Like many teachers, the main character of Andrew Holleran’s new novel, Grief, finds it difficult to get a rise out of his students—even in a college-level seminar on literature and AIDS. One day, he decides to try some provocation: “AIDS is over,” he announces during a writing workshop. “At least in this country—it had its cultural moment and produced some art….It galvanized the nation for a brief period, but that moment is past. There is still no cure, and people are still going to die, and it interferes with sex, but when the public learned that it was not going to affect them, that it was mainly a gay disease, it moved on.”
“The faces round the table faced me with a glassy blankness,” observes the nameless narrator. “I didn’t know if they knew I was being ironic—or if I knew myself.”
The same problem will probably face many of Grief’s readers. It certainly will if they know Holleran as the author of 1978’s Dancer From the Dance, a sexually charged evocation of Manhattan’s youth-worshipping gay subculture that’s considered a classic of post-Stonewall literature. Or if they know him as a founder of the Violet Quill, a Greenwich Village–based writing group that in the early ’80s created a set of principles for the uncompromising treatment of gay subject matter. Or if they’ve read his previous novel, 1996’s The Beauty of Men, about a middle-aged gay man who’s fled from the AIDS-wracked necropolis of New York to a town in North Florida to nurse both his dying mother and his survivor’s guilt.
“The danger is of becoming stuffy or proud of having lived through it,” Holleran says. “I can see that being a problem. It doesn’t make you a better person or give you any kind of superior knowledge. But I think it did give people an experience that may be slightly useful or deeper.”
Though Grief’s title ostensibly refers to the death of the narrator’s mother, the work is haunted at every turn by the lingering consequences of the AIDS outbreak. During a chat in Dupont Circle, one character tells the protagonist, a gay man in his early 60s living in Washington, “You don’t know what D.C. was like during the eighties. Funerals, funerals, funerals! I got my suntan one summer just from standing in Rock Creek Cemetery. I used to think the eighties were like a very nice dinner party with friends, except some of them were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating.”
For Holleran, whose fiction has always been deeply personal, the book mirrors the arc of his own life: He moved to Washington five years ago, following the death of his mother in Florida and an invitation from a longtime friend, poet and novelist Richard McCann, to teach a writing class at American University. In D.C., the 62-year-old Dupont Circle resident found new subject matter: first-generation AIDS survivors growing old, the years of death largely behind them.
At American, it became increasingly apparent to the first-time teacher that gay fiction—what he once thought of as a new “minority literature”—has lost some of its cultural frisson. “Sometimes I get annoyed when things are accepted too easily,” he says. “That’s a strange reaction in this culture—nothing is going to be offensive. That would be uncool, unsophisticated.” So what to write about now? Where should gay fiction go next? “What’s wrong with admitting that it has an end point,” Holleran asks, “that it can’t be anymore the way it used to be because the cultural conditions have vanished?
“It sounds like I’m saying, ‘I had my little moment and nobody else can,’ and I don’t mean to say that at all,” he adds. “But one does sense that there was a moment in which [gay fiction] was transgressive and it’s not anymore. And so it becomes a variation on another bourgeois novel about modern life.”
Holleran came to terms with his homosexuality as a soldier stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, during the Vietnam era. “I was picked for the office I was assigned to by a queen who recognized that I was gay,” he remembers. “And one night, I got drunk and they took me downtown to my first gay bar. It was a very happy time. There were, like, eight or nine people in my barracks that I eventually became aware of. We had our own table in the enlisted-men’s club.”
Before the Army, Holleran had enjoyed a fairly bucolic upper-middle-class existence. The son of an oil-company executive, he spent most of his childhood in a company town on the Caribbean island of Aruba. His family relocated to the suburbs just outside of Gainesville, Fla., while he was in high school, but Holleran soon moved on to boarding school in New Hampshire, then to Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Nelson Algren, Kurt Vonnegut, and José Donoso.
After his military service, Holleran briefly tried going to law school at the University of Pennsylvania and then moved to New York, where he began to horde the experiences that would inform Dancer From the Dance. He enjoyed some early success when, in 1971, the New Yorker accepted his short story “The Holy Family.” Published under Holleran’s given name, Eric Garber, it concerns what he calls “a depressed Thanksgiving in a nuclear family.”
“I guess I was looking back,” he says. “It’s an example of the transition between the generations of gay writers who had been successfully able to transmute their gay feelings and perceptions into straight characters and the time when we no longer did that.”
Dancer was something different: It trafficked openly and graphically in gay sex, without euphemism or sentimentality. After its publication, Holleran enjoyed the kind of reception that most first-time novelists wouldn’t dare hope for: The New Republic and the New York Times gave favorable notices. Holleran was recognized and pointed out at parties. And once, in a gay bar on Christopher Street, the epicenter of the scene Dancer describes, he saw the names of the novel’s two main characters scrawled on the bathroom wall. “That,” he says, “was the biggest thrill.”
