A fine little man

My Lives

Edmund White <em>Bloomsbury, 356pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0747575223

The life of Edmund White - author of gay classics such as A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony as well as a fine biography of Genet - is so odd, it could have come straight out of the pages of a bad Southern gothic novel. White's Texan mother, the overweight and heavy-drinking Delilah, would ask her young son to squeeze her blackheads and lace up her girdle, an impressive device called the Merry Widow. His father, who thought of himself as the most successful broker of chemical equipment in America, tried to seduce Edmund's sister, Margaret, when she was 13. Edmund, in turn, fan-tasised about sleeping with his dad, slipping into his bed and pressing his slender, smooth body against his hairy chest.

White's paternal grandfather, dean of students at the state college for women in Denton, Texas, was a Ku Klux Klan member who told long, derogatory anecdotes about black people, gathering his stories together in three books of what he called "nigger jokes". Grandpa Snyder, White's maternal grandmother's second husband, had snitched on some boys when he was at school and had been so badly beaten that his leg had come off above the knee. The old man would show off his stump with "eyebrow-raising coquetry and a cruel, entranced smile, as if it might excite us", and took it upon himself to squeeze Edmund between his legs and rock him against his crotch. "Mm-hmm," Grandpa Snyder would exclaim, "this little boy is a fine little man."

White's memoir is full of such bizarre details; it is a book pulsing with blisteringly frank confessions about his odd family, his marathon sessions with psychotherapists and his extraordinary sexual appetite. Aged 14, he seduced the 23-year-old son of his mother's lover. While still a teenager, he was having sex with hustlers in the basement of a church in his home town of Cincinnati.

Later, while living in New York, he acted out his masochistic fantasies with a series of "masters", enjoyed regular impromptu orgies in empty trucks under the West Side Highway, and revelled in being urinated on by one of his lovers. White was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985. "I turned out to belong to a minuscule group, about 5 per cent, who are called non-progressors," he told the Guardian in January this year. "It means you don't get worse."

In a lesser writer's hands, all this could have resulted in a freak show. Yet White invests his material with a stylistic richness that transforms the sensationalist and the shocking into something approaching lyricism. A girl's tongue is "as muscular and slippery as a carp". A strikingly good-looking man has eyes that "were just two gunshots in the show . . . his mouth was downturned like a shark's".

White seduces his readers, regardless of their sexuality, into sharing his quivering anticipation for his dazzling parade of Stans, Keiths and Jims. Love, he says, requires incomprehension; the subjects of adoration are necessarily opaque. This state of mind is, by its nature, also obsessional and violent, sweeping aside everyday practicalities, concerns for friends and family, even oneself.

"Perhaps gay men of my generation were drawn to this peculiar, destructive kind of medieval love," White writes, "precisely because we had so little idea of what domestic happiness between two men would look like."

Born in Ohio in1940, White was a precocious child. His mother, who trained as a psychologist, subjected him to personality tests, but all little Edmund could see among the splodges and blobs of the Rorschach ink blot were headstones or diamonds, symbols of death and success. As a boy, he wrote and starred in a play, The Death of Hector, about the Greek hero, and by the age of nine he was reading biographies of Nijinsky, quoting Oscar Wilde and publishing articles in local newspapers.

He grew up narrating his own life to himself and later fashioned his experiences into fiction. In My Lives, White identifies many of the key figures - his muses - whom he used as the inspirations for the characters in his novels. Some people did not take too kindly to being used in this way. When White's novel Caracole, which contained a character partly based on Susan Sontag, was published in 1985, the writer and critic dropped her friend and requested that the blurb she had provided for A Boy's Own Story be removed.

Because autobiography has always been at the heart of White's fiction, some of his fans may have dreaded this memoir. The author is only too aware of this. While describing, in explicit detail, his passion for a writer-actor-director he calls "T", he imagines himself in the persona of one of his appalled friends: ''TMI - Too Much Information . . . Must we have every detail about these tiresome senile shenanigans?''

To dismiss the book in this way, however, would be to miss the point. My Lives is a document of desire, a modern, confessional retake of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. In an age saturated by mawkish memoirs, this one stands out like the diamond that White saw in the Rorschach tests all those years ago.

Andrew Wilson is the author of Beautiful Shadow: a life of Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury)