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City Boy: My Life in New York During the…
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City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s (2009)

by Edmund White

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book in November and tried to read it then but couldn't get through it. I picked it up twice more before finally finishing it, and after all that effort to read the book I'm a little disappointed.

White spins an engaging story, mixing comic anecdotes with serious reflection on himself and his peers at a time of great change in their lives - but I just wasn't interested. An excessive amount of name dropping turned me off from the very beginning, and the rest of the book did little to change my impressions. I think White has a lot of interesting things to say, and overall is an insightful and talented writer - clearly, since he overcame the early writers' block he describes in the book to publish 23 books - but his prose here was clumsy, often repetitive and even gossipy in tone. I thought I would like that casual, 'have I got a story for you' feel - instead it made the book a difficult one for me to finish.

I understand that White's life and writing have been vastly impacted by the time and place in which his adult life began - there were times, however, many times throughout the book, where entire paragraphs read like a roster of the literary and cultural icons of his time. Good for him, for meeting and observing all of those people. But was that all he had to write about?" ( )
  smileydq | May 12, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
(from http://withhiddennoise.net/2010/02/24/edmund-white-city-boy/ )

The first question that arises with this book is why. Edmund White has already written a biography, of a sort (My Lives); more to the point, he’s also fictionalized the period in time in which this book is set in his autobiographical novels, A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, the books for which he’s probably best known. Why then do this as non-fiction rather than fiction? One might suspect this book of being a cashing in on the present popularity of the memoir; but White has been studiously playing with the boundary between fiction and non-fiction since A Boy’s Own Story, where he began the project of fictionalizing his own life. Most recently, in Fanny and Hotel de Dream, he moved to a project of fictionalizing American literary history (the lives of Fanny Trollope and Stephen Crane, respectively); in the latter, he went so far as to fabricate apocrypha for Stephen Crane. This book, then, should not simply be taken as a clef for his romans à clef: it needs to be observed in context.

The trickiness afoot commences with the first, one-sentence paragraph in the book:

In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.

A fine beginning; this is what those of us who weren’t in New York in the 1970s assume about life then. But this might be instructively compared to “Uncle Ed and My Life with Him,” an essay by White’s nephew Keith Fleming. Fleming lived with his uncle in the 1970s; this is engagingly fictionalized in The Farewell Symphony and described at length in City Boy, as well as in Fleming’s own memoir, The Boy with the Thorn in His Side. In the section excerpted on White’s website we find this description:

The first book he had suggested I read had been Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, and I instantly recognized my uncle in Chesterfield’s dictum that a gentleman never rises later than ten in the morning, no matter when he might have gone to bed, and that his day should be divided evenly between study and pleasure, which mutually refresh each other.

Lord Chesterfield certainly shows up in City Boy: on p. 27, White talks about how much he liked his writing, though White doesn’t mention what time Chesterfield thought a gentleman should rise. If one actually looks at Chesterfield, things become even more complicated:

But then, I can assure you, that I always found time for serious studies; and, when I could find it no other way, I took it out of my sleep, for I resolved always to rise early in the morning, however late I went to bed at night; and this resolution I have kept so sacred, that, unless when I have been confined to my bed by illness, I have not, for more than forty years, ever been in bed at nine o’clock in the morning but commonly up before eight.

How do we resolve the disjunction between Fleming’s account and White’s broad statement? Assuming that Fleming is accurately remembering his uncle’s habits, the “everyone” in White’s line must not include him, as we would have expected. If Fleming is misremembering Chesterfield but correctly remembering that this passage made him think of his uncle, White’s behavior is even more atypical of 1970s New York. Memory and truth are complicated; and this is a book that needs to be read carefully.

