In a damp, old sussex castle, American literary phenomenon Stephen Crane lies on his deathbed, wasting away from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. The world-famous author of The Red Badge of Courage has retreated to England with his wife, Cora, in part to avoid gossip about her ignominious past as the proprietress of a Florida bordello, the Hotel de Dream.
Though Crane's days are numbered, he and Cora live riotously, running up bills they'll never be able to pay, receiving visitors like Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and even planning a mad dash to Germany's Black Forest, where Cora hopes a leading TB specialist will provide a miracle cure.
Then, in the midst of the confusion and gathering tragedy of their lives, Crane begins dictating a strange novel. The Painted Boy draws from Crane's erstwhile journalist days in New York in the 1890s, a poignant story about a boy prostitute and the married man who ruins his own life to win the boy's love. Crane originally planned the book as a companion piece to Maggie, Girl of the Streets, but abandoned it when literary friends convinced him that such scandalous subject matter would destroy his career. Now, with his last breath, Crane devotes himself to refashioning this powerful novel, into which he pours his fascination with the underworld, his sympathy for the poor, his experiences as a reporter among New York's lowlife--and his complex feelings for his own devoted wife.
Seamlessly flowing between the vibrant, seedy atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Manhattan and the quiet Sussex countryside, Hotel de Dream tenderly presents the double love stories of Cora and Crane, and the painted boy and his banker lover. The brilliant novel-within-a-novel combines the youthful simplicity of Crane's own prose with White's elegant sense of form, offering an unforgettable portrait of passion in all its guises.
A biographical fantasia, White's latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White's impressionistic account of Crane's life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a ganymede butt-boy buggaree. Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that someone skilled and open minded complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. Hotel de Dream, has some ideas of who among Crane's friends fits the bill. Though White's research and marshaling of slang are impressive, The Painted Boy approaches the sexual frankness of porn and reads improbably. But as White's book(s) build up steam, readers will let go of misgivings, caught up in Elliott's tragic love life and Crane's apocalyptic end. (Sept.)
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September 03, 2007
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