmes & His Friend'

by Edmund White

Bloomsbury, 392 pp., $25

Halfway through Edmund White's new novel, "Jack Holmes & His Friend," the "friend" in the title pictures his gay buddy Jack "putting the moves on his boys."

He imagines the two men "undoing each other's familiar belts, pulling off each other's familiar shirts and underpants and socks, the easygoing camaraderie of undressing another man, but how dull. How lacking in mystery. ... Where was the delight in a man?"

That's not a sentiment you might expect from a gay writer. But Edmund White isn't your average gay novelist — and "Jack Holmes & His Friend" is, for White, a bit of a departure.

It is, as its title states, about a friendship — a decades-long bond of ever-increasing complications between a gay Midwesterner, Jack Holmes, and a straight Southern Catholic, Will Wright, both newcomers to New York in the early 1960s.

In the third-person narrative that frames the book, Jack is the focus. Closeted at first (even from himself) and then increasingly reconciled to his desires, Jack falls hard for Will when they meet, seeing him as the love of his life although he knows nothing can come of it.

The friendship has its on-again-off-again phases, with the two men going years without seeing each other. But when they meet by chance in the 1970s — a time when the Sexual Revolution is building toward its pre-AIDS crescendo — they reconnect more steadily. Will's subsequent first-person narrative of what goes on between them is the 150-page centerpiece of the book.

Soon Jack, the cheerily self-confessed "libertine," becomes a sounding board for Will, who's beginning to feel that "ten years of marital fidelity had been criminal and a mistake, a sacrifice to some pointless, cowardly ideal." In a twist out of Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Jack becomes a less conscience-burdened variation on Jack Lemmon in the film, facilitating Will's first extramarital fling.

The novel maintains an artful balance between social history and individual tale. Changes in sexual mores, sexual politics and social prejudices serve as a narrative backdrop that's only half-registered while Jack's and Will's personal and professional concerns take center stage, White being well aware that people are often more absorbed in their own dramas than the times they inhabit.

While the switch into Will's first-person narration initially feels strained, it soon gains credibility. As always, White's descriptions jump out at you. Here's Jack on his first experience of urban sexual anonymity: "The city swallowed every anecdote and digested it; nothing got remembered or even noticed." And here he is registering a rainy-evening street scene: "The stoplights bled onto the uneven wet macadam, huge vowels of color pronounced out of the gathering darkness."

"Jack Holmes" isn't White's only new book. "Sacred Monsters" (Magnus Books, 258 pp., $24.95), a collection of pieces on David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Christopher Isherwood and other mostly gay writers and artists, shows he's as insightful and conversational an essayist as he is a fiction writer.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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