Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Andrew Holleran Below Sea Level

I do not admire him just because his newly published first novel, given to me thirty years ago by an older priest, instantly became my bible, guidebook and lexicon. I admire him because his writing is of the sort that demands to be read aloud. I place him among those authors (William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Allison, and, most recently, Andrew O’Hagan) who know how to couple words so that their progression feels as good as their meaning. I have always felt that his writing has cadence and music meant to be performed, and I do love to recite him. (Just ask my husband.) That is also why I moaned my objection when he told me that Dancer from the Dance has been movie optioned. “They’ll never get it right” I wailed. Remember Robert Redford as Gatsby trying to say “old sport”?

In the minutes before contacting Andrew Holleran, I zenned myself into the proper frame of mind by focusing on the fact that everything a man builds is a partial replica of himself in its intention, design and functionality. Consider the pushy but stumblish American car, rabid capitalism and the frustrating and vulnerable hard drives of our computers. The six books of Andrew Holleran, what do they show us of the design and current condition of that man’s heart? And now that his heart is a survivor and an elder among the gay literary gladiators, has it changed? Is it stony? Black? Hidebound? Relaxed? Mournful? Bitter? Curious? Sedated? Dormant? Malleable? I had to know this. Curious about the man so obviously lurking within his own words and yet so meticulously invisible, I rang him up, having received his gracious assurance of an interview.

While his telephone rang, I felt uneasy, thinking that once I heard his voice I might want to retreat, as should have Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, having gone upstream beyond help and flanked by heads on spears in some nightmarish jungle only to find his quarry mumbling about the horror over the voodooish backdrop of blaring hard rock.

Throughout our conversation, I detected no chaotic music in the background, no painted faces, no smell of napalm in the morning. I do believe that one can see with clairvoyance into a strange room via the ordinary telephone by listening to that which one does not hear. I did not detect the echo of a large lacquered salon. Andrew Holleran seemed unnursed by television or small yappy dog. He seemed not to be preparing or swallowing food. He seemed not to be self-medicating or engineering inebriation (no tinkling ice or lighter flicks, and I guess that tells you much about the type of folks with whom I usually converse). I did get the impression that his eyes probably blink while he speaks disciplined by a traditional phone tethered to an outlet that does not facilitate multi-tasking. I had the distinct impression that he was, while speaking, looking through a large window at some greenscape that might apron his home and translate public to private movement. He did confirm that our chat might be concluded by the arrival of a friend and that until such time, he would be free. I decided that the friend was a fiction, the time of whose arrival would determine my success or failure at entertaining him or at least making him willing to participate in an unpredictable production.

We talked for more than two hours.

During that time, he very carefully derailed my intentions and in subsequent email, he wondered how I could have gotten anything out of a conversation in which I did most of the talking and he the listening.

Well, Andrew Holleran, there are clever ways to probe the truth of a man. Trained by the Vatican, I am particularly fond of that strain of diplomacy practiced by Pope John XXIII. In the company of heads of state, he’d prattle on with what seemed like the silly gossip of an air-headed old man, all the while shrewdly observant and calculated in his white cassock (like Lieutenant Columbo in his white trench coat?) extracting what he wanted to know from his visitors. Rather than rely on the visibilities of those with whom he conversed (think the digital eyeball read-outs of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator), he would simply slog on disarmingly, but with better take-home.

I’ll make no hiding of the fact that I have always wanted to know his heart. Maybe this is because his brilliant Dancer from the Dance hit me at time in my life when I was exactly as old as its characters and full of the same yearning for love and all its distracting handmaidens: sex, style, the city, beauty, security, music. I told him that when I first read that book, I kept slamming it shut, frustrated by the fact that I knew – and had always known – that those men, the ones who populate it, were living somewhere in New York City, and that they were my natural family, and that as a princess sheltered in Connecticut, I didn’t know how to find them. My New York compass contained Bloomingdales, Sacks 5th Avenue and Grand Central Station and some vague marking of a distant place called Christopher Street.

Where others reviewed the book as a cruel skewering of sad, frivolous, glib and urbane gay men on drugs surrendering their youth to lust, I felt the opposite. That these were the champions of love, and that someday both they and love itself would find me, and that it would be in the person of Malone or one of his Puerto Rican angels or the Midwestern heir to a grain fortune.

I decided not to bother asking Andrew Holleran about this. Only a daffy TV personality would wonder whether or not Andrew Holleran loved or pitied or despised his characters. Of course he loved them. He was one of them. He danced with them, he yearned for romance and happiness with them.

He did everything but die with them.

This I needed to know: is Andrew Holleran’s heart a shipwreck, crisping in the harsh sun of that beach of gasping old men? Is it sclerotic with the deaths of others? Is he all just Flores para los muertos, wandering his own private necropolis as some have claimed after having read his Grief?

