NEW YORK, NY.-
Death has always been on Andrew Hollerans mind.
It loomed over the shame and hedonism of Dancer From the Dance, his 1978 debut novel and one of the most famous works of gay literature, and has pervaded his books since: A small body of work traces the arc of life.
At 77, and releasing his first novel in more than 15 years, Holleran feels as if he has reached the end of the arc, he said in a recent interview. So its appropriate that in The Kingdom of Sand out Tuesday from Farrar, Straus & Giroux death is the subject.
But isnt everyone obsessed with death? Holleran, whose real name is Eric Garber, asked during a video call from his home near Gainesville, Florida. We all think about the transitory nature of life.
The Kingdom of Sand follows a natural thematic progression for him. After Dancer came the ambivalent adulthood of Nights in Aruba (1983), the AIDS crisis loneliness of The Beauty of Men (1996) and the parental loss of Grief (2006). Now, Holleran has written a novel preoccupied with twilight and letting go, while doubling as a portrait of place, assembled from sketches of life in Florida. At its core is the account of a late-in-life friendship between the unnamed narrator and an elusive older man named Earl, whose protracted death takes up the bulk of the book.
If Grief was a farewell to the generation of Hollerans parents, said Will Schwalbe, Hollerans editor, here, theres this feeling that were up next.
Few have examined loss with the lyricism and sensitive observation that have been hallmarks of Hollerans novels. Larry Kramer, author and prickly luminary of AIDS activism who died in 2020, once called him the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway of gay literature, but for one thing: He writes better than both of them.
Thats an opinion most likely to come from a gay reader, though. Critics and publishers, often with more than a whiff of homophobia, were slow to acknowledge and appreciate chroniclers of gay life such as Holleran. As recently as Grief, a reviewer for The New York Times wrote that his books can seem so determined to speak for their disenfranchised gay characters that the works become inaccessible to anyone else.
Holleran unlike, say, Truman Capote or Gore Vidal in the generation before him has never tailored his writing to a straight audience. Fire Island culture is described without context; camp and cruising are a given. But his works are inarguably literature, said Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels in America.
Beyond the clarity that lives alongside a musicality in Hollerans novels, Kushner said, is a universality redolent of Fitzgerald, as Kramer claimed.
Fitzgerald is also a writer about loss; theres this sense with both of people inhabiting something thats already disappeared, he said. One of the first things I remember about Dancer From the Dance is that it lands on the notion that all of us are self-invented people, and that behind that is a difficult and somewhat concealed past, as if in coming out, theres a reverse closeting thats very Fitzgeraldian.
Even if that point hasnt always registered with a wide audience, Holleran has meant an immense deal to gay people of all ages. Its not unusual to see a Fire Island neophyte clutching a copy of Dancer on the ferry from Sayville, New York, as if reading it were a rite of passage.
Andrew really is the standard-bearer of taking all of our wayward contemporary gay desires and internal melodramas and making them not only legible but beautiful, said William Johnson, program director of PEN Across America and former deputy director of Lambda Literary. I think that is why young folks are still so drawn to him and his work. It is his ability to make our gay feelings so evocative.
Holleran didnt set out to establish such a reputation. The material of Dancer arose from a moment of frustration. By his late 20s, he was a Master of Fine Arts graduate with one published story to his name. Youd better quit now and get a real job, he recalled thinking. But at the time, he was away from New York City for a stretch and writing really campy letters to a friend there. Andrew is a master of the art of a letter, Schwalbe said.
From that correspondence, themes emerged: elegiac thoughts about gay life and desire. And a version of those letters became the epistolary framing for the novel, which came together in only three months. (Now, Holleran said, it takes forever.) He didnt think much of the finished product, but one day, when he was back in the city at the West Side YMCA, Kramer approached him and said, I heard you wrote a book, and offered to give it to his agent.
Before Dancer was published, Holleran adopted the nom de plume he uses to this day. I didnt care who knew I was gay, he said, but I worried about my parents. The last name came first, from an old school acquaintance, and Andrew was a boy he used to visit because of his fabulous comic book collection.
Dancer was released the same year as Kramers brazen satire, Faggots; both were cautionary tales about the moth-to-flame nature of gay nightlife, and both reach their climax on Fire Island. But where Kramer was polemical, Holleran was poetic more quietly political, Kushner said, but political nevertheless as a pioneer in literature for a post-Stonewall age.
I dont believe that Larrys work was inferior in any way, Kushner said, but in Dancer theres a certain sense of confusion about how a community is formed out of this particularly crooked timber of humanity, which I think was a big question back then.
Holleran was surprised by the attention that the book received. Today, Johnson said, it amounts to our Catcher in the Rye, the book you read when youre young. But since the publication of Dancer, Holleran has been more talked about than seen. Widely described as likable, quite funny and seemingly immune to literary feuds, he is also intensely shy. He was relieved to learn that the pandemic would limit the amount of publicity hed have to do for The Kingdom of Sand.
Edmund White, a fellow elder statesman of gay literature and, like Holleran, a member of the Violet Quill, an informal collective during the 1970s called him rabbity. Hell kind of appear and then disappear, White said. And if you get too close to him, he gets kind of nervous. In New York, he was very much part of the Fire Island scene, and I used to see him years ago at the gay baths. But he wouldnt be having sex; he would just observe.
Over the decades, Holleran dipped in and out of the city, on his terms. His family had moved to Florida in the early 1960s, to the small town outside Gainesville where he lives now. We never understood why my father chose this place, he said. But Ive been here off and on ever since. Its a long time; for Florida, thats like three ice ages.
He had also built a life as a writing teacher at American University in Washington a very married city, as he described it, where he mostly just went to the National Gallery of Art and the gym but the pandemic has lately kept him limited to Florida. He could have left permanently at any time before that, but he never did. Writing The Kingdom of Sand, he said, was something of an exercise in figuring out a reason.
I dont think the book tells me why, Holleran said. But I couldnt quite sever the ties.
In The Kingdom of Sand, he conjures the flatness of Florida and remarks that you know youve been in the state too long when you no longer go to the beach. It is also an environment that he portrays as marked by decay. He refers to Gainesville as a city of hospitals, nursing homes, and crematoria. We live on, he said, as the things we give away, such as a lamp of Earls that takes on the role of a memorial.
Amid those observations, Hollerans protagonist reckons with the bodily changes of old age. These characters, he said, are post-sex. Instead, they mostly watch movies. Death, in the case of Earl, can be a banal, slow decline. There is a uniquely gay shame in relying on the help of others, yet worrying that an unreturned call from a handyman is an act of homophobia.
What drives me in what I write, Holleran said, is to write the thing that is not being said. You always want to write a book where you get everything out. But the downside of that is: What do you do next?
Its possible that lifes arc extends beyond The Kingdom of Sand. Holleran said he is neither that old nor young. And if theres more to write, its about the pleasure rather than the pain of his age.
Of course theres panic and serious thinking about how to die, he said. But theres also the desire to remain in life and continue enjoying its wonders. Its a combination of high anxiety and tranquility and pleasure in small things.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times