When The New Engagement (TNE), which has been releasing monthly online issues since July 2016, publishes its inaugural print edition in late-April 2017 it will feature a number of new and established authors, including the gay literary pioneer, Edmund White, whose first poem in sixteen years, To a Young English Friend, TNE will have the privilege of sharing with the world. The New Engagement will also be publishing a revelatory memoir by White’s husband, Michael Carroll, whose 2014 collection of short stories, Little Reef, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
TNE is proud to share an excerpt from Carroll’s essay, No Capote, or My 2016, below. The work reveals his experience as a gay man as he ages, his restructuring of priorities, his struggle with codependency, and his open marriage to a living legend.
No Capote, or My 2016
(For Jeff Bond)
RECENTLY I fell in love. In doing this, I nearly destroyed several of the relationships that mean the most to me. My disastrous love was for someone age-inappropriate, almost half my age. By relationships that mean the most to me, I’m talking about my husband Ed as well as my younger boyfriend Phil. Also, my ex, my college boyfriend. Also, some of the people who lend me their ears when times are tough. It was a difficult year for all of us.
Jason came to me as someone who wanted a mentor. I’d just published and won a prize for my first book, a collection of stories. A mutual friend had written me from Boston. Would I be open as an established gay writer married to a far more established gay writer to meeting and hanging out with a younger, as yet unpublished, writer? Yes. I had no sexual intent with Jason, though I wouldn’t put it past me. He came just over a year ago into the bar where I used to do my writing and sat with me and charmed me and said things like, “You’re a man after my own heart,” although no, as you’d expect, this doesn’t end well. He let me buy him whiskey sours.
What then happened (no sex was ever involved) in these many past months has made me question everything I think and feel and believe in. My “baseline” of self-esteem is still readjusting itself. I learned to dislike and often hate myself whenever he walked away from me. The cry in me, “But I’ve only ever tried to help Jason!” was engulfed by the perhaps primal guilt of lust I had tried to fight starting when I was very young, even though it was trained in me at five when I recall enjoying the thrill of going down on my eighteen-year-old uncle, at his invitation. I never wanted to tell you about my uncle, not like this, break my mother’s heart (her baby brother!), but the moment has hovered in my consciousness lately, whenever I ask myself why I wanted Jason. Why I like sex so much, why I need it and reach for it in times of anxiety. In other words, Jason was the first one in a long time (since I left provincial life and the south twenty-three years ago) who made me feel dirty for having the feelings and desires I felt around him. But maybe I have learned something, too, through his haranguing and expressions of disgust with me. Maybe I’ve had to fall back on my own resources, which I developed as a young gay man who began reading gay books. In the old days, there was no gay TV, very little gay content in movies. The rare gay character we encountered was a fruity butterfly stereotype, sometimes funny yes. But to find out about the life, we had to read. And I’m convinced we will return to this need for covert comfort. Wilde in the Victorian era. Genet in Vichy France and surviving its troubled postwar after-chill. Edmund White in the post-Vietnam American disarray, who came to full flower at the rise of the Moral Majority. Sex can no longer be obscene with what’s happened in the White House. Only gay sex can penetrate importantly with its largely returned taboo (most obscene? gay marriage!).
My husband is a gay literary pioneer, someone who’s slowed down a good bit because of health scares and calamities. For one thing, he wrote The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) and a number of groundbreaking novels that describe the messy and beleaguered lives of gay men from the fifties on. Ed and I have been together twenty-two years. Even Jason at twenty-six knew his name.
I was writing a memoir about Ed’s hospitalizations and our relationship and ultimately our marriage when Jason drifted through, and soon I began to retrofit my manuscript because I was now in love with someone whose personal problems were just beginning to dawn on me. I was just beginning to know more about my future, my ultimate identity as an aging homosexual.
I’m no longer a Christian, or even a believer in anything but science. And nothing about my experience with Jason, to say nothing of Ed, makes me want to try to believe again.
We were hot into the presidential election season. I was confident that the two candidates would be Jeb and Hillary. I stuck to this forever. I had no idea that Donald Trump could prevail.
All along, Hillary had been at the center of my secular and, yes, neoliberal belief system, her brand of slow but steady progress. And I believed too much in the people of my background, thinking they’d come around to the progressive social gains vouchsafed by the Supreme Court.
Jason was a waiter in an Upper East Side vegan restaurant, had no benefits, and he was cynical about politics, which I understood. I once went years without healthcare. Here was this middle-class young man, a serious writer, but someone who’d left his family years ago and was no longer in touch with them. He’d left them suddenly. They didn’t believe in his writing, was his version. He’d gotten a degree in physics but didn’t want to go on in that vein. He’d worked briefly in Houston as an engineer in the fracking racket. He’d written music and music criticism. He’d tried a lot of things. While in L.A., where he’d gotten his degree, he’d written screenplays with the hopes of becoming a Hollywood writer. But he’d given all that up, moving east. Oh he liked it here but he was uneasy. He wanted me to read his manuscripts, and he had a lot of them, and was still producing them. By the end of January, when we had known each other for two months, he quit his table-waiting job and was writing full-time in coffee shops, living in Long Island City, keeping his expenses down and his lifestyle spare. Of course, even before Jason’s excoriations began against me, I was equal parts admiring and ashamed.