‘It’s the Queers Who Made Me’: Understanding Hilton Als
December 2, 2013
“Love is complicated, if it exists,” the New Yorker staffer writes in his new book of essays, White Girls—an eminently tolerant and forgiving collection, even when it’s calling out the stupidity of the society that helped produce it.
“The males are not so nice to me. Not as nice as the females… Afraid of their feminine side, I guess,” Prince told Hilton Als, sitting in a St. Louis dressing room ten years ago. He meant members of the press, a group that included the New Yorker staff writer, but he must have sensed the person sharing his water was not among those cowardly boys. A decade later, Als glamoured that conversation into a Harper’s essay about being black and queer in America, “where for sex to be sex it needs to be shaming,” about “Alphabet St.” and purpled aches, about loving somebody who loves you back but maybe not in the way you want most. At one point, his “paean 2 Prince” yields this surreal, alluringly precise description: “There was more silence, and as it unfolded, I took in his face, which had the exact shape, and large eyes, of a beautiful turtle.”
I knew of Als before reading that essay, albeit from contributions in whichever random New Yorker issues came to hand, typically the most confining possible formats for a writer—reviews of new plays, that sort of thing. The Prince piece made me realize what he was capable of; in hindsight, it seems like the funk-filled overture to White Girls, his new collection of essays (personal, critical, fictional, ritual). The huge opening keystone “Tristes Tropiques” dwells on his relationship with a platonic beloved and found twin, here dubbed Sir or Lady. With another astonishing swerve, he sketches one of their first encounters:
I stole glimpses of SL in the dark. He’s a lovely shade of brown. The silvery movie light and dark made him look more colored. I loved his profile, his long strong neck and perfect posture. He looked as authoritative as someone you might call Sir, and as beautiful and poised as someone you might call Lady. Watching him watch a movie, I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like the folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.
Raised in Europe by middle-class American parents, Sir or Lady appears continental to Als’ eyes, urbane yet stoic. He lives in a “world of women,” almost lives as one; the author mentions his years spent as a supportive quasi-wife to several feminist friends, his sense of shared oppression, that SL sometimes described himself as a lesbian separatist. “No man could have him.” SL took up with many actual white girls, but in Als’ nuanced telling, the phrase turns incorporeal and numinous. It might mean a trope, an image, a suffocating ideal, a pose, a condition, a state of being or a warning (guess who from). According to Als, he used to feel disturbed when fashion-industry types would racialize “black girls” alone—the white models were just models. By naming and foregrounding this marginalized default, he uses the notion of the white girl to remap American culture’s rigid schemata.
Als has a mercurial aversion to inherited categories, perhaps suspecting them as a kind of bigotry. He hates presumption and prescription. When he refers to “the dreary marginal issues of race, or class, or gender,” it’s not to deny how integral those things are but to vamp away from reductive clichés about them. His instinct is to delineate. I think of Prince’s song “Pussy Control,” where the narrator notices “three sisters and a weepy-eyed white girl driving a hog,” a detail to fill novellas. Als knows that revolutionaries tend to be self-inventing: at the end of one piece, he recalls Jackie Curtis handing him a flyer, “excited by the possibility of people seeing her for who she is, even in makeup.”
So White Girls describes young Truman Capote taking that coquettish author’s photo and working a glamorous persona other female authors could not; later, with In Cold Blood, he abjectly vies to fit the publishing world’s model of the serious, manly writer, one like his taunting proponent Norman Mailer, whose interest in femininity went no further than figuring out how to fuck it. Richard Pryor broadens the black male affects allowed onto American screens through his neurotic dread, assisted in an early television sketch by Lily Tomlin, playing a black woman in whiteface. And Als channels a white girl I happen to identify with, best known as scything black bangs, “the living embodiment of everything being nothing at all.” “I am Louise Brooks,” he writes, “whom no man will ever possess.” S/he doesn’t say whether they might still hope to become her.
“All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority,” Ralph Ellison once declared. Well, yes, one imagines Als replying, but that’s only where it begins.
Even if he’s calling something stupid, as he does quite often, he manages to sound tolerant and forgiving. And when the humanism threatens to become pious, Als will launch into a line that’s radical and scathing and true, like a quiescent cat suddenly clawing your arm open: “I was a gay man who did not suck white dick: I refused on the grounds that the world sucked them off well enough.”
After that initial dreamlike rumination, White Girls takes on more familiar modes, whether journalistic shorthand (one night in a season of such-and-such a year, this person was doing that thing) or criticism’s requisite summations. There’s a contrapuntal structure at times—Als’ posthumous Pryor study comes before a monologue in the voice of the comedian’s fictional sister. The latter probably spends too much time drifting, until it starts to dissipate, but then so does “Tristes Tropiques,” that’s part of its strange power. Trying to cut it would feel like fitting a frame onto the sky.
