Andrew Holleran’s novels are so gloomily personal that you can’t help worrying about him in the long gaps between them and wondering, since he’s now nearly eighty, if there will be another book at all. Sixteen years have passed since the last one, Grief, a novella-length study of a man, very like himself, mourning the mother who has been for years the center of his emotional life. Teaching for a term in Washington, D.C., he looks for lessons from historical figures. There is Henry Adams, surviving for thirty-three years after the suicide of his wife but never mentioning her again, and Mary Todd Lincoln, from whose letters he gains a more inward idea of a survivor’s experience as her life unravels in the years after her husband’s assassination. The question of how to continue after a life-altering loss is examined but unresolved, and the narrator returns at the end to his solitary existence in Florida with a sense of his grief renewed, and of gratitude for it. Grief, for him, is a way of not letting the dead go: “Your grief is the substitute for their presence on earth. Your grief is their presence on earth.” If you have no one else, and you are, like Adams, “too young to die, but too old to start over,” grief offers itself as a new way of life.
How would Holleran, a master of melancholy atmospheres and painful self-scrutiny, follow that study in desolation? Was there a tiny chance he might embrace the freedoms of old age and launch out into some quite new area of interest? Or would he pursue to an even narrower and grimmer focus his study of the deprivations and terrors of advancing years, which made both The Beauty of Men (1996) and Grief such bleak and original testaments? The answer is clear from the opening pages of his fifth novel, The Kingdom of Sand, with their scrupulous evocation of a roadside Florida video store, and of the protocols and humiliations of visiting it if you are a lonely gay man in his seventies in search of sex: this will be Holleran’s most depressing novel yet. It also turns out to be his most touchingly confessional, with a muted poetry of place and season that lingers in the reader’s mind.
Holleran had the ambiguous good fortune to start out by writing a classic. Dancer from the Dance, published in 1978, was the first literary masterpiece of post-Stonewall gay fiction, and a novel whose magic has only deepened as the era it describes recedes into the past. He had found himself with a brand-new subject: the glamorous tumult of New York gay life in the mid-1970s, the clubs, the bathhouses, hot summer nights in a decaying city, which he conjured up in prose of rich precision and revelatory frankness. Where Larry Kramer’s Faggots, published the same year, approached the hedonism of the gay scene in a scabrous and minatory spirit, Holleran’s novel achieved something far more complex: a critique of a newly evolved world that was also a haunting record of its appeal. It gratified the reader, especially the starved gay reader, with its beautiful depictions of romantic love between men, but it also confronted the burnout of lives driven by the pursuit of pleasure, and of sex above all—“doomed queens” in an “unreal city.” The world and time of the story, though so close, are looked back on as some barely credible dream too fantastic to endure. The power of the novel lies in the strange personal chemistry by which Holleran is at once the celebrator, the satirist, and the elegist of a defining epoch in our history.
The nearly narcotic experience of immersion in the book’s sensory and emotional world is achieved in part through Holleran’s narrative sleight of hand. He has a notional first-person narrator, of about his own age (mid-thirties), but with no name or history: an observer who seems less a person than a device, the almost-invisible guest-as-narrator you might find in a tale by Henry James, or who more nearly perhaps resembles Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway. As an “I” he dissolves altogether for long periods, presenting the story of his principal character, the beautiful young Anthony Malone, with all the freedom and imaginative intimacy of third-person narration. Intriguingly, in view of Holleran’s later practice, in which the first person will be a means of merciless self-exposure, the “I” of this book is most often hiding within a capacious first-person plural. Sometimes this “we” seems to be an intimate group of two or three friends, sometimes a larger brotherhood of New York partygoers and pleasure-seekers; at others it sounds more akin to the essayist’s “we,” speaking for a community, a generation of gay men whose lives had never before been chronicled and celebrated in this way. What it is not is the “we” of coupledom, of a settled domestic state, though for the narrator a lasting love is the ultimate goal of the nights spent dancing and hunting for sex—the blessed state that would remove the need for going out in the first place.
Dancer from the Dance is framed by an exchange of letters between two friends, one in New York, the other in the “Deep South,” who has fled the scene they both participated in. The New York friend sends his country friend the text of the novel we then read—a device by which Holleran seems to send a message between two phases of his own life, and to gesture clairvoyantly toward the long future he would spend in Florida taking care of his mother after a fall in 1983 left her a quadriplegic.
