White Guys by Anthony Giardina

INDEPENDENT                                           4 August 2006

(Heinemann £10.99)

Tim O’Kane is a salesman for a Boston publishing company that specialises in literary anthologies, of which the bestseller, consisting of three centuries of writing by the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, James and Anderson, is jocularly known as White Guys.

Of all the stories in this ‘testicular view of America’, the one that most fascinates Tim is John Cheever’s The Country Husband which exposes the emptiness at the heart of suburban life.  As he moves into a middle age increasingly defined by materialism, Tim is determined to prove Cheever’s vision wrong.

By calling his novel White Guys and self-consciously locating it within this literary tradition, Giardina strikes a rare false note in an otherwise powerful study of masculine angst, marital stagnation and repressed homoeroticism.      Although Tim leads a ‘reasonably happy’ life with his wife Theresa and two daughters in an affluent neighbourhood courtesy of his rich and domineering father-in-law, he remains a deeply immature man who is emotionally fixated on his boyhood friend, Billy.

While the other members of their teenage gang, Kenny, Freddie and Johnny, have moved on to successful careers in, respectively, the law, real estate and corporate headhunting, Billy, the former leader, has stagnated.  After a short spell in jail he works in a paint-shop, yet he continues to display an effortless authority, easy charm and physical appeal that proves to be irresistible to Tim.

Giardina gradually reveals Tim’s unspoken – and, to him, unspeakable – desire for Billy.  When Billy and his girlfriend Patty joke about having children, Tim privately declares ‘I wanted to be with them in the making of the boy and the girl.’  Later, he longs for Billy to ‘rough up my hair or squeeze my neck the way he once would have done.’  Later still, when his loyalty for Billy is compromising his own and his family’s safety, he is reassured by ‘the thick, furry presence of his body.’

It is this love for Billy that prompts Tim to hide a gun brought to him by Billy’s retarded brother, Ronnie, after Patty has been murdered.  It is this love that keeps him from betraying Billy to the police long after he believes him to be the murderer.  It is this love, of which Tim himself remains oblivious, that prompts Kenny to ask tellingly why everyone is prepared to ‘Bend over backward, take it up the ass for him.’ 

Anthony Giardina is a playwright as well as a novelist and the book’s greatest strength lies in the hard-baked dialogue, reminiscent of David Mamet, that brilliantly captures both the aspiration and self-loathing of the upwardly mobile American male.  In Tim and Theresa’s hollow marriage he skilfully depicts the deceit, evasion and compromise at the heart of American domesticity where a well stained porch passes for happiness.  Far from providing a benign alternative, Tim and his story present a vision of suburban life that is, if anything, bleaker than Cheever’s.

Most importantly, Giardina reveals the permanent adolescent beneath the skin of the all-American male, still harking back to the uncomplicated intimacy of masturbation contests with school friends.  It is no accident that a new anthology of Gay and Lesbian literature is one that Tim finds impossible either to read or to sell.