I don't care who you are or how far you think the queer movement has come—there's a kid in Kansas right now who hasn't got


A Boy Grows Up

Edmund White's classic turns 20.

I don't care who you are or how far you think the queer movement has come—there's a kid in Kansas right now who hasn't got a clue about himself. Not one clue.

I'm sure I don't need to explain this to you because you know how it feels, though it may be hard for you to remember. The point is, you've been there; no matter how Over It you are now, you're originally from Kansas, too.

If he's anything like I was, this farm boy in Kansas, he's got one thing in his heart and a lot on his mind. When you're in Kansas, you and your dog do an awful lot of staring into the distance, and if you're smart you do what you can to get to a bookstore. This is still the case in spite of the helpfulness of the Internet and no matter how many gay boys they put on The Real World.

Coming out is terrifying and awful, and it rarely occurs without the help of one of a handful of paperback how-tos. The few major titles—Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, Andrew Tobias' The Best Little Boy in the World, Andrew Holleran's The Dancer From the Dance—have, for the past 30 years, dependably fallen into the right hands. Maybe it's something to do with the very innocent, very corn-fed boys on the dust jackets; for whatever reason, the boys who most need to find these titles do.

White's A Boy's Own Story, the youngest book of the great three, is now in its 20th year. (Its author is in his 60s; despite the implication of the title, White had long since grown up by the time he wrote it.) The book's anniversary is a milestone not unnoticed by the Modern Library, which has just released a new hardbound edition with an elegiac introduction by Allan Gurganus and a stunning photo of the author, at age 6, on the cover.

Edmund White's novel is not what I picked up three years ago, when I was 18 and in Kansas, so to speak, though I now wonder what effect it would have had on me then. I probably would have been horrified—a dozen pages into White's story and already the 15-year-old narrator is "cornholing" his 12-year-old friend. I'm sure I wouldn't have had a clue what "cornholing" was, but the word alone at that time would have been not a little terrifying. It's still a little terrifying: Getting cornholed, to this day, rarely makes it onto my list of things to do.

Still, there are alarming resemblances between this boy's story and my own. We had the same parents, the same cruel siblings, the same arrogant therapists. We both aspired to live in New York City. Both of our fathers were into boats. As a boy, White was riveted by La Boh譥, and as a teenager I was obsessed with Rent, the opera's modern incarnation. We both thought an awful lot and at very young ages about giving grown men blow jobs. I don't know whether this is all just a remarkable coincidence or whether it's evidence in the argument that, in the infant stages of Closetland, we actually are all quite the same.

One result of the so-called post-gay movement is the new debate over whether anything should be called "gay literature" anymore. Should the gay novels and memoirs be shelved right alongside the rest of the books? White—who, as much as any other one person, defined what we know of as gay literature, and then went on to create a good deal of it—writes in the afterward to the new edition of A Boy's Own Story, "Today the whole category of gay and lesbian fiction seems dated and about to disappear."

I agree with White—we don't, after all, file fiction by black writers separately anymore—but only to a point. Gay literature does serve a necessary sort of duality—both as fiction and, for young guys, as instruction. As long as Kansas still exists (and I'm betting it will keep right on existing), it doesn't always make sense to de-emphasize the important gay books to the blind indifference of mainstream assimilation. Why make them harder to find?

Out of curiosity, I contacted the four Barnes & Noble stores in the great state of Kansas to see if they carry A Boy's Own Story. They do. Between them, they have seven copies.


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow