Andrew Holleran Chronicles Life After Catastrophe

In 1978, two novels appeared that covered remarkably similar, and largely unexplored, territory, documenting the drug-addled, sex-crazed circuit of bathhouses, dance clubs, and parties that, in the seventies, shuttled gay men between Manhattan and Fire Island, with occasional forays to San Francisco or the more exotic wilds of Brooklyn and Queens. In both books, men searching for love settle for ever more elaborate sexual scenes—floggings, fistings, crucifixions—and, in both, men throw away their lives: diving from heights on angel dust, sniffing poppers at the bottom of swimming pools, leaping, “like roaches falling from a hot oven,” out of upper-floor windows at the Everard Baths, where a fire killed nine men in 1977. Both novels are, finally, morality tales, critiquing a life style that they see as empty, immature, dangerous, doomed; both would later be hailed as prescient from the perspective of communities ravaged by AIDS.

And yet the experience of reading the books could hardly be more different. Larry Kramer’s “Faggots” is a manic picaresque, radiating disgust in sentences that are as crazy with jitters as any of the strung-out queens he depicts. Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer from the Dance,” by contrast, is bathed in melancholy gorgeousness, as attuned as any of its characters to “the animal bliss of being alive.” The book is so vivid in its portrayal of lives devoted to pleasure that Holleran has sometimes been charged with glorifying hedonism, or with suggesting that the world he writes about is the only one possible for gay men. In fact, the novel is clear from the start that its subject is “that tiny subspecies of homosexual, the doomed queen, who puts the car in gear and drives right off the cliff!”

“Dancer” is beloved not only for the beauty of its sentences but for the brilliance of one of its central characters. Andrew Sutherland, an erudite, speed-addicted, endlessly lovable Wildean queen, who teaches the book’s protagonist the ins and outs of queer life, counts among the glories of postwar American fiction. In a novel characterized by twilit languor and ambered nostalgia—Holleran’s clearest influences are Fitzgerald and Proust—Sutherland blazes in hilarious scenes that have remained etched in my memory since I first read the book, as an adolescent. In one, Sutherland interrupts his reading of St. Teresa to lean out a window and impersonate an Italian prostitute; in another, he halts a gay man’s maudlin monologue with what still seems to me an excellent remedy for homosexual self-loathing: “For heaven’s sake, don’t take it so seriously! Just repeat after me: ‘My face seats five, my honeypot’s on fire.’ ”

AIDS put an end to the world that the books chronicled. Kramer met the occasion with extraordinary energy: he helped to found Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, and his play “The Normal Heart,” first staged in 1985, is one of the era’s enduring works. Holleran, by his own account, was enervated, even paralyzed, and came to question the value of art in the face of overwhelming tragedy. His second novel, “Nights in Aruba,” appeared in 1983, as the scope of the epidemic was just becoming clear, and it refers to AIDS only glancingly; another thirteen years passed before he published his third. His literary efforts in the eighties were directed toward essays for the gay magazine Christopher Street; they form a real-time account of the early AIDS crisis. A selection of these pieces, gathered in the 1988 volume “Ground Zero,” is one of the most important books to emerge from the plague.

AIDS wasn’t the only catastrophe that Holleran confronted. Also in 1983, when he was thirty-nine, his mother broke her neck in a fall and became a quadriplegic. “At times he has to remind himself, She fell, I didn’t,” Holleran would write in “The Beauty of Men,” his third novel. “But it doesn’t matter. She fell on him.” He cared for her for more than a decade, living in his parents’ home, in a small town in northern Florida; his growing alienation from New York City on return visits is a theme of “Ground Zero.” Holleran, who never came out to his parents, kept his family life and his gay life separate. (Andrew Holleran is a pen name, taken to protect his family; his real name is Eric Garber.) The bifurcation of his life, and the experience of “two parallel disasters occurring in the separate compartments,” is the primary preoccupation of his fiction after “Dancer.”

That début remains uniquely novelistic among Holleran’s works. His subsequent books, from “Nights in Aruba” to his new novel, “The Kingdom of Sand,” can most profitably be read as a sustained study of one man’s life. Though the protagonists are sometimes granted different names—Paul in “Nights in Aruba,” Lark in “The Beauty of Men”—and minor differences of circumstance, the major facts of their biographies are largely constant, and shared with their author: a devout Catholic childhood on a Caribbean island; military service and initiation into gay life in Heidelberg; young adulthood in New York, where the thrill of sexual freedom competed with anxiety about possibly wasting one’s life; then a mostly closeted small-town existence, caring for a disabled parent, and crushing grief after that parent’s death. Incidents, scenes, even lines of dialogue drift between the books, and certain events take on a totemic force: a roommate’s suicide; a father calling out after suffering a stroke; a mother asking her adult son if he is gay and the son’s panicked denial.

The protagonist’s mother is the most vivid presence in these books. In “Nights in Aruba,” she is a bored, imperious, heavily drinking housewife, who insists that her young son stay with her while she finishes a final drink. “You don’t love me,” she accuses the boy—one of many instances of mild, commonplace, devastating abuse. And yet he recognizes her, even in this early novel, as “the last faithful love I would have.”

His faithfulness never falters. The most moving passages of “The Beauty of Men” take place when Lark visits his mother in her nursing home. “You’ll never leave me. Your conscience won’t let you,” she tells him, a line that first appears in “Beauty” and returns, in memory, in “The Kingdom of Sand.” They watch “Murder, She Wrote” and “Jeopardy!” together; he pushes her wheelchair around the facility, or to a nearby mall. “He feels like Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead,” Holleran writes. “It is worth everything else . . . that single, brief moment when he first swims into her vision and she awakens like a flower in some speeded-up film, blossoming before his very eyes.”

Time, as much as language, is the novelist’s medium, and among the most fundamental decisions a novelist makes is how it should move. Holleran is unusual in his desire, more common with lyric poets, that time not move at all. This creates problems for plot, which he has acknowledged as a challenge. “So much of life is plotless,” he has said, “that I would never want to create a plot that was not, I felt, realistic.”

Holleran’s most successful novels take a particular period—six indistinguishable years in “Dancer,” a semester in his 2006 novel, “Grief”—and bottle it, tilting it this way and that, letting time drift and double back. In a novel, exposition typically supplements scene, but Holleran inverts that hierarchy. In “Dancer,” we are not shown particular evenings as much as we are told what the baths, clubs, and parties were generally like. Often, there is a sense of torpor that makes scenic action seem impossible. One reason Holleran’s extravagant queens are so potent a resource for his work—Sutherland-like characters appear in “Nights in Aruba,” “The Beauty of Men,” and several of the best stories in his excellent collection, “In September, the Light Changes,” from 1999—is that they break this torpor, creating, with their antics and aphorisms, specific, heightened moments.

Holleran’s novels have become increasingly essayistic over time. Along with “Dancer,” “Grief” is his most tonally and emotionally unified work, its tutelary spirit not Fitzgerald but the German novelist W. G. Sebald. The novel’s peripatetic narrator spends a semester teaching in Washington, D.C., floating through days blurred by sadness, musing on the history of the city. Like the narrator of Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn,” he counterpoints his own experience with that of historical figures, incorporating long quotations from the letters of another inveterate mourner, Mary Todd Lincoln. The result is one of the most powerful studies of grief and isolation that I know.

“The Kingdom of Sand” is divided into five sections, several of which announce their subjects in their titles. “The Endless Cantaloupe” is about the eating patterns of the narrator’s parents as they grew old, and his own attempts to forestall death through neurotically fastidious habits. (“I rarely ate for pleasure, I ate because broccoli had indoles that were thought to deter cancer.”) The book’s title section details his family’s relationship with the small town where he lives: from his parents’ decision to retire there to his own situation as an aging single man, inhabiting streets that are as full of ghosts—his parents, their friends and neighbors—as New York during the early AIDS crisis. Throughout the book, paragraphs open with what feel like topic sentences: “Roads are to Florida what syringes are to veins”; “Lightning in the seventies, it seems to me, was more dramatic than it is today.”

The book’s longest section, “Hurricane Weather,” recounts the narrator’s relationship with Earl, his only friend in town. They first meet at the local boat ramp, a cruising spot that the narrator of “The Beauty of Men” spends much of his time haunting but which has since been ruined by police surveillance and online personals. They don’t have sex—the narrator is youth-obsessed, and Earl is twenty years his senior—but Earl becomes a sort of anchor for the narrator, who, after the death of his mother, feels unmoored. They spend evenings watching movies in Earl’s house; they call each other to report on sales at the supermarket, or on an attractive bag boy; they go blueberry picking together.

Earl is sixty-two when he and the narrator meet; he will die twenty-six years later. The transformation of gay life in those decades—by increased visibility, marriage equality, Internet cruising—seems largely to have passed the narrator by, or to have been neutralized by small-town life and the ravages of aging. “Who were we kidding?” the narrator says, refusing to join a social group of older gay men, sure that any hope of “love or even companionship” at his age is absurd. He spends his days watching pornography online, but dismisses dating sites, which he says are full of “panty boys.” After viewing a 1919 film about the blackmail of a gay man, he complains to Earl that “nothing had changed, that he and I lived like sex offenders. . . . We had imprisoned ourselves under a sort of voluntary house arrest.” “The police aren’t keeping me here,” Earl responds. “Old age is!”

The long span of “Hurricane Weather” poses difficulties for Holleran’s approach to narrative. We lose track of where we are in time, which results in disorienting contradictions and ambiguities. We’re told on one page that the narrator has “neither swept nor vacuumed the floor in years,” yet two pages later we see him with dustpan in hand. When Earl and the narrator watch “Notorious,” or listen to Schubert’s “An die Musik,” it is often unclear what year, or even what decade, is being described. As with the six years in “Dancer” and the semester in “Grief,” Holleran treats the quarter century of the friendship as an unvariegated whole. Such avoidance of narrative tension comes to seem laborious, particularly when the elements of a compelling plot rise into view: Earl begins to depend on a handyman for assistance, and as this man’s responsibilities grow—from household repairs to driving and shopping and, eventually, serving Earl his meals and handling his finances—the narrator becomes jealous and, later, concerned about possible exploitation.

There are the makings here of a melodrama like the ones that Earl and the narrator enjoy watching. But these elements remain inert. Narrative is ordinarily created by the disruption of a status quo; Holleran seems to want a novel that is all status quo, no disruption. We are left with what he has called, in an essay, “the actual dull reality of life, its longueurs and nagging angst.” Even Earl’s death fails to serve as a climax, though it does occasion the book’s most beautiful passage:

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