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Oh me, oh my

My Lives An Autobiography Edmund White Ecco: 358 pp., $25.95

April 02, 2006|Michael Joseph Gross | Michael Joseph Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame," which has just been released in paperback.

"MY Lives," Edmund White's autobiography, begins with a claim of audacity: "In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.

"Of course I'd learned the word from her."

These sentences reveal the fundamental traits of this book's main character. In "My Lives," White -- the eminence grise of gay letters, biographer of Jean Genet and novelist best known for the autobiographical trilogy "A Boy's Own Story," "The Beautiful Room Is Empty" and "The Farewell Symphony" -- paints himself as a provocateur who claims power over others with shocking pronouncements about himself. He is sufficiently aware of the process to joke about it and a skillful enough stylist that his jokes usually deliver a mild, mordant jolt.

Yet as this book wears on, its narrator never seems to understand the absurd grandiosity of his own "satanic majesty." He does not allow himself to become a person like other people. He cleaves to the notion of his dark, fallen stardom, as if trapped in the role that he loved performing in childhood plays. "The formula emerges," he explains. "I wanted to be a king, but I also needed to die, go mad or undergo humiliation for my arrogance."

The formula is repeated in 10 chapters, beginning with "My Shrinks" and proceeding, with the same pos- sessive construction, through some of White's formative figures and ideas: father, mother, hustlers, women, Europe, Master (about a sadistic affair), blonds, Genet and friends.

Along the way, White asserts his superiority to almost everyone, even as he flaunts his self-loathing. It's a tiresome psychodrama. For most of his life, White has been a beloved literary gadabout, teacher and mentor to younger writers; he swooped in, Mame-like, to raise a troubled nephew (Keith Fleming, who wrote movingly of the experience in "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side"), and he has rarely been single for long. It is difficult to understand how a man so admired could be as boorish as the main character of his autobiography.

With one female lover, whom he describes as "fat," White feels "suddenly purpose-built, resplendent. It sounds appallingly vain to say so, but I felt I was conferring a favor on her. With another man I sometimes believed I was good company, a loyal friend, a benign influence, but I never thought I was doing him any favors by sleeping with him, much less any good."

Then, as if in penance -- and not for insulting his woman friend but for admitting his lapse of self-esteem -- he offers a throat-clearing mea culpa: "After all these years of liberation and psychotherapy I shouldn't admit my unease.... Perhaps I hang on to my shame because I've fetishized it; it excites me."

The best passages of "My Lives" describe White's efforts to keep himself sexually excited. Of one hustler, whom White hired when he was a teenager in Cincinnati: "There's no point in mentioning him -- his is just a face and a body and a big dark penis. It lay there on his stomach like a blood sausage." No point, that is, except for the unforgettable singularity of that man's physical presence -- which suggests the blunt experiences of intimacy that promiscuity can sometimes bring.

White makes some astute, fresh observations about sexuality. He defines "horny" as "lonely and anxious to such a degree that only sex could lift me out of this mire with enough immediacy and absoluteness." He explains the ideal of love that grows in the closet's mute womb as "the essence of one person communicating with the essence of another. It was a conversation that never approximated real talk. That's why to be rejected in love was so cataclysmic -- one had been judged and found fundamentally wanting."

Such observations accumulate, but in a voice too undisciplined to distill their insights. The failure is best illustrated in the book's most detailed description of a sexual relationship, the chapter called "My Master." White does understand some of the bold flowerings of power, identity and spirituality that happen in relationships of dominance and submission. "True, refined sadism is so focused on the victim that it could be said to be selfless; life turns up few disinterested saintly masters," he writes elsewhere in the book. But when a hot young "actor-writer-director" (identified as "T") writes a fan letter to an "old, fat, winded" writer, who pounces on the chance to perform oral sex on him for money, the result is an escalating, sensationalistic and self-created humiliation, withering to its characters and readers alike. The prose is as dissipated as the action it describes, as White lengthily quotes from the notebooks he filled when T left him: "The terrible tiredness.... I feel wobbly and my muscles ache. I wake up at six in the morning and in my e-mail I find a dirty message from a trick, Tom -- which cheers me up."

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