Illustration by Chad M. Weaver
Book Review: Our Young Man
Edmund White's latest novel, Our Young Man, brings a personal touch to the glorious, cutthroat world of male beauty.
A lifelong lover of all things couture, Edmund White returns with Our Young Man, his valentine to fashion-mad Manhattan and Fire Island. This time around, White escorts us into the realm of beautiful clothes and beautiful people, particularly the impossibly gorgeous male models who dotted the 1980s milieu.
White’s novel is primarily the story of Guy, a beautiful boy from a poor French town. Fortunately for Guy, his perfect face and golden body pull him from what might otherwise be a grim fate. He ascends the shimmering heights of high fashion, first in Paris, then New York, and finds himself in a fast-paced, drug-fueled world where loathsome old toads pay big bucks for a young man’s company, while detractors wait and watch for their friends and enemies to fail. Looks and self-maintenance are everything; gaining so much as an ounce could earn you the moniker “Miss Piggy.”
Guy, recognizing all this, reminds us of the classic caveat so popular in those days: “If you’re not good looking, you’d damn well better be funny, and if you’re neither of those, you’d better be a slut.”
White’s approach is playful, arch, sly. The fashion world has its undeniable allure, and the men and women in it can be fun company. Indeed, having a godlike physique can open doors to a jet-set life full of fancy wines, glittering outfits, yachts and everlasting parties.
But Our Young Man is, most of all, a study of vanity. As Guy’s daily regimen — toning, tanning, creams, lotions, etc. — begins to take its toll, he finds there’s a high price to be paid for being ravishing, for letting yourself and your love be bought, for having to pretend you adore the men you’re kept by.
These are, Guy discovers, the ups and downs of being professionally good looking. His is a cautionary tale, much of it infused with sadness, with beauty’s melancholy. After all, men like him — the smart ones, anyway — know their looks are fleeting. There will always be someone hotter, someone younger hovering just behind, ready to nudge them off the runway. Not that it stops handsome men from clutching their loveliness like a talisman against the onset of aging. As the advancing years threaten to darken his career, his very existence, even Guy is angered by beauty’s refusal to endure.
White, now in his 70s, writes better than ever in this arresting firsthand account of the gay ’80s (a decade during which he worked as an editor at Vogue). White is, as ever, a brilliant pictorialist capable of bringing back to life the vivid scenes of yesteryear. It would seem, however, that some of the attendant feelings and themes weren’t allowed to die in the first place.