Edmund White sets himself a difficult challenge in his 2007 Hotel de Dream: A New York novel — can he dream up and recreate nineteenth-century American literary icon Stephen Crane’s debated lost novel, the tale of a male prostitute, a supposed companion piece to his Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)?
Evidence for the novel comes from a testimonial from James Gibbons Huneker (a literary critic and Crane’s friend). He describes witnessing a chance encounter between Crane and a ‘painted’ kid and how the author interviewed him for information, before beginning a novel including ‘the best passage of prose [he] ever wrote’.
|Stephen Crane (1871-1900)|
It’s a lofty claim to live up to. In White’s text the fabled novel is entitled ‘The Painted Boy’ and tells the story of Elliott, a syphilic newsboy who earns his living from providing special favours to his customers, and Theodore Koch, a married middle-aged banker, who destroys his life for his love of the boy.
It’s a master class in literary mimicry, taking on an admired forebear’s style, but White also interweaves the narrative with a frame story, a slow moving look at Crane’s final weeks and days with his ‘wife’ Cora in England and then Germany as he dies of tuberculosis aged only 28 and dictates this controversial novel to her.
|Edmund White (1940 - )|
While Crane and Cora are rendered well, with depth and originality, White seems more invested in Elliott’s story (the portion of the novel which is, after all, actually set in New York). Once ‘The Painted Boy’ picks up in pace, Hotel de Dream is a faster and more satisfying read, while our interest is held in early pages more by the cameos of other literary greats, like an (unflattering appearance) of Henry James.
Both stories revolve around love, death, poverty and public image but exploring the homosexual underworld of 1890s New York is especially fascinating. Elliott moves among fellow sex workers and transsexuals, is loved by middle class men and a mafia boss, is abused by his father, his brothers, his friends. In Theodore White is careful to create not a victim of repressed sexuality but a slave to the eclipsing power of an overwhelming love. It is the specificity of the tale and the recognisable humanity of its telling that makes it relatable.