Rick Whitaker - Life lived by quotations: a semi-autobiographical novel that consists entirely of sentences appropriated from over 500 books


Rick Whitaker, An Honest Ghost: a novel,  Jaded Ibis Press, 2013.                          

Inspired by the task of unpacking his library, the narrator returns to writing an autobiographical novel about the sudden appearance his son, Joe, who at age nine shows up on the narrator’s doorstep for the first time. The narrator, unnerved by the prospect of sharing his life with his extremely precocious child, is nonetheless moved by Joe’s arrival. He has to change his own life by accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, a role he shares slightly with his young English boyfriend, David. Joe’s unpredictable mother, Eleanor Sullivan, seeks her own satisfactions. The domestic scene is affected when David introduces a new friend, Roy Hardeman, a strange gay cop who dies as mysteriously as he arrived. The heart of the novel is the ghostly, persistent, unreliable qualities of literary and personal memory, and the ways in which a narrative can hold onto, recapture, and transform memory. 

Rick Whitaker’s semi-autobiographical novel, An Honest Ghost, consists entirely of sentences appropriated from over 500 books. Whitaker limited himself to using 300 words per book (in accordance with Fair Use); never taking two sentences together; and never making any changes, even to punctuation. In the iBook version, touching a sentence brings up its original source: a book’s title, author, and page number. The experience of acknowledging each sentence as literary artifact, combined with the imagined accretion of books that built An Honest Ghost, deftly mirrors the burgeoning nostalgia in the narrator’s voice and, fittingly, in the careful reader’s heart. 

Within the binary world of coded zeros and ones arises a choir of disembodied literary voices, from William Shakespeare to J.S. Salinger, Gertrude Stein to Susan Sontag, Djuna Barnes to Don DeLillo, and hundreds between and beyond. Published as an interactive book, Rick Whitaker’s semi-autobiographical novel, An Honest Ghost, consists entirely of sentences appropriated from over 500 books. Whitaker limited himself to using 300 words per book (in accordance with Fair Use); never taking two sentences together; and never making any changes, even to punctuation. Touching a sentence brings up its original source: a book’s title, author, and page number, plus a link to purchase that book online. The tactile experience of acknowledging each sentence as literary artifact, combined with the imagined accretion of books that built An Honest Ghost, deftly mirrors the burgeoning nostalgia in the narrator’s voice and, fittingly, in the careful reader’s heart.

"Like an Italian micromosaic, whose infinitesimal ceramic tesserae generate an unearthly glow just by being in close proximity to each other, Rick Whitaker's An Honest Ghost is both narrative and objet, a singular work of art whose singularity keeps beckoning to the reader. He has put the force back into tour de force. — John Ashbery

"Reading An Honest Ghost is an exhilarating, percussive experience, proof that literature is capricious and exalted. I felt like a grand piano some eccentric musician was playing, someone who knew all the composers and couldn't stick to one for more than a minute. People always praise fiction for being lifelike but Whitaker proves that fiction is better than life—more interesting, much more thrilling, though it is inhabited by posturing, irresponsible, self-dramatizing characters.... The tension and excitement of this prose, constantly buffeting the reader, derives from all the different and unique authors who have contributed to it." -Edmund White

"An Honest Ghost is brilliantly conceived and brilliantly performed." -Adam Phillips

"An Honest Ghost is sheer genius, the uber novel, the ultimate palimpsest. It is a writer's truth and a reader's dream. Above all, it is a uniquely gripping read." -Jenny McPhee

