Born in Pennsylvania but raised in Portland, Oregon, Christopher Coe divided his adult residency between New York City and Paris. His professional life combined a number of interests, including photography, cabaret singing, and writing. For a time, at Columbia University, Coe was a student of novelist and editor Gordon Lish, whose predilection for semiautobiographical material and self-revealing first-person narration can also be traced in Coe’s work. Coe’s first novel I Look Divine, for example, chronicles the life of a character named Nicholas, for whom identity resides in physical beauty, as embodied especially in the face. Coe seems to have shared his character’s preoccupation about appearance. In a 1987 interview, the writer half-jokingly asserted that he dropped out of Columbia University partially because of his personal dismay over a bad photograph on his student identification card. As the character Nicholas avows, “Inner beauty is what counts, but outer beauty is what shows.”
Significant autobiographical elements can also be found in Coe’s second and most celebrated work, Such Times. Like the narrator Timothy, Coe was devoted for a number of years to an older lover, with whom he purchased an apartment in Paris. Timothy measures the beginning of his life from the time that he met Jasper, but the “control” that he exercises in his career as a photographer does not extend to his romantic life. Despite the younger man’s desire for an exclusive relationship, Jasper argues that monogamy is “antithetical to the homosexual life” and, consequently, indulges in episodes of anonymous sex.
Timothy’s reconciliation to this state of affairs is the dramatic heart of the book. “Everything that has come to me has come because I loved without demands,” he asserts. From Jasper, he acquires a taste for fine clothing and haute cuisine, the experience of “ecstatic sex,” and, perhaps, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). To preserve his idealized image of their relationship, Timothy has unsafe sex with a stranger so that if he does test positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, he will not know for sure whether Jasper infected him.
Timothy does test seropositive and so did Christopher Coe. Character and author, because they lacked medical insurance, were also virtually bankrupted by the costs of their health care. That Timothy’s fictional life partially mirrored Coe’s adds poignancy to the narrative.