I decided that the best way to see his heart in action would be to put the body of God on the table between us, offer Andrew Holleran a weapon, and see what he’d do with it. I ventured the fact that many of my gay friends no longer believe in God. Some are adamant atheists. How about you, Andrew Holleran? Do you pray? If so, what for? Do you think you will see your friends again, those whom you have lost?

As do I, he began painting his response with the caution that what we might pine for ought to be understood as different from what actually happens to us when we die. I agree with this distinction. My vision, on a good day, is of a welcoming god surrounded by old friends, in a Maxfield Parrish setting. On a more realistic day, there is only the waiting vacuity. He resolved the question with his overriding suspicion that there is actually nothing beyond the grave, and that if that nothing includes god, we ought to question the merit of prayers that might be continued simply because they make us feel good.

His voice was spirited and jovial throughout our conversation, and at times, he hooted with laughter when we spoke of the old days, of our ways at the baths, of our times in New York, of our having become startlingly older and knowing that you should not often revisit those places you once loved too well.

Via email, I pursued the business of God and death with five questions:

1) What does one live for, if one doesn't believe in god or an
afterlife the quality of which is determined by our performance on earth?

AH: I think we live simply because we have been brought to life, and simply staying awake as long as we can to find out why is reason enough - which to me is the worst part about death, the cessation of the possibility of knowing.

2) What does one live for if one is single with no foreseeable change to that status, or, single and making no effort to change that status?

AH: I don't think you need to be partnered to enjoy or love life, or to have an effect on other people, or to be a good citizen. There are times when I do think living by yourself, and, certainly, for yourself, is totally pointless, but, I think single people contribute to life as much as anybody else. There are so many ways of loving, and things one can love.

3) There seemed to be happiness in your voice. What is the source of it, or did I read your voice incorrectly?

AH: I suspect happiness is temperamental, or at least gusto is. I have known people who should be so depressed given the blows they have sustained but are unfailingly cheerful, and I know people who should be happy, given their circumstances, and are depressed. I love Lincoln's line: A man is about as happy as he makes his mind up to be. You know there are people at Harvard and no doubt other places studying happiness. and one theory is that people have a sort of fixed temperature to which they always return, no matter what happens to them - like a thermostat.

4) I'm almost done with the two "f" decades. (I barely remember the two "t" decades.) You are in the "s" decades. What is that like? What do you hope will happen when you get out of bed?

AH: It's not when you get out of bed - there's always a sense of renewal then - it's waking up in the middle of the night that you face some dark truths. but then the sun comes up - and you want to take another crack at it, though feeling that way I suppose refers back to the answer to the previous question.

5) I see that at the Literary Festival in Fort Lauderdale you'll be reading something from work in progress. Because I won't be there to hear it, will you tell me anything about what you are working on, or about what you will read?

AH: I am pretty sure I'll read a short story I have not published, and I've got so many of those, I'm looking through them now like someone examining her closet wondering what to wear.
p.s. These questions (above) are all so serious, it's refreshing to know someone else cares about them, but the joke is you're the one who should be answering them, not me!

Upon reading his final answer, I wondered if those unpublished stories hang somewhere between the two extremes of Dancer from the Dance and Grief, or are they living in a space beyond them. That remains part of what I did not see or hear of Andrew Holleran. A little bit of mystery dangled from his free hand just out of reach of the phone held in his other hand. If I could have reached through that phone, I certainly would have.

Near the end of our conversation, I said things without premeditation. I heard myself ask him why men build cities like New Orleans and countries like the Netherlands below sea level where the ocean can and will surprise them by rushing in and wiping out all their inefficient defenses. Washing everything clean. Dissembling the structures old and new. Exposing the secrets of attics and dark cellars. Erasing the venerable and the dreadful. Filling up the empty spaces. He answered by saying that the question had merit, but he avoided giving an opinion and in his evasion, and by dint of the immediately evoked arrival of his friend, I heard the answer to my real question about him.

I do not think that Andrew Holleran is safely above the possibility that someday he may be inundated by someone who will love him madly. He may someday be delighted by some new assignment discovered at a bend in his maze. I think that despite his weatherproof quotidian veil, he is un pays bas built on sand that might be easily swamped. I think he is an applecart holding to the smooth pavement but available for the upsetting. I hope that someday someone wonderful and valiant comes along to wreck and renew him, and selfishly, I hope that he will write about it.

Andrew Holleran is the author of

• Dancer from the Dance (1978)
• Nights in Aruba (1983)
• Ground Zero, essays (1988)
• The Beauty of Men (1996)
• In September, The Light Changes, stories (1999)
• Grief: a Novel (2006)

When I asked him if he might consider writing about Malone (the central character in Dancer from the Dance) thirty years older, maybe married, divorced, with two grown sons, living in Madison, Wisconsin and looking like the silver-haired and bespectacled Richard Gere, Andrew Holleran said “No.”


chamblee54 said...