I cannot really claim to be a voracious reader. I don't devour vast quantities of books, speed-reading through them the way my boyfriend sometimes appears to. And perhaps my dyslexia is only part of the reason. Be that as it may, what I can say about my preferred way of reading is that it is thorough. In addition, I truly get a kick out of rereading books that are dear to me. Few things equal the pleasure I can derive from finding stylish or outrageous or funny sentences I may not have singled out the first time around.
Rick Whitaker would understand and appreciate my passion for revisiting beloved works of literature. An avid bibliophile, he has heeded his personal library's call for repeated attention and prominently featured its 500 plus tomes in his new novel, An Honest Ghost. The result is an astonishing literary feat that is entirely constructed out of complete unedited sentences gleaned from the author's library. Taken out of their original context and ingeniously recycled into a mosaic of quotations, these sentences now tell a compelling new story that, according to the author, bears a close resemblance to his own life: the narrator, obsessed and preoccupied with his extensive library, decides to write a memoir about his life, his boyfriend, his son and his son's mother, using only sentences he can find in the books he is revisiting. This is all but one of the multiple double layers out of which this brilliantly conceived work is elegantly fashioned. It is no coincidence that a quote by Susan Sontag made its way into the book's first paragraph: "Life lived by quotations."

Of course, fashioning a book exclusively out of quotes could easily be dismissed as a nifty way to ward off writer's block, avoid the demands of being "original" and bypass what Joan Didion once called "the mortal humiliation of seeing one's own words in print." But while the collage technique Whitaker used may have offered him a helpful structure and welcome creative restraints, An Honest Ghost is much more than the sum of its parts. In the same way that each part of the composition in a Paul Cézanne painting is as important as the whole, the entire composition of the book is affected with every new quotation, creating a dizzying effect. I read (and reread) An Honest Ghost as a novel, an essay, a poem and a musical score, all at once, and was repeatedly dazzled and befuddled by how Whitaker surgically stitched all those genres/voices together. He is the Dr. Frankenstein of American Literature, jolting it with electricity, magic, and lots of sparks. It's alive! It's alive!
At first glance, An Honest Ghost shares a striking resemblance to David Shields's highly controversial Reality Hunger, published in 2010: Both books consist of hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text but are revealed in an appendix. However, because Whitaker's book is a novel and Shields's a manifesto, the spirit of one and the other could not be any more different. Furthermore, Shields famously challenged his readers to not pay any attention to his source material, whereas Whitaker encourages the reader to explore the meticulously assembled list of attributions in the back of the book and get wise about each sentence's origin -- a mind-blowing 2,049 of them. And indeed, much of the reading pleasure that can be derived from Whitaker's flinty, funny and incandescent prose comes from discovering how all the different and unique authors who have contributed to his novel coalesce into one singular body.
Here is an example of just two sentences that form a single paragraph, pairing Kafka with Montaigne, respectively: "How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at bottom! Every moment it seems to me that I am running away from myself." Stitched together, these two sentences at first struck me as fully Beckettian: Kafka and Montaigne seem to be speaking to us from beyond the grave, completing one another's thoughts about their fickle, elusive selves. Knowing who wrote what did not in the least shatter my original impression or spoil the reading experience -- much to the contrary, it only added an element of intrigue and fun, the way a blind wine tasting might invigorate, entertain and educate. Whitaker's operation table is full of such improbable, yet delightful chance encounters, forcing a double take on every sentence. Still, to me, this is but the surface of it all. The book's dedication is the only sentence "honestly" written by the author himself: "To David Whitaker." This dedication from father to adopted son may be the knot that ties together the whole tapestry of quotes, further complemented by the epigraph by Thomas Szasz: Happiness is an imaginary condition, formally often attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults.
Seen in this light, the author/narrator's drama is not just bibliophilic but biblio-filial. The narrator's obsessive quest to find his own truth revealed through his personal library cannot be separated from the author's daily, sometimes hourly, reassessment of his new identity as a parent of an (adopted) teenager.