Looked at from the New York of 2010, the period from the 1960s to the 1980s in New York can’t help but seem a golden age for the arts, which we observe from mannerist decline. It’s not easy, for example, to think of a New York novel from the past decade that’s likely to hold its own in twenty years. But that past is a hard thing to nail down: talking to people who were in the New York art scene in the 1960s, one quickly realizes that any two accounts of the same events in that period are bound to be contradictory. White’s strategy, then, is to approach the same events several times, using different techniques. Reading his novelizations, the uninformed reader won’t always match names to characters correctly; the names remain ciphers, and what the reader is left with is the relationship between the characters. With names attached, as in City Boy, it becomes a record of the celebrity: this is what Richard Howard did, this is how Susan Sontag was, this is the sort of person that Harold Brodkey was. Both ways are valid ways to tell a story which is important; however, the fiction read before the memoir is going to have a different effect than the fiction after the memoir. Perhaps this is what White is getting at when he says, after a description of James Merrill:

Having actually known such a person doesn’t give one a special purchase on the reality. In fact familiarity can lead to slightly idiotic complacencies. The French critic Sainte-Beauve wrote that he couldn’t see why everyone made such a fuss over “Beyle” (Stendhal), since good ol’ Beyle would surely have been the first to laugh at his exaggerated posthumous reputation. Even so, everyone wants to hear the story just because it “really” happened, and yet in truth its reality – fragile at best and now largely mythologized into a new shape – is scarcely telling. (p. 86.)

The project of going back to the same history again and again makes sense with this in mind. City Boy is a blunt representation of reality; but it’s also a more measured one given that more time has passed since White’s last attempts to write about the period. This is maybe counterintuitive: The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) was written at a moment of crisis; while panic about AIDS in the U.S. was calming by the time that The Farewell Symphony appeared in 1997, its repercussions were still being strongly felt. If one were attempting simply to document what was being lost (a charge frequently leveled at autobiographical fiction), it would have made more sense to work in the memoir form then. But obfuscation allows for better representation.

A case might be made that one of the most interesting works of fiction in the past few years is White’s contemporary James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, a sequel to Mawrdew Czgowchwz, his novel of gay opera devotees in New York of the 1950s besotted with Irishness. Now Voyagers is an enormous, fantastically intricate book; it’s one of the most explicitly Joycean American novel that I can imagine (and McCourt has promised a sequel). But one senses, reading it, the heartbreaking feeling that this is a book that might never actually find a readership: it’s a document of a vanished age, in a vanishing language. I can sense how well it’s done, but my knowledge (of opera, of Irishness, of gay life in the 1950s) isn’t enough to really understand McCourt on his own terms; I can only admire his language. Now Voyagers is reminiscent of White’s first few novels, especially the elliptical allusions of the first, Forgetting Elena, which seems underrated despite Nabokov’s approval. White seems to have moved in the opposite direction, providing easier ways in to the past. I’m not sure, though, that this is an outright rejection of his earlier experimentation: rather, he’s continuing to play with style across what we think of as fiction and non-fiction.
1 vote dbvisel | Apr 27, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Though I was frequently entertained while reading "City Boy," I ultimately found it to be an unsatisfying melange: roughly equal parts heartfelt elegy for the scruffy, menacing, glamorous free-for-all that was New York in the '70s in which Edmund White forged his literary career, and shameless, profligate name-dropping, with an occasional dash of catty score-settling. As an evocation of a unique cultural moment, the memoir often works, communicating a clear-eyed nostalgia for its milieu (two frequently but not continually overlapping milieus, actually: post-Stonewall gay life, and haute literary culture) that belies the widespread perception of the city at that time as nothing but a crime-ridden hell-hole. (Having spent much time in New York in the late '70s, I can vouch that, while it could be hair-raising at times, it sure wasn't all "Little Murders" and "Taxi Driver.") But I have to echo many of the other reviews in finding the book rambling, consisting too often of little more than strings of nearly free-associative celebrity sightings and dishy non-sequiturs. It's one thing for White to take John Gardner to task for his puritanical pomposity, but what earthly reason can he have for informing us that Gardner "reputedly had had a colostomy"? He seems to have considered the memoir an appropriate repository for every scrap of memory he could dredge up from those times, relevant or not. I couldn't help but wish that White had dispensed with a third or more of the most trivial anecdotes and gossip items, and produced a slimmer volume that better displayed his gifts for nuanced observation and lyrical prose -- something more along the lines of his "Our Paris." ( )
1 vote paddlebook | Mar 14, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I had to read "Boys Own Story" in college, and was surprised that there were such books in the world--I was a sheltered child of the 80's. I loved it and went looking for similar.

