Young Man From the Provinces

Dwight Garner reviews Alan Helms' memoir "Young Man From the Provinces: A Gay Life before Stonewall".

Published December 16, 1995 8:00PM (EST)

Alan Helms' frank and engaging new memoir, about his life among the "Silent Generation" of gay men in the 1950s and early 1960s, comes garnished with three of the best jacket blurbs you're likely to see this year. Novelist Edmund White coos that the author was "the best piece of ass of my generation;" playwright Terrence McNally confesses that "Alan Helms was the young man I wanted to be;" and Gore Vidal calls Helms a "homme fatale" who "wittily and sharply reports what it is like to have so many Humberts and Aschenbachs on his case."

What this dream team is referring to is Helms' legendary fifteen-year reign as a "golden boyman" -- a beautiful and naive young midwesterner who quickly ascended to the highest social levels of New York's gay scene. Helms' "corn-fed good looks" (he was born in Indiana) and sculpted physique opened doors, and his book is largely a warm and dishy account of "glamour parties & opening nights & famous people & fabulous fucks." He recounts friendships -- and, often, affairs -- with Nureyev, Noel Coward, Anthony Perkins and Leonard Bernstein, and his writing often picks up a friendly, funny, funky glow. The copious sex, he writes, "came with the role of being a golden boyman. It was as if I'd auditioned for Hamlet and gotten the part, only to find that I had to fence."

Fencing and dishing aside, an alternative narrative percolates under the surface here. Helms relates his difficult childhood as "the worst thing an American boy can be -- a sissy," and details the insecurities (and conversely, the narcissism) that attended a life spent marinating in the reflected glow of the wealthy and famous. Helms, who now teaches literature at the University of Massachusetts, also rages at the pervasive homophobia of the era: among other things, he lost a possible Rhodes Scholarship because it was known he was gay.

"Young Man From the Provinces" isn't perfect. When Helms climbs into confessional mode he can sound awfully pop-psych, and his use of ampersands instead of the word "and" quickly cloys. But his book is ruthlessly honest and never less than captivating, and that's something.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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