In 1999, Whitaker published Assuming the Position -- A Memoir of Hustling, in which he coolly described in great and sometimes harrowing detail his traumatic adolescence in an emotionally and physically abusive household, as well as a later phase in his life dominated by drug addiction, promiscuity and prostitution. The memoir serves here as a clear indicator that this author is not afraid of disclosing even the most intimate details about his personal life. Since then, Whitaker has, by his own account, developed a deep suspicion towards the impulse to add something new to a world that is saturated and over-productive, yet marred by the neglect of what already exists -- hence his refusal to procreate and, as in his new novel, his decision to abstain from writing sentences of his own making.
Perhaps the author's lifelong search for a positive father figure as well as the desire to become one of his own is the true subtext in this Shakespearian drama that even takes its title from Hamlet. In other words, the author/narrator acts both as a father figure to an adopted son and as heir to a cherished, ghostly collection of books that call out to him to be remembered.
The ideal way to imbibe Whitaker's masterful act of literary ventriloquism is probably with a glass of your preferred bourbon, feet up, and in blissful solitude. You've got to be willing to submit to the spell Whitaker is working to cast. He is a charismatic raconteur who never lets you doubt the sincerity of his act, punctuating each and every one of his borrowed sentences with a cool smile, as if to remind you to take another sip and go slow. After all, An Honest Ghost took this most honest of ghostwriters a reported eight years to complete.—Filip Noterdaeme