And even the more conventional pieces here rarely bother to follow convention for long. Als writes profiles that read like short stories, ending in moments of rupture rather than a winsome madeleine. His portrayal of André Leon Talley makes the Vogue editor’s unrelieved camp seem a form of glory, until some socialite “jokes” mid-luncheon: “I will stand there only if André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy.” Als reports:
Several people laughed, loudly. None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.
Like the expressions of race, gender, and sexuality entwined around them and each other, America’s injustices are continuous but mutable to Als, breeding new affronts in the swamps of history. A text originally written to accompany lynching photographs focuses less on that atrocity’s elemental violence than its audiences, the “dead eyes and flashbulb smiles,” portraits in coercion. Als asks: “What is the relationship of the white people in these pictures to the white people who ask me, and sometimes pay me, to be a Negro on the page?” And sometimes pay me. It recalls an earlier lament: “The colored people we saw become famous—Jean-Michel Basquiat and the like—could not reconcile all that love with their former degradation.” His subtle study of Flannery O’Connor praises her unsentimental portrayal of Southern blacks, people left on her own periphery’s periphery. Als recognizes that O’Connor “clung to the provincialism she satirized” as her society abolished itself—given the opportunity to meet James Baldwin in Georgia, she effectively said, I can’t, not here—but he still admires her more than the white liberals condescending nobly further north.
“Love is complicated, if it exists,” one essay muses. It exists in this book: wounded, generous, inquisitive love—that is, complicated. Als rues acquaintances who might have found solidarity with each other but decided to cut out little satrapies instead, like the culture-industry mothers who “didn’t want their children—particularly their girl children—to make the mistake they’d made at Brown or Yale or Berkeley or whatever, which is to say believing feminism and thus humanism had any value at all, and would get them anywhere in this stinking world.” Even if he’s calling something stupid, as he does quite often, he manages to sound tolerant and forgiving. And when the humanism threatens to become pious, Als will launch into a line that’s radical and scathing and true, like a quiescent cat suddenly clawing your arm open: “I was a gay man who did not suck white dick: I refused on the grounds that the world sucked them off well enough.” (Now and then a given statement doesn’t seem true, maddeningly wrong in fact, but never reflexive or dull.)
What White Girls suggests again and again is that mutual exploitation can draw the disenfranchised closer together. That one could glimpse a refraction of their otherness in the Other. Als knows how often that fails to happen, how much rancor an oppressed person might feel towards somebody whose alienation reveals their own, but the almost mystical logic of the notion remains: America’s unloved share their difference in common. Only then do you notice the hole he’s sawing underneath white masculinity’s pedestal. In “Buddy Ebsen,” with its incantatory refrain “it’s the queers who made me,” Als elaborates:
Who took me to Paris. Who let me share his bed in Paris. Who told my mother that I would be okay, and I hope she believed him. Who was delighted to include one of my sisters in a night out—she wore a pink prom dress and did the Electric Slide, surrounded by gay boys and fuck knows if she cared or saw the difference between herself and them—and he stood by my side as I watched my sister dance in her pink prom dress, and then he asked what I was thinking about, and I said, “I’m just remembering why I’m gay.” It’s the queers who made me.
That tension between devotion and resentment recurs during “Tristes Tropiques,” when Als’ Sir or Lady meets another dear pseudonymous friend, Mrs. Vreeland (a white girl, like, sort of, himself), and they all struggle to make room for their overlapping loves, free of domination. How can one be triply twinned? But they were, ‘til death did them part, a terrible irony given SL’s disinterest in the marriage vows Als still cherishes: “No wedding ring can cast a golden light on anyone’s we. No we is without friction.” I haven’t dated anyone in the traditional manner for a while, falling into a series of intimate friendships instead, and not just because formal Dating is, as Hilton Als might say, stupid. I realize now that those liminal affections felt like the surest route towards the twinship he speaks of: a gestalt creature, a whole, an us. We told jokes to the audience of each other or tangled into a sweaty mandala during Montreal summer or forgot whose drink was whose once the R&B got too loud. If I was your girlfriend, would you remember / To tell me all the things you forgot when I was your man? / I want to be all of the things you are to me. But I and we are both unstable in their own way.
That only begins to gesture at a hint of why I adore this book. I feel as if I could write ten thousand words about it, and somebody eventually will. I hope that future reader, after the revolution or at least a detectable increase in human kindness, still appreciates its lacerated caress. “Sitting on the subway,” en route to SL, “the lights go by but the people don’t. Standing above me and around me I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” On “I Would Die 4 U,” which would’ve been a decent alternate title for White Girls, Prince proclaimed: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something you’ll never understand.” But that was before he met Hilton Als.