Camping in Washington

James McCourt
James McCourt; drawing by David Levine

James McCourt’s first novel was Mawrdew Czgowchwz, a camp masterpiece about opera fanatics. His second was a tour de force combination of the sentimental and the slapstick, Time Remaining, in which the survivors of a group of gay men, the “Eleven Against Heaven,” mourn and celebrate their flamboyant comrades dead of AIDS. For that novel McCourt invented a quiet narrator, Delancey, whose steady relationship with (the mainly invisible) Phil makes him partly an outsider observing the wilder erotic adventures of his transvestite friends. In order to honor the dead, he becomes a performance artist, but his tribute to their memory is never described, since it cannot compete with the lurid and eloquent Joycean monologue he listens to from “Odette T. O’Doyle,” a transvestite Irish Catholic, which fills the last half of the novel. The manic chatter of McCourt’s first novel is sustained—“My life has become so private, I have trouble getting into it”—defiant and inspired, and thrown against the dark advance of AIDS.

In his new novel, Delancey’s Way, McCourt has the brilliant idea of sending the quietly observant Delancey down to Washington in 1995, where Odette and her friends introduce him to the gay “underground,” which is more an overground, a Cloudcuckooland hovering above the Washington Monument, from which the scurrying of politicians can be observed. Delancey’s sober assignment, to lobby for an endangered species on Long Island (the piping plover) and report back to his local newspaper, makes him unconsciously comic in his very seriousness among the unnatural creatures who fill Congress and the agencies. Delancey reads Henry Adams’s Democracy on the train down to Washington, and thinks of himself as the Madeleine Lee of that novel, gazing in naive astonishment at what makes the nation run permanently off the rails. His exotic friends look almost normal in such company.

Delancey’s friends describe for him the gays in and out of Washington closets, including Max Harrington, a millionaire whose wife, Anastasia Harrington, earlier became famous by “a truly stunning talent for rubbing up against the nether parts of Gotham’s markdown-Eurovagrant glitterati.” We learn that “the instinctual internal combustion of her impressively primed hereditary Greek revenge engine” earns her the nickname Stasi. Anastasia Harrington is prominent in the Washington Delancey enters since she is promoting the Gingrich revolution (which Delancey’s friends call “the Newt Deal”) as he arrives.

Gingrich—“Mr. Squeaker,” who looks like Benny Hill—is wheeling his “congressional-freshmen Jacobins” into place as the novel begins. Max Harrington is celebrating the triumph of the moral fiber argument against welfare:

The country had lost a war, and the returning drug-addicted failures were offing themselves more effectively than a firing squad after a deserters’ court-martial. We told the nation, “OK we can’t validate you as conquerors anymore, but this we can do to make you feel American: be too proud to accept assistance.” And it worked.

Max, amazed at his wife’s…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.