(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Edmund White, who is widely regarded as the late twentieth century’s leading writer about gay life, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award for his book Genet: A Biography (1993). He has published five novels and several works of nonfiction, includingStates of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980) and The Joy of Gay Sex: An Intimate Guide for Gay Men to the Pleasures of a Gay Lifestyle(1977). Skinned Alive is his first collection of stories.

One common theme echoes throughout this collection of stories about the international gay subculture: the contrast between the appearance and the reality of being gay. On the outside White’s characters appear to be enjoying the sense of being elite, refined, sophisticated, liberated insiders who have stepped out of the closet into a world of cultural, intellectual, and sexual excitement. On the inside, however, his characters are suffering the torments that have traditionally gone with their ambiguous social and psychological physical condition, plus a new one worse than any of the others. White usually avoids mentioning acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or HIV by name, but the disease haunts his stories like an avenging demon. Most of his protagonists have gotten it, are afraid of getting it, are living with someone who has it, or are grieving the loss of a loved one who has just died of it.

“Pyrography” is one of three stories in which White, who has been diagnosed as HIV-positive, looks back at days before the epidemic he refers to as “the disease,” “the plague,” “die Pest,” and “the scourge.” A teenage homosexual goes on a camping trip with two “butch” acquaintances and has to conceal his sexual attraction to them for fear of being scorned and rejected. “Reprise” is another story about the days of irresponsible youth, told from the sadder but wiser perspective of an aging, lonely homosexual. It suggests that the gay lifestyle is far more appropriate to young men full of illusions about the intriguing possibilities of mysterious strangers. The same is true of “Watermarked,” in which the narrator tells about his first lover and his introduction to the theatrical world. White intimates that he was happily homosexual as early as junior high school, when he “learned to camp outrageously” (as in “You vicious quane, I saw you makin’ goo-goo eyes at mah man”).

Gay men are often attracted to males who themselves are attracted only to women. In “Running on Empty,” a man who has returned from gay Paris to the Bible Belt to die of AIDS reflects that “he’d never really gotten the guys he’d wanted, the big high school jocks, the blonds with loud tenor voices, beer breath, cruel smiles, lean hips, steady, insolent eyes, the guys impossible to befriend if you weren’t exactly like them.”

“Palace Days” is the story of two homosexuals who love each other and have lived together for years but are not really sexually attracted to each other. Ironically, the advent of AIDS has forced many gay men into monogamous relationships at just the time when the gay liberation movement was taking the legal danger out of promiscuity. The absence of a sexual bonding makes both of the story’s characters feel insecure in an otherwise comfortable domestic relationship. Inevitably one gets infected with the unnameable disease because they have continued to “cruise” for furtive sexual encounters with virile strangers.

White, who is in his late fifties, writes with feeling about the subject that novelist Christopher Isherwood introduced so effectively in A Single Man(1964): the loneliness of the aging homosexual whose chances of finding another long-term lover are rapidly approaching zero. The young homosexual who comes out of the closet finds the gay world a source of exciting liaisons and social mobility; the aging homosexual finds himself without home, family, or friends (many of the latter have died prematurely). He often finds it impossible to fit in with the younger crowd because styles change in the gay world and few young homosexuals are interested in older ones unless, like Marcel Proust’s Monsieur Charlus, the aging queens are willing to pay for the illusion of love.

In “An Oracle,” a lonely man facing middle age is trying to recover from grief over his long-term lover who died of a series of diseases to which he had lost immunity through the unnameable scourge of homosexuals. The survivor’s way of recovering is through picking up tough male prostitutes on the streets of a town in Crete. (Being a typical White character, he diligently adds to his Greek vocabulary in the process.) Like many gay men, he is attracted to heterosexual men who despise him—another way in which being gay is synonymous with being skinned alive.

“An Oracle” contains highly graphic descriptions of gay sexual behavior and does nothing to...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)