One of my copies--I have two, of course--of Andrew Holleran's debut novel Dancer from the Dance bears an inscription which reads: "To Ray and Mark, Christmas 1978. From Curt & Jim." It's one of my favorite books, as objects go, for the love, the intimacy that shines through it--from one gay couple to another, written in the year that I was born. I wonder about those four men sometimes, about their togetherness and maybe their breakups. I wonder if they are even still alive.
I was inspired to re-read the novel, having recommended it to a friend in Paris, and later realizing that I hardly remembered it, save for the general direction of the plot, and the notion that it was perhaps the first book that I read after I moved to New York, and now, nearly ten years later, perhaps it was time to see how things might have changed.
I've written my own novel now, about processing violence in a culture where you feel like the prey--where you are the prey--and, ultimately, about learning to recognize yourself. So when I started reading Dancer from the Dance again, I was surprised, shocked rather, to see how much the novel had informed my early work on the book, my thinking about it, and maybe even--dare I say it--shades of character, and narrative.
Take this, from the opening pages:
Even if people accept fags out of kindness, even if they tolerate the poor dears, they don't want to know WHAT THEY DO.....And the story of a boy's love for a boy will never capture the world's heart as the story of a boy's love for a girl. (Or a boy's love for his DOG--if you could tell that story again, this country would make you rich as Croesus!)And a few sentences later:
"So (a) people would puke over a novel about men who suck dick (not to mention the Other Things!), and (b) they would demand it be ultimately violent and/or tragic, and why give in to them?I must have taken this as a challenge, an immediate directive. Because I've now written a violent and/or tragic novel of men who do Other Things, and when asked by friends and boyfriends what I really planned to do with my novel, as uncommercial as it is, I basically recounted this same speech about a boy's love for a girl. And lord knows (somehow) the goddamn Marley and Me sold plenty of copies.
(None of these speeches actually answered their question. But what else can one say, except: I wrote this thing. It came out of me. I had no choice in the matter.)
It's fascinating to read a gay novel about desire--is there any other kind?--that takes place before AIDS. But something about the novel isn't sitting right with me.
I have, on another shelf, Larry Kramer's Faggots, published in the same year. Kramer's view of homosexuals in NYC at the time is far less romantic, and yet how is it that I still believe Kramer loves gay men more than Holleran does. That he loves being gay, everything about it, the beauty, the tragedy, the mundane. Take this, from a speech he gave in November 2004: "I love being gay. I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we’re more tuned in to what’s happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people’s emotions, and we’re better friends. I really do think all these things." 'Nuff said.
But sometimes, when I look at all of Holleran's work together, the novels stacked against each other on my shelf, as beautiful, as important, and as singularly enjoyable as they are....they all feel somewhat like an apology. I can't help but feel the regret in between the lines. With Grief, Holleran's most recent novel, I think he finally shakes off that pity, that sad world of loss in which all the other of his books float. Ironically, the book is about loss and death and sadness.
I can't remember how Dancer ends, except I know what is given to the reader on the first few pages: that the narrator is going to clean out Malone's Fire Island apartment after he has died. Or disappeared.
So, I read on.