IN 1978 The New Yorker published a lovely little piece by Freddy Bosco called “What They Did,” which consisted entirely of a list of full-sentence titles, in alphabetical order, from a library catalog. Among the things they did: They all played ragtime. They almost killed Hitler. They found a common language. They wait in darkness. Who are they? Mainly they are just the rest of the world, the amorphous representatives of its achievements and attitudes. Sure, sometimes they’re wrong or too complacent. After all, They said it couldn’t be done. And sometimes they’re surprisingly successful: They found gold! Either way they always seem at home in the world they speak for, sharing its serenely third-person status. Okay, maybe They can’t fit in. Perhaps They can’t go home again. But even so, they’re the kind of people they write books about.
Bosco’s piece ends on a note of melancholy, as adulthood and real life intervene to dampen “their” attempts to see and know it all. The last three sentences form a haiku summary of human life: They went to college. They went to Portugal. They were expendable. So too, it must have seemed, was their compiler. It makes the story strangely moving to learn that in later years Bosco was to go through some very dark experiences: drug abuse, mental illness, homelessness. He couldn’t go home again either.
Bosco’s New Yorker piece might be seen, at least after the fact, as hinting at his estrangement from the far-away world of the sentences he collected. Heidegger named this “they-being,” a kind of unfocussed, inattentive inflexibility about the world, the sort of thing you get in English in the generic “you” as I am using it in this sentence. Bosco’s New Yorker piece is a transcription of they-being: a helplessness before the indifferent outside world, “there all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end,” as Rick Whitaker puts it in An Honest Ghost, his semi-autobiographical novel about a gay father adopting a young son.
Like Bosco, Whitaker has had his share of hardship. He has published gripping and graceful accounts of his experiences of addiction — to gambling, to crystal meth — and of hustling. Now he has written a full-length novel made up entirely of quotations (to which is appended a long index of sources; the iBooks version offers the most convenient interface to the book).
But there’s all the difference in the world between Whitaker’s quotation and Bosco’s transcription of book titles. Transcripts are legalistic: they attribute words to their sources; they’re about who is responsible for those very words. A transcription doesn’t so much repeat words as contextualize and historicize them, uniting them with the time, place, and source of their utterance. A transcript reproduces the words it records; it does not use them. Quoting is an attitude and practice, central to aesthetic and literary experiences as different from each other as the sublime and camp. To quote — well, to cite — Susan Sontag, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” To put something into quotation marks is, paradoxically, to make it your own, as though inverted commas were the fingers with which you picked it up: the quoted words are not just mentioned now, but assimilated to your own aesthetic expression. This is what the Greek critic Longinus meant when, in the 1st century AD, he described the literary sublime: “As if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”
Longinus seems to have anticipated not only Sontag but also the surprising achievement of An Honest Ghost. The title is from Hamlet: “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.” Hamlet is just barely condescending here, both to the honest-to-goodness ghost of his father, the king, and to his friend Horatio. Whitaker’s ghosts are not as reliable and direct as Hamlet reliable and direct always uncanny, haunting us the way quotation haunts us, the way literature haunts us.
In An Honest Ghost, the unnamed narrator characterizes his adopted son, Joe, as someone in whom solitude induced “a languor haunted by vague reveries.” Joe is haunted by his own attraction to being haunted, which makes him like the gay writers Whitaker chronicled in his superb 2003 book, The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: “We have always craved invisibility, for whatever mysterious reasons, “We have athen of the gay writers among whom he felt at home. “We’ve always wanted to be both openly and fully ourselves and, at the same time, to be no more present than a ghost, haunting the page, the stage, the song, the streets.”
A prefatory note describes the rules Whitaker followed in writing the book. The quotations come from some 500 books in his own library. “Whitaker limited himself to using 300 words per book (in accordance with Fair Use), never taking two sentences together and never making any changes, even to punctuation.” This last phrase is not strictly speaking true: Whitaker’s quotation marksare often his own, as when he puts a sentence into a character’s mouth. Consider an apposite remark that comes from Kenneth Burke’s narrator in his novel or anti-novel Towards a Better Life,which I’ll set off here in order to transcribe it:
We must learn to what extent our thoughts are consistent with our lives, and to what extent compensatory; to what extent ideals are a guide to behaviour, and to what extent they are behaviour itself.
In An Honest Ghost a policeman named Roy, both partner and rival for the affections of the narrator’s boyfriend, David, speaks these words, and they end with closing quotation marks not in the original, thus:
…are behaviour itself.”
Likewise, a remark from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wartime notebooks is presented here as a line of conversation, framed by inverted commas added by Whitaker. This active interpolation of quotation marks is another way of making the point I began with: that quotation is not transcription, and so quotation marks are not mere punctuation. If these words are surprising in a policeman’s mouth, well that’s the point: you never know who is haunting the streets, and anyhow the conversation he is having with the narrator is about the relation of an assumed style to one’s own true character. Quotation introduces the thoughts that might disrupt and compensate for our strait- and straight-jacketed lives, and accordingly, the narrator tells Roy that he finds the disorder of his intelligence sacred, andunderstands his own past as “Fictions constructed out of quotations.”
But how does Whitaker construct this literal fiction out of quotations? By his rules, as by Freddy Bosco’s, all his quotations must be single sentences (or quasi-sentences, like the fragmentary phrase from Susan Sontag’s journals that ends my last paragraph, though the period there is Whitakeren). The narrator’s sentences are both consistent with his life and compensations for everything that thwarts and baffles it.
And the quotations are all, in one way or another, about love. They tell the story of the narrator’s love for Joe, of his vexed relation to Joe’s mother, Eleanor, and of her troubling relation to the narrator’s young boyfriend, David, on whom she has a mesmerizing effect, drawing him away from the narrator, partly out of what appears to be some mixture of resentment, remorse, and jealousy of the narrator’s relation to Joe.
Eleanor. David. Joe. Roy. These are the names of the central characters, and the fact that they have individuating proper names means that Whitaker’s sentences are identical to sentences about various different people with those names in various other books. Many Joes, and they are all stylistic, emotional, literary ancestors of the Joe this book’s narrator adopts, just as (says Emerson), “Every book is a quotation … and every man is a quotation of his ancestors.”
The narrator, Eleanor, Joe, David, and Roy are each a palimpsest  — Gore Vidal’s memoir of that title is the source of several of Whitaker’s sentences — constituted from the ghosts that haunt them and with which they haunt each other. Since no contiguous sentences in An Honest Ghost were adjacent in their sources, any contiguous sentences naming the same character usually referred, originally, to different people of the same name. Named ancestors of Eleanor, for example, include not only the heroic Eleanor Roosevelt but Eleanor Sullivan, the sketchy mother in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Parents and Children, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s sister in Northanger Abbey, and Prudence’s friend Eleanor Hitchins from Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence.
(A not-quite-honestghost-Eleanor seems to come in as well: Whitaker writes that David “spent the next few days chatting with Eleanor,” but in the source material, Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, its subject, Samuel Steward, “spent the next few days chatting with” not Eleanor, but “her,” u uher” being Alice B. Toklas. No Eleanor appears in the book.)
The quotations that make up An Honest Ghost come mainly from the kinds of writers that Whitaker identifies in The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara as demonstrating an indefinable gay sensibility in whom there is “a degree of irony, and wit … and almost always a background of melancholy.” Whitaker includes quotations from straight writers who share a similar sensibility, such as Elizabeth Hardwick, Thomas Bernhard, Nathanael West, Paul Griffiths, Roberto Bolaño, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett (as well as my former teacher, and Whitaker’s, Harold Bloom), but the majority of the sentences in An Honest Ghost were first written by gay writers, such as  — I choose my favorites more or less at random — Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein, Proust, André Gide, John Ashbery, James Merrill, Glenway Wescott, Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Gore Vidal, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Colm Toibin, Sylvia Townsend Warner (whose superb adult fairy tales here become the source of acerbic insult to the “fairies” the narrator sometimes sees himself as, sometimes wishes to avoid), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Rick Whitaker himself.
A fiction constructed out of quotations: at some point the narrator of such a fiction will become the logical product of the quotations that form his facade, protection, and screen. He adopts and adapts “words heated originally by the breath of others,” to quote (as Whitaker does not) Edmund Burke. Or rather he adopts them and then must adapt himself to them, use them to say who he is. Who is he? The person who has adopted these quotations and then adapted himself to them.
Because that’s the demonstration that this powerful and moving book is offering: adopting a child (as Whitaker himself has done) and adapting himself to that other person, object of incessant attention, understanding, and love.
Reading the book is like looking at a Donatello bas-relief from close-up and seeing how everything is surface and façade. And then you read it again, and the novel becomes nothing less than a powerfully moving story of love, and loss, and their precious remainders, or the story rather of how what you love is always at risk of becoming only the trace and remainder of itself. “What are you doing — praying?” the narrator asks Joe at the story’s climax, and continues: “What are you thinking?” The narrator looks at Joe, listens to Joe, hears and sees the facades he presents, the accents and characters he imitates, and at the same time hears and sees the wishful, anxious, intent, injured, needy, self-reliant, praying, thinking human being behind those facades.
Maybe the best way to put this is to say that the most impressive of the centripetal namings in this book — more impressive than the way all the Eleanors from many sources become one Eleanor, all the Joes become one Joe, all the Davids become one David —that is all the I’s become one I, the subjective intensity of the narrator — just the opposite of Bosco’s elusively indifferent they. What is other turns out to have the depths of self, and that recognition is the story of love, the love story that An Honest Ghost tells. - William Flesch

