The Married Man: A Novel

Book Reviews

The Married Man: A Novel

by Edmund White

Knopf, 336 pp., $25

Edmund White knows all about love and gay sex. In 1977, this gifted man of men even published a guide called The Joy of Gay Sex for the fellows who needed the extra help (and don't we all at some point?). But with his new novel, The Married Man, White creates a heavy book that defies easy summary -- all at once, it is a straightforward story about a romance between two men in Paris, an examination and critique of French and American cultures, an almost unbearable tragedy about the hell of AIDS, and a bit of a stab at the construct of works such as Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the fact that White, in his thoughtful and complex development of the romance between his characters Austin and Julien, now more than ever proves himself completely and convincingly to be the master of everything gay.

In one brilliant scene, for example, White shows that he knows one way to turn on a gay man without mentioning a thing about bodies: "A moment later they were in their suite with its copper tub and its long antechamber leading to double doors and, beyond, the bedroom with its double bed and its flung-open gauze-covered high windows that floated like panels of bird-riddled silence ..." Oh yes, Mr. White, interior design does make for a great aphrodisiac.

Whatever delight there is in these first episodes of Austin and Julien's romance, though, are soon clouded by difficult travels outside of Paris and descents toward untimely deaths. Austin, a genteel, HIV-positive expatriate who is a scholar of antique French furniture, accepts a teaching position at a university back in the States. It is here, in a decidedly unexotic America, that the first signs of ruin show up. Julien has trouble entering the country, and soon he discovers that he, too, has tested positive for HIV. From here, the couple travels from Montreal to Morocco together, trying to keep a strong grasp on whatever is left in their lives.

The cruel fate that Austin endures -- having to wonder if he is the cause of his lover's own death, having to watch him die while he maintains his own health for the present -- allows White to create a wholly devastating work without resorting to any form of melodrama. Indeed the title itself must refer to something more than the easy fact that Julien is married to a woman at the start of the novel. To what else is he married, White continually asks. An illness? Illusions? What are his secrets (for he has many) and how long can Austin be the mistress to his wedding with death? If, in the end, White proves that he knows all about being gay, he does it with this, the painful ability to depict not just sex, but a love in which, ultimately, nothing is attainable.

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Edmund White, The Married Man: A Novel

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