Not long after the publication of Dancer, Holleran and such like-minded authors as Christopher Cox, Felice Picano, and Edmund White co-founded the Violet Quill. Though the group lacked the formality of a school, there were, Picano remembers, “agreed-upon principles” for writing about gay subjects. “We would have to write about sex,” he says, “and it would have to form an open and integral part of any gay literature. It was a very conscious decision.”
As Picano remembers, the central problem at the time was that even gay writers thought that writing gay material was a waste of time. “All these little dime-store paperback books written for the gay man on the street: Keypunch Queen, elevator-boys-in-bondage books—this was the idea to most people of what a gay book was, if it wasn’t outright porno,” he says. “Our idea was that we could write literary books to reflect people who were living the gay life.”
Before long, though, gay life became all about AIDS. Picano estimates that he lost 80 to 90 percent of his gay acquaintances during the late ’80s and early ’90s, including four of the seven members of the Violet Quill. “It was literally a war zone, with the wounded and dying all around us,” he says.
On top of the crushing grief and fear that Holleran and his colleagues faced was a fairly serious artistic question: Could they continue to write fiction in the face of such carnage—and if so, how? “What made us go on,” Picano says, “was the fact that there had been plague-year writings of great importance—for instance, [Daniel] Dafoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. That showed us that we had a responsibility to at least be historically accurate about what we were doing.”
Holleran’s second novel, 1983’s Nights in Aruba, portrayed the hangover from the hedonistic party that was the late ’70s of Dancer, but it was written before the plague had gathered strength. Ground Zero, a 1988 collection of essays, was Holleran’s first sustained response to AIDS. Eight years later, The Beauty of Men picked up the thread of Holleran’s own biography. A decade on, Grief picks it up again.
Indeed, when discussing his latest protagonist, Holleran occasionally lapses into “I” before correcting himself and referring to “my character.” For both, D.C. is a city of docents, amateur historians, and a breed of monied, aging gay man Holleran calls the “homosexual emeritus.” It’s an admittedly duller demographic than the “doomed queen” that figures in much of Dancer—but it’s also one closer to Holleran himself. The life he described in his first novel, which included enough domestic violence and drug use to kill most people, was not exactly the one that he led.
“Writers only need a little bit of that to wax eloquent about it,” he says. “The really hard-core people who gave up their lives to drugs and going out—a lot of those people are not around. Writers tend to be kind of removed and cautious. The people who wrote about it sampled enough to know the life but didn’t lose themselves in it.”
In Grief, the main character’s understanding of sorrow and repentance is filtered through his discovery of a book of the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln. Written during her long and impoverished travels after she left the White House, they are by turns selfishly dramatic, self-abnegating, and optimistic. Like his character, Holleran found a copy of the letters in his rented room shortly after moving to Washington.
“I was immediately drawn into them,” he says. In the course of completing Grief, he ended up reading several biographies of the former first lady and paying a visit to the Library of Congress to read the letters’ originals. Holleran’s character similarly tracks Lincoln all over the city—to Ford’s Theatre, to the museum that played host to one of her inaugural balls, to the Smithsonian, where some of her gowns are on view.
For McCann, a Washington native, this morbid landscape reflects “the view of a grief-stricken person newly arrived.” But it isn’t too far removed from the real D.C.: “The glamour from Dancer is not present in the way Washington is portrayed,” he says, “because you’d be hard-pressed to find it to put it in.”
Before Washington became Holleran’s land of homosexual loss and senescence, however, it played a bit part in his early success. In Dancer, driven young attorney Malone begins the tale with only a dim awareness of his sexuality. He’s living in the District, and he develops a crush on a young gardener hired at the house where he’s rooming. When the boy leaves for college, Malone experiences a totally unexpected sense of loss.
“He drove around that wilderness of gas stations and fast-food franchises that surrounds Washington as once the armies of the Confederacy had,” Holleran writes, “drove around in that crimson glow of doughnut shops and new-car showrooms, in which all things, cars, faces, bodies, gleam with an unworldly night, and he kept driving—until he came to Dupont Circle and there he stopped and got out under the green trees and met a man and went into the park and blew him.”
Reminded of this scene, Holleran says that when he wrote it, he had been to Washington only as a childhood tourist. He plucked the Dupont Circle reference from the “ambient zeitgeist” of the homosexual underground. If he were writing the scene today, he allows, he never would have had Malone simply park in the middle of the circle.
“The point I was trying to make initially was that Malone was completely middle-class and doing everything that was expected of someone of his sort, and Washington seemed to express that,” Holleran says. “To be honest, since living here and seeing the herds of young people in my building whom I watch coming and going, I still think it’s true.”CP