Rick Whitaker’s An Honest Ghost (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013) is a novel built from sentences culled from other books, taking them out of context, and fitting them together into a new mosaic form. The result is surprisingly successful: as I was reading, the book felt less like a coy conceptualist experiment, carried out for the purposes of achieving something that hadn’t been done before according to the given constraint, and more like an exciting stylistic excursion. If this is so, it’s no doubt because the works which have been sampled from share some common ground. The narrative is told in 46 short chapters, running to 129 pages, and followed by the source key, matching sentences to the books and authors whence they originate. (That list runs to 73 pages.) For an amateur of bibliographies like myself, there’s a most particular pleasure to be had here.
The dominant tonal thread in the narrative seems to be established by culling from works by twentieth-century writers in the ‘camp’ or queer style. Certainly not all, as that generalization won’t hold true for all the writers I’m about to mention. Some — like Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch, Gore Vidal, John Waters, Alfred Chester, Edmund White, Glenway Wescott, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and John Ashbery — were familiar to me, if only their names, a book or two I’ve read of theirs, or some biographical fact or other; while the borrowed sentences of others, a few of whom Whitaker borrows from more than liberally, intrigued me, despite my complete or partial ignorance of their life or work: Lydie Salvayres (Portrait of the Author as a Domesticated Animal); Adam Philips (On Balance); Doug Crase (Both); Jean-Christophe Valtat (03); David McConnell (The Firebrat); Fritz Zorn (Mars); Guy Hocquenghem (Screwball Asses); and André Tellier (Twilight Men).
I have yet to begin googling, but I will, and I’m pretty sure
there’s some treasure-hunting to be done here. I might add, before I move on, that lots of other more well-known authors enter into the mix in frequent doses, among them: W.G. Sebald, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Thomas Bernhard, Michael Cunningham, Jean Echenoz.
The composite style is a thing of wonder to behold. I situate it somewhere in the environs of what Susan Sontag endeavored to describe in her essay “Where the Stress Falls”: a style sharing affinities with Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and many of the aforementioned queer and/or campish writers. Extraordinary; exquisite. - Jacob Siefring