The town-and-country dichotomy is explored further in the later parts of his second novel, Nights in Aruba (1983), which ranges more widely in setting than any of the others. Its shape is clearly autobiographical, spanning childhood on a cheerless Caribbean island where his father worked for an oil company, military service in Germany, and adult years spent shuttling between the watertight worlds of gay New York and closeted family life in Florida, which in the end exerts a stronger if more sedative charm. If Dancer from the Dance has a plot—the mythic transit of a young man through a time and a place—in this second book there is already a sense, common as well to Edmund White’s autobiographical novels, that life itself will be the plot, and that the author is committed to the adventure of describing it with no knowledge of how the story will end.
The three novels that have followed—The Beauty of Men, Grief, and now The Kingdom of Sand—are really successive installments of a continuing autofiction rooted in north-central Florida and evoking the narrator’s mother’s decade in a hospital, her death, and his attempts to manage his lonely and unhappy life after she’s gone. The Beauty of Men, the most substantial and sustained of the three, is narrated in the third person but is so intimate with the thoughts and feelings of its central character, the forlornly named Lark, as to read like a first-person narrative.
Unlike White, who has become more colorful and exuberant with age, expanding beyond autofiction into novels about the travels of Fanny Trollope or the spectacularly diverging careers of two sisters from East Texas, Holleran has stayed faithful to the task of defining an ever more circumscribed existence. In The Kingdom of Sand he invokes Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter”: “I wanted to stay in one dear, perpetual place. I wanted to watch what happened to it over Time.” He writes now with the patient attentiveness of a regionalist, with an eye for the changing ecology of the local landscape, the new highway, the shrinking lakes, the shifting population of gay men hanging out at the boat ramp in the woods. We observe his small regular circuits by car or, at night, on foot, in “voyeuristic somnambulation through the dark and sleepy town,” while his social life dwindles to two or three gay friends. By the end the narrator figure (whom I take to be persistently if not exactly Holleran himself) is left more or less alone.
Holleran has long had a valetudinarian streak. It comes as a shock to find that Lark, with his incipient cataracts and hearing loss, is only forty-seven. He thinks like a man too old for any chance of love or renewal. The narrator of The Kingdom of Sand is more plausibly an old man, by now “nearly deaf,” gaunt and ghostlike, inhabiting the house that was his parents’ and where indeed they remain, as what undertakers call “shelf people,” their ashes in two white jars. He considers “my parents, and the memory of them, my main relationship,” and his mother’s presence is still palpable to him in her collection of porcelain figurines, displayed against a pale pink wall “like an altar of some sort.” They greet him, when he enters the room, as a “flushed emanation”—an aptly Jamesian phrase for his cult of the past, the dead parents’ bedroom described as a “shrine” and as a “temple,” where he kneels and prays each time he returns from a trip. The house is a ready emblem for his emotional paralysis, memories conserved in a building that is falling inexorably into decay.
The trap, though, seems larger than this. The dear, perpetual place holds a latent hostility to who he is. “Most homosexuals in small towns don’t want to know each other,” he claims; “it threatens the closet in which they are living.” “The paranoia of the homosexual in a small town never disappears and observes no boundaries”—all the more so if that homosexual lives alone, with no way to know if he’s imagining things. The idea of friendship with a straight man, or with any kind of woman, is never entertained in Holleran’s starkly masculine gay world.
What human warmth there is in The Kingdom of Sand comes from the narrator’s friendship with a retired gay accountant called Earl, “the only person in town with whom I felt I could be myself.” Earl’s “long, low ranch house built halfway up the slope” will become as familiar to us as the narrator’s own home—a place of books and music, where they watch old movies together and listen to opera recordings. “Hurricane Weather,” the 160-page section that makes up most of the novel, traces their relationship, which in its mild domestic increments provides the main narrative interest.
With Earl, the anxiously aging narrator is reassuringly junior and able to examine the workings of time in a man twenty years older than himself. In this way the approach of death is both confronted and held at a distance, while the routine of music and movies affords a kind of proxy intimacy. Earl shows an “admirable reserve” and is “utterly indifferent to whatever I was doing in between our visits”; the narrator questions him about his earlier life but is reassured that Earl will “never ask me anything even slightly personal” in return. In this Earl reminds him of his own father, also an accountant, and like Earl “self-reliant, courteous, good-natured, and slightly formal.” The narrator senses that his wish to look after Earl when he gets sick is a delayed compensation for his failure to look after his father and hazards the Proustian perception that “when people express tenderness and kindness to someone it’s often because of somebody else. Love and kindness have a lineage their recipients know nothing about.” Similarly, when Earl dies toward the end of the book, his feelings remain a mystery: “I still had no idea what I meant to Earl.” A decade or more of friendship has survived and flourished on avoidance of subjects, unexpressed feelings, and unknowable motives. It is completely convincing, and in its quiet way extremely touching.
