With Our Young Man one of America’s greatest novelists delivers a sad yet funny, and nostalgic story of gay life in 80s New York, that recalls elements of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray.
With a downtrodden mother, alcoholic father, and uninteresting siblings, the stunningly beautiful teenager Guy (pronounced in the French way) can’t wait to escape his oppressive home life, in a grim industrial city in 1970s France. So, when spotted by a talent scout on a trip to Paris, Guy jumps at the chance of a modelling career and before long he is gracing the cover of fashion magazines and a regular on the runaway for high-end designers.
After moving to New York, Guy’s success in the modelling world only increases and he’s thrust into the excesses and debauchery of the New York 1980s gay scene. His Parisian manager Pierre-Georges stays with him, controlling his life, making sure he’s got the right connections and earning amounts of money he could only have dreamed of.
Even with all this success, somehow Guy manages to draw suitors who bestow him with outrageously generous gifts such as a beach house at New York’s party destination, Fire Island, and a home in the West Village. People are drawn to the easy-going, affable Guy but he starts to wonder if it’s only for his looks. He’s soon surrounded by a compelling cast of characters, including the terrible Belgian baron with his scandalous sexual proclivities, and Fred, the formerly straight guy who finally comes out in his 60s and is desperate to be a hot young thing. Eventually Guy finds love with a Columbian student but poor Andre courts disaster in an attempt to keep up with Guy’s jetsetter lifestyle by forging Dali artworks.
During the ensuing years, Guy’s friends are ageing, and some are dying, but Guy is reaching middle age and yet manages to look like he’s not much over twenty – so much that even Guy wonders if there’s a painting of an ageing version of himself in an attic somewhere. That’s not the only reference to Oscar Wilde’s novel either and Guy’s ageing, or lack thereof, is a central theme in the novel. So what will become of Guy and can he find some meaning beyond his superficial lifestyle?
Our Young Man is another classic from Edmund White. It’s often poignant – it’s 80s New York when AIDs was at its height and those suffering were still stigmatised. It’s also filled with humour, many of it surrounding the New York modelling scene and Guy’s desperate attempts to stay young, beautiful and slim with his crazy exercise and dieting regimes. Many of these satirical jibes are no doubt drawn from White’s own years in the fashion industry, at US Vogue.
Edmund White is the author of numerous acclaimed novels, including A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, Jack Holmes and His Friend. His non-fiction includes City Boy, Inside a Pearl, and The Flaneur; as well as many literary biographies and essays. He was made an officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. White lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.