Rick Whitaker, Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, Da Capo Press, 2001.

Rick Whitaker divulges the complex reasons that drove him to prostitution and reflects on the cost of a life of half-truths and emotional lies. With an unsentimental eye, Whitaker chronicles his descent and eventual resolution.

Now the assistant to the general director of the New York City Opera, Whitaker writes honestly about his experiences as a hustler and drug addict. After moving to New York in the late 1980s with a boyfriend, little cash and no contacts, Whitaker earned a degree in philosophy, wrote a novel and went to work in publishing as an editorial assistant to Gordon Lish. By 1997, he had acquired a serious dependency on cocaine and was having ""a great deal of sex with strangers, some of it unsafe."" In order to support his drug habit, he began working for two escort agencies and, in the next 20 months, conducted business with more than 100 men before giving up his sex work and going into recovery. Relying on a mix of erudition and titillation, Whitaker quotes Leonard Woolf, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Andrew Marvell and Pascal as he relates the explicit sexual details of his work life. He's at his most astute when analyzing how his parents' highly unstable, overtly sexual relationship and his own complicated love/hate bond with his father set the stage for his hustling. Overall, despite the literary references, Whitaker's relatively modest psychological insights are overwhelmed by the far more compelling pulp narrative of a young man finding salvation on the brink of ruin in the big city. Agent, Malaga Baldi. - Publishers Weekly

Whitaker’s flaccid memoir of life as a gay male prostitute denies the reader even the giddy thrill of voyeurism in service of an existential life lesson which even Sartre would have decried as banal. Whitaker begins with the reason he began hustling: spite toward an ex-boyfriend. After such a startlingly shallow admission, the reader is off on a roller-coaster ride of cheap sex at high prices. Whitaker describes tricks and encounters with men, men, and more men—neurotic psychologists, horny doctors, businessmen from out of town, Broadway composers, even a celebrity whose identity he protects. We travel with him to the penthouses of New York’s elite for all-night orgies of sex, drug use, and debauchery. One of Whitaker’s chief concerns—will he be able to “perform” with men to whom he isn’t attracted?—offers a big clue to the failure of the book: if he wasn’t interested in what he was doing, why should the reader be? Interspersed with these recollections of the trials of life as an odalisque are existential ruminations on life, love, sex, and identity. Whitaker trudges out various philosophers and authors—including Wittgenstein, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Thoreau—more to prove that he’s college educated than to ponder the meaning of life as a hustler. His journal entries, which feature such detours as his maudlin commentary on actress Tallulah Bankhead and a reading list (Sontag and Shakespeare), bog down any narrative thrust he might have developed into a great slurping sound of self-absorption. Whitaker has apparently learned a life lesson through his experiences as a prostitute, and he’s obviously writing for some sort of emotional purgation; however, such a catharsis would be better achieved on a psychiatrist’s couch rather than boring the reader with sex so dull and journeys of self-discovery so morose. - Kirkus Reviews

