"Write what you know" has been an axiom of fiction writing since the '20s, when Sherwood Anderson urged it on the young Faulkner; Edmund White took it to heart in his third novel, still his best-known work, A Boy's Own Story (1982). White's coming-of-age tale led to a series of autobiographical fictions, including The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), Skinned Alive (stories, 1995), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000), that broke out of the ghetto of gay writing and gained a wide readership. As the social world of the closet was being turned on its head, first by gay liberation, then by the deadly AIDS crisis, White tracked these changes as he tracked his own journey from the Midwest and Texas to New York and Paris. He was born in 1940, but by the '80s he had been everywhere, knew everyone; he had a talent for friendship as well as a legion of past lovers. Intrigued by the mystery of who he was, he wrote about it all with the fluid intimacy of a born storyteller spinning yarns over drinks and dinner. Transgressive writers often try to shock their readers, and White seems to have dipped into every sexual kink imaginable, but in his telling they became as natural, as inevitable, as the very human idiosyncrasies of his family and friends.
As White depleted his personal history, his interest in other people's lives expanded. In Fanny: A Fiction (2003), White crafted a biography of a nineteenth-century abolitionist and early feminist, Fanny Wright, in the outlandish voice of Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony and acidulous observer of American manners. With Hotel de Dream, White delivers another such fabrication, a rumored but unknown novel by Stephen Crane about a young male prostitute in the mean streets of New York in the 1890s. Deftly borrowing details from the latest scholarship about Crane's life, it is an ingenious, fully imagined, and utterly winning piece of work.
The little we know of Crane's original is from the testimony of an unreliable friend (the music critic James Gibbons Huneker) that was found among the papers of Thomas Beer, Crane's first biographer. According to Huneker, in 1894 he and Crane met a beautiful boy, heavily made up, soliciting in the street, bought him a meal, and got him to talk. Shocked but inspired by what he heard, Crane wrote at least part of a novel, to be called Flowers of Asphalt, but destroyed it at the urging of a priggish mentor, the writer Hamlin Garland. White's Hotel de Dream, set in the last months of Crane's life, in 1900—he is slowly dying of consumption— imagines that from his sickbed he is dictating another version of this story to Cora Taylor, the devoted woman he calls his wife though she is married to another man. Crane, an intrepid traveler and war correspondent, met her a few years earlier in Jacksonville, Florida, where she ran a brothel called the Hotel de Dream. Because of Cora's shady past and dubious present, the Cranes move to Sussex, England, where they grow intimate with a whole neighborhood of great writers—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford—who are enchanted by Crane's exuberant American dash and vigor. Eventually, they all watch him dying.
Hotel de Dream is really two novels cleverly entwined, the story of Crane's last days in England and Germany and the story he dictates to Cora, "The Painted Boy," set in a gay pocket of the New York demimonde that had already figured in his novels, tales, and journalistic sketches. Shaken by a final meeting with the boy himself, Crane decides improbably to write something "for one man only and that man is myself," knowing it can't be published.
Like White exploring gay culture, Crane wrote with a graphic journalistic clarity about the underside of city life, including prostitutes, derelicts, and Irish slums. His reported interest in the painted boy triggered White's curiosity about homosexual life in the 1890s, including its colorful argot, just as Crane's wasting death from TB must have reminded White of emaciated friends and lovers dying of AIDS. Crane himself had been a golden youth, attractive to men and women alike. White has Cora, who feels somewhat left out of this male-centered fiction, wondering whether he's writing this book to recover the boy he once was.
Who would not want a glimpse of books that were famously lost, like Byron's memoirs, burned by his friends, and the last writings of Isaac Babel and Bruno Schulz, swallowed up in the totalitarian maw along with their authors? "The Painted Boy" is something else, a larky imitation, based on the barest historical hint, by a contem porary gay writer. It would be of little interest in itself were it not framed by White's plausible reconstruction of Crane's last months, including the dying man's reveries about his earlier life and his writerly fascination with the flotsam of the city's lower depths. The contrapuntal relation between the two narrative strands— and White's identification with each of them—gives Hotel de Dream an intricate playfulness that reminds us of Borges or of A. S. Byatt's more donnish Possession. White's novel, though not long, is a genuine technical feat, an echo chamber of motifs that link Crane's life with his putative novel and connect both to White's past work.
Strangely, "The Painted Boy," with his preposterous changes of fortune, reads more like a Horatio Alger novel than something by Crane. (It's "not really in your vein," Cora remarks to him.) It has all the Alger ingredients: A poor, abused farm boy from upstate arrives in New York City, becomes a newsboy and urban waif, but falls under the protection of a respectable middle-aged man who becomes his mentor. In an Alger tale, there would be nothing overtly sexual about this, though the author himself was secretly drummed out of the ministry on Cape Cod after being accused of "the abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys." White brings out the latent eroticism in the Alger fable, turning "The Painted Boy" into a period version of an Edmund White story. When Theodore Koch, a banker, married with children, falls in love with young Elliott, the author summons lush prose to caress the boy's angelic features, his thin, pale, acquiescent body, his large "knob." Theodore hails from Cincinnati, as does White, and is depicted as fat, easily winded, and unattractive, as White sees himself in his engaging memoir My Lives (2006), where he laments the effects of aging on a gay man's sexual options. Besotted with the boy, Theodore justifies paying him for sex and buying his affection. Morality has nothing to do with it: "If an exchange of money for beauty redressed this imbalance, that was only fair, and reassuring." Society's invidious labels—"fairy, pervert, androgyne"—are beside the point.
Enlisting an artist like Crane to tell this story, White can show how hints from chance encounters, such as Crane's meeting with the boy, are translated into fiction and how a heterosexual writer might view a gay subculture, or at least one man's infatuation. He turns Crane into a kindred spirit, putting on baronial airs in the English countryside, entertaining with style, hobnobbing with other famous writers, yet also curious about humble, despised lives, not in the least judgmental, and finally dying in the prime of youth, his imagination still active as his body is failing. He worries that his work may prove as transient as his physical being. Like so many of White's books, Hotel de Dream is a meditation on the body as a site of both desire and decay: the aging body of Theodore and the author; the diseased body of Crane and perhaps that of Elliott, who may be suffering from syphilis, endemic to his trade; but also the iconic body of the painted boy, which offers pleasure yet finally wreaks havoc on those drawn to it. At the end, horribly disfigured by a jealous lover, Elliott's body is preserved only in a sculpture commissioned by Theodore—but also in the sensory language of fiction.
As Crane resents the bustling good health of his nurses, who treat him like an old man, Theodore wonders whether he has grown "addicted to the boy's body," though it disrupts his life completely. He sees Elliott's shy, recessive personality as little more than "the frail ambassador appointed by the boy's body, this ruthless despot. Elliott's body was his true self." Since White is a hedonist rather than a moralist, his work inverts the usual relation in Western culture between the enduring spirit and its mortal coil. In death, Crane's body seems to Cora like the "burnt-out hive from which all of Stephen's buzzing thoughts had swarmed. His body was a reproach to her; it told her she had failed. She'd been given a precious possession, but not to own, only to borrow, and she had let it drop from her hands." White's silver tongue sometimes overwhelms his subjects. In Hotel de Dream, it serves them with exceptional grace.
Morris Dickstein's books include Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (Basic Books, 1977) and A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World, just out in paperback from Princeton University Press. He teaches English at the CUNY Graduate Center.