Edmund White says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, but at one point he was moved to see a shrink about the issue. It is New York after all, where everyone seems to be writing a novel and seeing a shrink. He is told that the first thing he is doing wrong is getting out of bed. Instead, he is advised to linger in that haze “where your inhibitions will still be low and you’ll be closer to your dreams”.
In the late 1960s, White was a starry-eyed newcomer to New York, drawn to the city that never sleeps by dreams and mythology, yearning to find a niche in its famed literary circles and its thriving but covert gay scene. His descriptions of the area surrounding the “fairy palace” he called home zing with life; it was a place where “everyone slept till noon…a grungy, dangerous, bankrupt city”. A metropolis positively coursing with lust is recaptured vividly: “When you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another”.
In an era where writers and artists still clung to the notion of noble poverty, White should have fitted right in. But instead he initially struggled for recognition, this self-styled “idolator of beauty” forced to idolise from afar, the high brow cliques remaining closed to him, his work largely unpublished save for a few reviews championing the overlooked and underrated and sometimes attacking peers out of pure jealousy. He continued to read voraciously, becoming a fixture at the Gotham Book Mart and devouring favourites like Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Green over and over.
Most of all, he yearned to find a way to make his mark as a writer, endlessly musing on literary technique and how he could harness it to forge a way into the literati. Some of the most fascinating passages here concern the torturous self-doubt he endured, the immense difficulty behind his seemingly effortless phrase-turning. At one point, he comes across a Russian psychologist who believes the most successful literature thrives on some kind of disconnect between style and subject. City Boy lends some credence to this theory with White’s prose style – uncluttered, polished and classical, finding an ideal counterpoint in a city that is manic, challenging and violent.
Yet for all his stylistic excellence, the narrative dips when he attains fame. A career breakthrough came when his hero Nabokov began to champion his work, yet the moment is not quite the revelation you expect and at some point his story becomes more about fame than friendship, more concerned with the spoils of fame than the pursuit of great art. Celebrity cameos begin to dominate; in quick succession he encounters Michel Foucault, with whom he argues about gay identity, William S. Burroughs (who seems “too cool and totemic to be alive”) and hears stories of Somerset Maugham, who was gripped by Alzheimer’s in his later years and took to cheerfully greeting visitors with a handful of his own faeces.
The real star, however, is of course the city of New York, a fascinating, contradictory mess of energy and life. But it is the likes of White’s friend David Kalstone, a poignant figure with his fading eyesight and quiet loyalty, rather than his A-list coterie that maintain interest. The young, yearning author proves more interesting than the latter, famous one, a reminder that straying from your dreams can have unexpected consequences. The city can be corrupting. Fame can breed complacency. This, more than anything, is what you hope an aspiring young writer would take out of this exquisitely written but frustrating and uneven memoir: Never give up on your dreams. Never get out of bed.