If you visit the Web site of a gay Washington hustler whose nom de shtup is Fratboy, you can, after checking out near-naked but tasteful pictures of the product, click on a self-interview in which the young entrepreneur explains why he puts out for pay: “College is extremely expensive, not to mention living off campus in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Given the choice of working a service job for $8-$10 an hour versus $150 an hour, it’s a very clear choice for me.”
Fortunately, that blandly pragmatic approach is not the one Rick Whitaker takes in “Assuming the Position,” a touching, brainy and disarmingly frank account of his years as an “escort” in New York City. As he tells it, the precipitating event for his stint on the wild side was being left by a boyfriend, Tom, who had once done some hustling himself. Whitaker’s notion was to shock and hurt his ex while at the same time distracting himself from his pain by taking a role in what he calls “a cultural tragedy.” What’s more (witness Fratboy), there was good money to be made for relatively little work. “Hustling was appealing because it was lucrative,” Whitaker writes, “it was against the law, and it was congruent with what was by then my fairly serious drug habit” — which ran to pot, cocaine and occasional snorts of heroin.
Whitaker hooked up with an agency, carried a beeper, took virtually any business that fell his way and, after his work was done, often went to a bar seeking a freely chosen sexual chaser. During his downtime, he read Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and performed classical music — one entry in the diary he periodically excerpts from begins, “Great dinner with D. last night. I played a Haydn sonata for her …” The detachment with which Whitaker presents this disconnect between his cultural high-mindedness and his carnal crassness — one that most of us feel from time to time but few act out so dramatically — coats his story with a veneer of cool.
Beneath that veneer, however, lies a welter of dissatisfaction. Whitaker argues that the question of whether prostitution is immoral never struck him as “authentic”: “I was not hurting anyone apart from, perhaps, enabling some men to perpetuate an expensive bad habit. And I have never been concerned with the world’s verdict on prostitutes. The world is forever making unfair judgments; people become prostitutes (and do all sorts of things) because life is hard, and life really is hard.” But he admits that in his case hustling took its place among a matrix of addictions, including a craving for affection that stemmed from a love-starved childhood. And the close of one diary entry hints at the toll hustling takes on someone capable of doing justice to a Haydn sonata: “My life is pretty much as inelegant as it could possibly be.” -

Rick Whitaker believes that ''with a few notable exceptions,'' most men possess something attractive and sexy. That was an excellent attitude for his former profession, that of gay male prostitute. Despite a rather cheeky title for what is essentially a profoundly melancholy memoir, ''Assuming the Position'' is an account of Whitaker's attempt ''to come to terms with what is a more insidious habit and a more complicated psychological situation than I originally believed.'' A philosophy major when he was in college, Whitaker intellectualizes his way around this self-admittedly unresolved and destructive part of his life. He tells of turning to prostitution to spite a former boyfriend who was also a prostitute. He details his extensive use of drugs to get through his paid and frequently unsavory sexual encounters. He recounts his suicidal tendencies and the resulting emotional numbness that selling his body induced. And to help make sense of it all, he cites Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. What is missing, however, is a deeper understanding -- be it psychological, sociological or philosophical -- of the origins and implications of his behavior. Whitaker offers a hasty sketch of a hypersexual mother and an abusive, distant father, but remains unable to put the pieces together (''something to do with being addicted to sexual shame''). And after all the abuse of his body, the now sober and legally employed Whitaker still perceives prostitution as possessing some undemonstrated allure. His story turns out to be less about male prostitution than it is a disturbing depiction of profound emotional detachment. -  DAVID BAHR

Rick Whitaker, The First Time I Met Frank O'Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, Da Capo Press, 2003.

Those who first met Rick Whitaker through his unrepentant memoir know that he was not a typical prostitute. This "Wittgenstein- and Freud-quoting" hustler is at core a thinker—and a voracious reader, one who has written book reviews for The New York Times and The Washington Post. In The First Time I Met Frank O'Hara, Whitaker discusses the books that have altered his perception and influenced the way he conducts his life. Although not all of Whitaker's favorite books are written by homosexuals, many — all included here — are. Linked essays on gay writers include Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Frank O'Hara, and David Wojnarowicz . These sexual outsiders share what Whitaker calls a "gay sensibility": they describe without describing, show while hiding, and sing while keeping silent. Black-and-white photographs are also featured.