I can't say that I have picked up a book by White since then--OK I have picked them up just not read them and NOT because I applied to study under him at Brown & wasn't accepted--something which White probably had nothing to do with.

THAT has nothing to do with my review of this which is: I was a bit bored. There are a lot of famous people mentioned (some, I admit, I had to look up--though not in the index...since there isn't one) and there is some pretty prose...but I don't feel as if I was given more than a fleeting glimpse of life in New York in the 60's and 70's. I think this might have meant more to me had I lived through the 60's and 70's...And fans of his other books, especially his biographical books will probably like this much more than I did. ( )
  disturbingfurniture | Feb 15, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As a great admirer of Edmund White's previous writings, I must say that I was sorely disappointed in this latest memoir. I've managed to get half-way through Chapter 4, and honestly can't bring myself to go on (though I did peruse a few later chapters in hopes that the writing got better). As another reviewer pointed out, the book reads like a laundry list of names and places with the barest of description, and no elaboration.

There's a distinct lack of flow and cohesion, and I found myself wondering if the book might not be more palatable if heard rather than read. Might it have begun as a series of verbal reminiscences, later transcribed? It would certainly account for the disjointed, maundering prose and maddening overabundance of the simplest of simple sentences. And while wit is certainly in evidence here, it falls flat when set amidst such bare-bones, banal reportage.

Also, while I'm very indulgent of name dropping (I generally find the name dropping in Ned Rorem's diaries charming, and a little vicariously thrilling), I find it largely without charm here. After coming across the name of a friend of a friend mentioned in less-than-flattering terms, I found myself flipping to the back of the book in search of an index so that I could look up the people I know and get the ordeal over with. No such luck. Instead, I found the brief acknowledgments page, which I suspect is the key to understanding the unfortunate quality of the book: here Mr. White doesn't thank those whose helpfulness he appreciated, but those whose appreciation he found helpful.

This is one of those books that I will make a serious effort to forget so as not to mar my estimation of his earlier works. ( )
  dmtmusic | Feb 12, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
“City Boy” may lack some of the fineness and intensity of “My Lives,” which remains the essential Edmund White memoir, the one to read first. But this one is salty and buttery, for sure.
 
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In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon.
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"When Edmund White left the Midwest after college he had an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard. Instead, he followed a lover to New York City. Bristling with wit and energy. City Boy chronicles the remarkable life he made for himself in the 1960s and '70s, in a city economically devastated but incandescent with art and ideas.". "White arrives in New York broke and unknown, struggling to express himself as a gay man even as he holds out hope of being "cured." Present at the Stonewall uprising in 1969, White witnesses the start of the gay movement and gradually begins to embrace his identity. And after a first meeting with James Merrill, to whom he nervously reads aloud from his unpublished novel, White encounters icons from Elizabeth Bishop to William Burroughs, Susan Sontag to Jasper Johns. Absorbing and filtering these heady influences, White finds his own unique artistic voice just as the city's high culture explodes in creativity. Within a decade of his first publication, White writes A Boy's Own Story, the autobiographical novel that will make him the most celebrated gay writer in the world.". "Recalling life in a more sordid Manhattan, in an era of transformation, White records his ambitions and desires, remembers lovers and literary heroes. and displays the wit, candor, and generosity that have defined his unique voice over the decades."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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