GLR September-October 2022

A Novelist of Moods

O F THE GROUP of remarkable writers who made up the so called Violet Quill in the early ’80s, Andrew Holleran is per haps the nicest. Without either the literary panache of Edmund White or the versatile stamina of Felice Picano, he has written a number of novels that chart the progress of a certain sort of white, cis gay male

meanings in many Hollywood classics. Earl introduces the narrator to both Holly wood and operatic greats as he sinks slowly into oblivion, cared for in his final years by a vaguely sinister “handyman” who remains too opaque to be a satisfac tory villain. Rather than telling a story, Holleran’s great ability is to evoke emotion and em


THE KINGDOM OF SAND by Andrew Holleran Farrar, Straus and Giroux 272 pages, $27.

pathy. As Christopher Bram wrote of his first, much acclaimed novel Dancer from the Dance : “[It is] a scrapbook of mood pieces that shouldn’t work as a novel, but it does, the moods are so perfectly rendered that they are enough.” The Kingdom of Sand has less variation in mood than Dancer , and at times it is unnecessarily repetitive, but Bram’s comment remains appo site. Holleran has not lost his ability to convey deep emotions and conjure vivid landscapes, but he paints on a small canvas,

world since the halcyon days of his youth, before the AIDS epidemic seemed to end the promises of gay liberation in the 1970s. Whereas White and Picano are both charming and outgo ing, Holleran has always been withdrawn, even melancholic. (The other four writers who comprised the Violet Quill are long dead, all fromAIDS.) The Kingdom of Sand —a smarter reader than I might be able to explain the title—is a book without a

and the book flags as the same themes recur in slightly shifting form. In some ways he could be compared to a pointil list author writing at a time that demands greater ambition, novels that transcend the purely domestic minutiae of slowly de caying bodies. Like Edmund White in his most re cent book, A Previous Life , Holleran has turned to the novel to explore the dusk of aging. Unlike White, he is not ostensibly his own protagonist, although there are clearly autobiographical elements in the book. But while White delights in snob bery, satire, and self-mockery, Holleran remains consistently depressed, with his evocation of the sort of lonely old age that was assumed to doom homosexuals fifty or more years ago, when our very exis tence was assumed to be a crime, an ill ness, a sin, or at best a type of deviance. The assumption that aging and loneli ness are somehow inextricably linked is central to this book, but that link is surely less connected with one’s sexuality than The Kingdom of Sand suggests. I’m sure there are many isolated and scared homo sexuals in Middle America, but Holleran’s narrator seems remarkably unaware of the extent to which social and legal attitudes have changed, despite those frequent visits to Washington. Not to have someone wait ing for you at home, a theme that recurs through the book, is hardly a particular ho mosexual experience. Social isolation of the old is a common complaint in all wealthy societies, and I would be dismayed

traditional plot, and only a writer with Holleran’s skills could manage to hold his readers without the conventional twists and surprises of most novels. From the outset we are warned that this is a media tion on death and dying, in which there will be few incidents and the only sur prises will be those brought on by the human body’s frailty. The narrator of the book is a lonely gay man in his sixties, living in a small town near Gainesville in that part of Florida that is redeemed neither by South ern charm nor by tropical eroticism. He spends some of his time in Washington, D.C., although we learn more about the difficulty of driving to the Jacksonville Airport than about his life in D.C. Back home, he is essentially a recluse, living in his deceased parents’ home, unable to shake off their memory. He has one close friend, Earl, a somewhat older gay man whose decline and death gives some struc ture to the story. The friends seem to have met through frequenting a nearby cruising spot, al though the one explicit reference to sex in the book explains why the narrator finds pornography a more satisfying outlet. They spend many evenings watching old movies, described with a relish that recalls film historian Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet , which revealed the hidden gay Dennis Altman is a professorial fellow in human security at La Trobe University in Bun doora, Australia. 34

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