Frank O'Hara--whose acquaintance Whitaker made through his poetry, not in person--is just one of the gay, lesbian and homoerotic writers Whitaker (Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling) pays homage to in this literary scrapbook of essays combining biography, accessible literary criticism and personal memoir. Each of the selected writers exhibits a gay sensibility, Whitaker writes, which he defines as""original and fresh...clever, scornful of laws, introspective, energetic, and sexy...with a degree of irony, and wit; and...almost always a background of melancholy."" Of 19th-century writers who fulfill these criteria, Whitaker""broods on"" Thoreau (""proto-gay""), Melville (who had a""powerfully homoerotic"" imagination), Whitman, Dickinson and the flamboyant Fitz-Greene Halleck. The author groups Oscar Wilde into a section entitled ""The Gay Century"" (the 20th century), along with Gore Vidal, Andrew Holleran, James Baldwin and David Wojnarowicz. Poet Henri Cole and travel writer Tobias Schneebaum, a personal friend of Whitaker's, exemplify ""The New Century,"" an era of assimilation for gays and lesbians. Whitaker infuses biographical information and literary analysis with his personal reminiscences in an effort to underscore the writers' relevance to readers seeking a kind of life-affirming guidance, or ""techniques for becoming and being oneself."" The author points to Thoreau's Walden, for example, as a paradigm for living a life free of cultural demands and expectations. ""Man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,"" writes Thoreau, and for Whittaker, this includes living a life free of ""gambling"" and ""taking drugs for fun."" Though his writing can be incongruously confessional (""I've been drawn to older men (some of them much older) since my teens"") and vague (""Everyone in a gay culture strives to be unique in a particular, emphatic way""), Whitaker nevertheless offers a collection of literary observations and musings that may be refreshingly germane to both gay and straight readers who have""suffered the vicissitudes of difference."" - Publishers Weekly

Rick Whitaker shares with us the books that have influenced his life. He is quite a reader (I was reminded of myself in that). Many of the writers that have touched his life are gay—Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, and David Wojnarowicz (to name a few). These writers imbue their themes with a “gay sensibility” which Whitaker describes as hiding while writing—those of us who are aware of their sexuality see it but it is not obvious to all people. Frank O’Hara, for example, and Whitaker never met in person and so Whitaker learned of him through his writing and poetry. He sensed O’Hara’s gay sensibility and this drew the two men close together. It is Whitaker’s concept of gay sensibility (the irony, the wit and the melancholia)  that makes this book special and lets us ponder if there is such a genre as gay literature (something that has become an integral part of my life).
We are shown that this gay sensibility does not stand alone and is part of the larger sense of gay community and culture. These two concepts are disappearing quickly as here in America we are moving into that beyond gay space. The term gay culture is obsolete in that we have moved into the larger society –the ‘gayborhood” is a thing of the pat, gay bars are dying, we are marrying our partners and we are adopting children and becoming soccer moms and dads.
Whitaker says that there is a fresh side to literature and that we are no longer the “other’ especially when we look at the writers whose work has crossed over. Yet we will never lose out place as a minority within the majority culture and relationships between men is much different than relationships between men and women. I realized that I was actually reading more of a memoir than a discussion of writings—in the writings here, Whitaker discovered who he is. I was surprised that some of my favorite writer were not included—Edmund White, Tennessee Williams and others. There are also just a couple of women included but then Whitaker is writing as a male who enjoys reading books by men. I sense his honesty throughout the book and I found myself agreeing with him almost all of the time. He includes criticism and history along with his memoir and he does so with style and grace and giving us some wonderful looks into his favorite writers. I found myself thinking about the writers in ways I had never done before and I am sure that this will influence how I will review books in the future. You see, it is never too late to learn  something new and to have this shown to me by someone who loves our literature as much as I do makes this a truly special book. - Amos Lassen


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