In the narration there is a certain amount of repetition and nattering on. Earl’s house is furnished with antiques “he’d bought or inherited from a neighbor of his in South Florida, an old woman who’d married into, or was descended from, a distinguished New England family, I forget which.” Earl’s handyman’s “divorced son had been injured in an accident while working as a guide for rich people who went to South Florida to hunt wild boar.” There are a number of persons like this who exist only in a long subordinate clause, never to be mentioned again. On one page the narrator tells us twice that as a younger man coming home he was the only person of his age on the street who hadn’t settled down and gotten married, and tells us again two pages later. At times one reads with a sort of mastered impatience, as if actually visiting an elderly person—not one who forgets but who fears forgetting, and gains reassurance from going over the exact arrangements for, say, getting to the Jacksonville airport, and then for getting back home again afterward.
But Holleran, I feel sure, is too clever and purposeful a writer for these moments of senile dither to be mere accidents, and his narrator’s tics and rhythms subtly enmesh the reader in the experience of age, with its shrinking resources and accumulating worries. Sometimes he appears to forget what he’s said in an earlier book. Recalling going to the hospital the morning after his mother’s death, he writes, “I forget what she was wearing”—was it her going-out clothes or a hospital gown tied at the neck? He sits by her body and strokes her hair, over and over. In The Beauty of Men, she is in “her nightgown without a wrinkle,” and the fervent hair-stroking takes place on the previous evening, the last time he sees her alive. But such small inconsistencies add authenticity to the portrait of a mind that in twenty-six years has incessantly revisited, but also blurred and rearranged, the materials that memory works with.
In all Holleran’s fictions, the protagonist or narrator, whether participant or mere observer, is oddly without clear employment. The social and sexual life eclipses the professional, which is glimpsed generically now and then as catering work, or later as part-time typing or legal proofreading, and then (in Grief) teaching a university class: a position that presupposes a professional history, as a writer or academic, that is nowhere alluded to. If the Holleran character, at the start, is too immersed in the gay scene and too seduced by the glamour of its denizens to have time to think about jobs, the narrative of retreat and decline in the later books is made all the starker by the erasure from the picture of a paramount fact in the author’s own story: that of being a pathbreaking and internationally respected writer. In his fiction Holleran strikes a note of confessional candor about everything but this.
You sense, in this conspicuous withholding of a central explanatory fact, a kind of parallel with the narrator’s failure ever to come out to his mother, even when she asked directly, “Are you a homosexual?” or, years later, and “trying to find the right combination of words that would allow him to be honest,” “Are you what they call a homosexual?” It is hard to know what questions of our own are pertinent or impertinent about the practice of any autofictional writer. Eric Garber adopted the pseudonym Andrew Holleran so that his parents wouldn’t know he’d written Dancer from the Dance. In both Nights in Aruba and The Kingdom of Sand, his narrator concisely evokes the suppression of his self when his parents visit him in New York: he avoids parts of town where they might run into his friends and is thrown when his mother asks him to select on the jukebox his favorite song, so that she can get some idea of what he likes. (He chooses Carole King singing “It’s Too Late.”) But what, you wonder, did she think her son was doing with his life, and how did she think he was earning his living? And isn’t there always a well-meaning friend who lets the cat out of the bag?
This extended portrait of the life of a homosexual man is in many ways a disconcerting one. Holleran was born in 1943 and knew firsthand the riotous freedoms of the 1970s and the terrible onslaught of AIDS through the 1980s. These two intense epochs, following one on the other, were the vivid and painful material that autobiographical novelists such as Holleran and White found themselves in possession of, their own lives intimate with history. White confronted AIDS directly in the short stories of The Darker Proof (1987), in his major autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony (1997), and in a subsequent novel, The Married Man (2000), whose third-person narration focuses a deeply personal story in an unforgettably moving way.
Holleran’s AIDS writing at the time was principally journalism, for Christopher Street, New York, and elsewhere, gathered in the valuable collection Ground Zero (1988). His later novels are stalked by the presence of the disease—in Grief the narrator learns that his landlord has lost three hundred to six hundred friends to AIDS, which he feels must be an exaggeration, though a friend insists, “You don’t know what D.C. was like during the eighties. Funerals, funerals, funerals!”—but he avoids the grim medical narrative of AIDS as a fictional subject. It’s as if, in the novels, the long paralysis and death of the mother stand in for this other overwhelming source of grief.
