In a damp, old Sussex castle, American literary phenomenon Stephen Crane lies on his deathbed, wasting away from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. The world-famous author has retreated to England with his wife, Cora, in part to avoid gossip about her ignominious past as the proprietress of an infamous Florida bordello, the Hotel de Dream. In the midst of gathering tragedy, Crane begins dictating what will surely be his final work: a strange and poignant novel of a boy prostitute in 1890s New York and the married man who ruins his own life to win his love.
A biographical fantasia, White's latest imagines the final days of the poet and novelist Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage), who died of TB at age 28 in 1900. At the same time, White also imagines and writes The Painted Boy, a work that he has Crane say he began in 1895, but burned after warnings from a friend. Crane dictates a fresh start on the story to his common-law wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor. Interspersed within White's impressionistic account of Crane's life, The Painted Boy tells the tale of Elliott, a "ganymede butt-boy buggaree." Once a farm boy used by his widowed father and elder brothers like a girl, Elliott escapes to New York and begins a new life as a street hustler. Crane, dying overseas, asks that "someone skilled and open minded" complete the novella. The wry Cora, in her earlier career as a madam at the Jacksonville, Fla. "Hotel de Dream," has some ideas of who among Crane's friends fits the bill. Though White's research and marshaling of slang are impressive, The Painted Boy approaches the sexual frankness of porn and reads improbably. But as White's book(s) build up steam, readers will let go of misgivings, caught up in Elliott's tragic love life and Crane's apocalyptic end.