1-This gives you an easy post...answer those questions, as AH (love those intials) suggested. I may even take the liberty of answering them at my own blog.
2- Isn't Holleran a pen name? Did you find out his "real" name, or is that of any interest?
3- I didn't hear about "Dancer from the Dance" until sometime in the early nineties. This is despite the fact that I was living a Southern Gothic version of this tale in 1978. But, I heard about DFTD, and went looking. Several bookstores did not know what I was talking about. Finally, I found it in the books of someone I was helping move. A few days later, it was on the twenty five cent shelf at the neighborhood bookstore.
4- Sea Level is where all the elements come together. The concept of a man/city/country in that place is the sort of thing that makes philosophers goofy.

Sam said...

Padre - loved, loved, loved your post. Do you have a trasncription of the entire interview available? What brought about the interview?

I've met him a couple of times at dinners and at a party, and I was warned that he's just really very very shy. But he wasnt -- sort of. All my admiration for his books was deftly deflected by all kinds of questions about myself. He seemed very good at protecting himself by probing others.

A mutual friend says he was known as Garbo, for his reclusiveness as well as for the play on his name. The same mutual friend describes Dancer as a "Gatsby novel," and indeed, all the touchstones and clues were there, upon rereading. I'll never tire of reading it, I think. I cannot imagine Malone living for a sequel, you know.

Have you ever read David Leavitt's weird condemnation of Dancer from the Dance? In a forward to some anthology. Michael Schwartz tore him to pieces in Harvard Lesbian and Gay Review. Worth hunting down.

I wonder if maybe you should write a book of essays?


Birdie said...

If, in fact, Mr. Holleran is still capable of being taken by surprise, still open to newness and being swept clean and rebuilt by love, then it would be indeed be worth reading about it. Perhaps you would find in his story a likeminded soul. It is a generous wish for him.

Your interview succeeds marvelously in tantalizing your readers to become his readers if they are not already. And those questions? Yes, you should answer them. For your readers.

Tony Adams said...

I had forgotten all about that David L savagery. I've got it somewhere in some box and will have to have husband bring it into NYC.

I don't have a transcription of the interview which followed your own engagement, as I did most of the talking, but he is completely entertaining and cordial and spirited.

He can't be any more shy than I am.

R J Keefe said...

How could you ask that last question? Malone died with Sutherland, in the most romantic death since Tristan: virtually at the Everard Baths.

Stop me before I start typing passages....

Tony Adams said...

Dear RJ,
Type what passages you will, for I am always curious about which lines are impressed most strongly on others, but characters come back from the dead every day. Look at Jesus.

dpaste said...

I thoroughly respect Holleran as an avatar of gay fiction writers. However, while his style is excellent, his writing has never thematically resonated with me. I just don't enjoy his stories.

Spouse Walker said...

He reminds me of the surface of the ocean. He seems to be flexible in that he does not commit completely to a cemented belief system. I think your approach at interviewing is very entertaining.

edfu said...

"Andrew Holleran" is indeed a pseudonym. His real name, now public knowledge, is Eric Garber. And he is indisputably one of the greatest gay writers of the last hundred years.


Tony Adams said...

Dear edfu,
I've never been interested in those kinds of details. I did, however want to hear his voice.
The funny thing was, I didn't know whether to call him Andrew or Eric, so I simply didn't use either.

Anonymous said...

ok well i'm friends with another Queen of the Quill, Ed White, and oh the anecdotes! The sex ain't bad either.

Tony Adams said...

Dear Anonymous friend of EW,
email me. There's a specific challenge to a relationship with a writer that's worth exploring. Men who write can be difficult to converse with, to be friends with, to live with , or to, as you mention, have sex with. They don't mean to be difficult, but....
use the fathertony@bilerico address.

The Milkman said...

There are lots of Malones living here in Madison, usually bespectacled. They often live on the east side, drive Subarus, have gray ponytails with receding hairlines, and use canvas Earth-friendly shopping bags when they buy fair trade coffee and organic veggies and tofu at the Willy Street co-op, but I digress.

I loved Dancer from the Dance, but was riveted by the author's use of the real-life tragedy at the Everard baths in his narrative. I've always suspected that my final moments on this earth would be spent in flagrante delicto at the baths. That hit a little close to home for me, so I had a cocktail and talked myself down...

What lovely and unexpected questions you offered.

Plattsburgh said...

These are only my opinions (obviously): and I didn't live through the era of Dancer, (well, I lived then, but not as a gay adult man), but I find Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano to be one-note, uninteresting, narrowly focused writers. Crucify me for having such thoughts. But these guys cashed in, in my opinion, on an emerging gay identity and played to the orchestra, balcony and nosebleed seats, successfully and probably profitably. Beyond that, they are overrated and not great pratcitioners of good literature. Here are the nails, the cross is over there....

Tony Adams said...

Dear Plattsburgh,

I think Andrew Holleran is an excellent writer.

Many years ago, someone gave me a Felice Picano novel. I started it, and after a few pages, I put it down.