My heart goes out to Louis, who want to be a sophisticated confident man on top of the world. A gentleman anno 1890s and 1920s. But that is quite difficult when you live in 1992. When we first meet Louis, he is a teacher at a prestigious Prinston school and his life is very nice and proper. But then, as he sits alone in the teacher’s launch, correcting 7th grade essays, he notices a bra hanging out of a bag of a colleague. An irresistible urge comes over Louis: he has to try the bra on! He does, and as he admires himself in the mirror, the principle’s wife walks in. Left without a job, Luis sets out for New York, to live in the tiny filthy apartment of failed playwright Henry and explore his identity, sexual and otherwise.
Louis does his best to live inside a fantasy of good manners and class, but his surroundings in New York are anything but. His bed in the flat is next to the bathroom. The space smells, is filthy and is covered in clutter. There are even some memorable encounters with lice, mice and cockroaches in there. Louis’ new job is not particularly classy or elegant either – he sells subscriptions for an academic journal over the phone. What keeps Louis there? His flatmate Henry Harrison. Henry his in his seventies, unhygienic and constantly inflicting his surroundings with outrageous statements on politics and history. Henry offers to introduce Louis into the finer social circles of New York. The man might not have much of a career, but he is able to provide for himself as an escort to wealthy older ladies. A real eccentric, but there is something captivating about Henry. He has charisma, charm, class and dignity. Exactly what Louis hopes to learn.
Much of the novel consists of funny and strange adventures that Louis gets up to with Henry. In that sense the book borrows much from the authors Louis admirers so much (Woodhouse and Mann), but a substantial part is also devoted to Louis exploring his sexuality. He continues to be drawn to cross-dressing when he arrives in New York, but seems to have decided for himself that he must stay as far away from all that as possible. Of course, he cannot quench the interest entirely and starts frequenting bars in which transgender women make a living selling themselves to interested wealthy men. Louis cannot always pay for their services, but strikes up a friendship with several of the ladies. You can question the morality of Louis buying sexy, but it does help him learn something about himself. About his own gender identity, sexuality and about how you keep your dignity in a desperate situation.
There are plenty of funny bits in this book, but there is also a real sense of sadness: for the women who eke out a living in underground bars, when all they want is acceptance, for Henry who once was such a promising young man who ends his life in poverty. Louis arrives in New York wide eyed and naive. And when we leave him, he still is. But he has gained a stronger understanding of himself. Of course he is a fictional character, I do hope life was kind to Louis after the events of this book.