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Andy reminisces – Holleran and Leavitt

July 16, 2015

So to stop myself drinking wine from 7 in the morning (this is a pissweak joke by the way, there is no chance of me drinking wine before 8 in the morning) I’m re-reading a heap of the “gay stuff” I read 20-plus years ago. First up:

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

In his introduction to 1994’s Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories editor and writer David Leavitt quotes a young friend: “It’s the first gay book most young gay American men read, and I can’t think of another that’s done as much damage.” They were talking about Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, a novel about gay New York in the mid-’70s, and while the reaction is extreme I can see where they’re coming from (Leavitt has a good old crack at the novel elsewhere in his introduction). The book focuses on Sutherland and Malone and their lives in the gay clubs and bathhouses and on the beach (and dunes) of Fire Island in the years after the Stonewall riots and before AIDS. Malone is a stunningly handsome young man, while Sutherland has a small dick and can only get his jollies in the loos at Grand Central Station. This for the most part is the basis of Leavitt’s criticism of the book – sex (or “love”, as Holleran curiously styles it) is available only to the beautiful and those with big schlongs.

This seems a bit harsh to me. While Leavitt grudgingly acknowledges Holleran’s irony and mockery he plays it down a bit much. The whole novel, it seemed to me when I first read and perhaps even more so on re-reading, is a critique of gay New York’s obsession with sex and beauty. An affectionate critique perhaps, but critique nonetheless. At one point in the novel Sutherland decides he’s going to act as Malone’s pimp, not apparently needing Malone’s say-so to transform his friend into a hustler. And later still Malone himself becomes increasingly disenchanted and disheartened by the scene he’s a star of.

Most disturbing, given the cataclysm that we now know had already begun when this book’s characters were getting their thing on in the mid to late 70s, is its prescient focus on the dual obsessions of sex and death. “I’m beginning to think cancer is contagious,” one character writes to another early on. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, about the same time a group of New York doctors started treating young gay men for kaposi’s sarcoma; they published their research three years later, in 1981. I’m sure the “contagious cancer” reference is merely a literary flourish on Holleran’s part, but I still remember my shock on first reading it long ago.

Leavitt’s point, and it’s a fair one, in criticising Dancer from the Dance was that gay men do not just live the sorts of lives Malone and Sutherland lead – trawling clubs and parks and saunas for sex, on their knees in train station dunnies, obsessing about their looks and their dicks. For many gay men this is and was as far from their reality is it would be for a straight married dude. Leavitt wanted to illustrate that through the anthology of stories he edited, and he succeeded. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories was not the first collection of its kind, but its publication in 1994 did feel like a bit of a watershed moment. And it’s a terrific collection, taking in legends like Isherwood and Forster,Edmund White and Larry Kramer, as well as a handful of straight writers who were happy to write about gay characters (Ann Beattie, William Trevor – although Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband, funny as it is, jars a little with the slightly homophobic depiction of a predatory gay couple). It also contains some devastating stories about AIDS, including one by Kiwi writer Peter Wells. There are a few misfires, most obviously some of the irritating pomo guff from the late 80s and early 90s, but for the most part re-reading this collection was a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Leavitt’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, inhabits a very different New York to Dancer from the Dance. it was published in 1986 and while it’s not a novel “about” AIDS the risk of illness and death hovers over the lives of the gay characters. Most obviously, though, it depicts a reality about the lives of most gay men that is almost completely absent from Holleran’s vision; gay men might be gay, but they are also members of families, sons, brothers, sometimes even husbands and fathers. Bars, clubs and sex are aspects of their lives, but they’re not central. As such it was quite refreshing after the dusky murk of Holleran’s (albeit slyly mocking) gay Gotham. And while it might sound irrational there’s something wonderfully rewarding about the lack of resolution at story’s end – all of the storylines, and the characters themselves, are to some extent left in limbo. We’re left to imagine their fate for ourselves.

It was a bit of a relief to re-read these, books I first read in my 20s, and not be disappointed. They are excellent books, and I’m glad I chose to spend my time reading them rather than hoeing into the cab merlot by mid-morning.

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