Holleran is an acute analyst of gay desire as a compulsion and habit in which, with time, the elements of joy and expectation are replaced by a barely expectant glumness. He evokes the younger man’s excitement at gay clubs, the famous Everard Baths on West 28th Street, the summer rituals of Fire Island, but the narrator figure, so up-front with the details of other people’s lives, only once gives any narrative weight to an affair of his own. In Nights in Aruba his romance with a man called Sal, a baggage handler at Newark Airport, unfolds over ten pages with a touching naturalness and a warmth that can’t withstand the narrator’s self-destructive doubts.
Holleran was alert from early on to the heavy burden of sex addiction, the “handsome young man…with half-moon shadows beneath his eyes, and the grim expression of someone living for lust”; but the escape from the sexualized circuits of Manhattan does not lead to a neutering of lust but rather to a new purgatory of fruitless habit. In that opening sequence of The Kingdom of Sand, the video store isn’t haunted by handsome young men but by elderly “egg-shaped men in baggy T-shirts” moved less by any realistic hope of scoring than by “habit, loneliness, something they could not name.”
Holleran feels keenly the premium the gay world puts on youth, is deeply moved by the beauty of men, and broods on the invisibility that may threaten a gay man’s later life. The prematurely aging Lark focuses obsessively on a young man named Becker, with whom he once had sex at the boat ramp and who has shown no interest in him since. At each return to the lake in the woods Lark hopes to see him again; he gathers information about his life, drives repeatedly past his house at night in a compulsion that could hardly be called voyeuristic, since he sees nothing beyond a small lit window to inform or excite him. The longing for Becker plays out across the slow but inexorable progress of the novel in counterpoint to Lark’s visits to his mother in the hospital and his taking her out on weekends, a relationship hugely happier and more fulfilling. It ends in a showdown of shocking brevity and humiliation, brute reality breaking a long trance of thwarted desire.
Lark’s bitter reflections on the fate of the “Aging Queen” are the more disquieting to read because they reach so far back: “I was depressed before I met Becker, I was alienated from homosexuality before AIDS.” He feels he is “a flop as a homosexual,” with a “loathing of the condition” and an “inability to accept my fate”: “I’ve devoted my whole life to being homosexual, he thinks, I’ve majored in Gay, and what has it got me? Not even a steady sexual partner. How embarrassing. I’ve failed.” This echoes the bleakly paradoxical situation summed up by the isolated figure in Holleran’s short story “In September, the Light Changes,” who remains on Fire Island at the end of the season as everyone else leaves: “I am a professional homosexual, he thought as he sat staring at the fire; I lecture, write, think about homosexuality, and I sit here alone.” It’s an uncomfortable fact that this pioneering gay writer has so little to put forward in favor of the “condition” that has shaped his entire life’s work. By the end, the pre-liberation stereotype of the homosexual as a paranoid outsider, warped by mother love and doomed to loneliness and misery, seems resurgent.
Holleran’s autofiction is by turns stoical and despairing. In the opening sequence of Nights in Aruba—evoking the elusiveness of sleep, the narrator’s return to his parents, his going to bed without saying good night to his mother—he makes a clear allusion to Proust; when he likens life with his chilly New York housemate to that of “a man who ends up with a wife not at all his type,” he pays specific homage to Swann’s recognition that in his love of Odette he has wasted years of his life on a woman “qui n’était pas mon genre.” Throughout all these novels, certain motifs, such as the noise of his parents sleeping in the silent house or his return late at night to his wakeful but unquestioning father, will recur, as touchstones of value or entry points of memory, in a loosely Proustian way. The little local repetitions, across all the books, of ideas, phrases, situations, serve to emphasize the inescapable narrowness of the world described and at the same time invest it with a faint poetic resonance. This, surely, is Holleran’s overarching purpose: to transcend the starved circumstances of a life with a closeness and steadiness of attention, in a structure larger than any one book, and with a force that accumulates even as the life itself diminishes.
Such a vision is a kind of transfigured masochism, quick to find beauty and relief in the experience of pain. In the final Christmastime chapter of The Kingdom of Sand, the narrator describes the ritual late-evening visit to Walgreens that will yield up the only human contact of the day, and the remote erotic frisson of a possible exchange with the pharmacist or the tall, skinny boy at the checkout:
To be the only customer in the store, just the cashier, the pharmacist, and me, alone with the sunglasses and vitamin pills and greeting cards and candy bars and toothpaste and shampoo, if only for fifteen minutes, would be the perfect Christmas Eve.
And he comes back to his highly personal idea of why spending Christmas alone in a small town would be “so erotic”: “Surely I’d experience a degree of despair, loneliness, and self-loathing unsurpassed at any other time.” Whether or not you hear in this ecstasy of self-abasement a note of far-off humor, the laying bare of personal truth inspires both admiration and pity.