The Beauty of Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Lark is a sophisticated New Yorker stuck in provincial northern Florida since his mother became completely paralyzed in a household accident twelve years before. He visits her at the nursing home, where he wheels her around the corridors or sits at her bedside watching television shows such as Murder, She Wrote and Jeopardy. On weekends, he brings his mother to their family home and takes care of her like an infant. During his free time, he tries to pursue what seems to be his only interest—“cruising” for sexual encounters with other homosexuals.

Lark does most of his cruising by automobile on the highways and back roads between Gainesville and Jacksonville. Much of this slow- paced, autobiographical novel consists of flashbacks to the gay life his hero led in Manhattan. Lark is haunted by memories of friends and lovers who died of what homosexuals generally refer to as “the plague” (AIDS—the acquired immune deficiency syndrome epidemic), a horrible aftermath to the gay liberation movement of the 1970’s.

There is a sharp contrast between cosmopolitan New York of the past and still largely agrarian northern Florida of the present. Andrew Holleran (the pseudonym of an author who remains unidentified even after publishing three novels and a collection of essays) has a special talent for evoking a sense of place. His technical virtuosity is evident in his ability to interweave contrasting scenes, especially scenes of past and present.

In contrast to the permissive atmosphere of the Lower East Side Manhattan of Lark’s spring of hope, he finds Florida homosexuals a furtive minority harassed by police and hated by the “straight” majority. “We’re like roaches, he thinks; we’re a problem in pest control. We find a place to gather, we gather, they notice us, they eradicate. Gather, eradicate; gather, eradicate.”

In addition to scenes of gay Manhattan and scenes of the rudimentary gay life of northern Florida, Holleran paints many scenes of life in a nursing home. Lark’s mother can do nothing but lie in bed in whatever position she has been placed. She has to beg to have an arm moved or a fly brushed away from her forehead. Her life seems hardly better than no life at all. She often wishes she were dead. The nursing home is not a house of horrors by any means, but the staff is overworked, underpaid, and inured to the suffering they see every day. They often handle patients roughly. Paralyzed elders sometimes sit staring at the wall because no one thought to turn their wheelchairs around. Intelligent men and women may be forced to watch idiotic animated cartoons on television because no one bothered to switch channels.

Lark’s mother literally lives for her son’s visits. He knows she wonders why he has never married. On one occasion she asks him directly if he is a homosexual, and he quickly replies, “Of course not.” He realizes to his chagrin that if he was ever going to “come out” to his mother, he has waited far too long. In spite of his best intentions, he frequently becomes impatient and handles her with the same hostile efficiency she is accustomed to at the nursing home. He cannot bring himself to admit that he is waiting for her to die.

Being in enforced daily contact with the most decrepit segment of the population only adds to the depression Lark feels in his exile from Manhattan. At the same time, he realizes that the Manhattan he knew has become “a vast cemetery” because of the plague. He realizes he would probably be dead himself if his mother’s condition had not forced him to move to Florida.

The only motivation that keeps this intensely subjective, almost claustrophobic narrative creeping forward is Lark’s obsession with a suntanned young construction worker with whom he once shared a single night of ecstasy. Becker is living in a straitlaced little town with his junior-high-school-aged daughter and trying to blend into the community for her sake. Although it becomes obvious that the younger man was only interested in a one-night fling, Lark refuses to accept this unflattering truth. Like many homosexuals, he lives in a world of illusions, dreaming of the ideal lover that most gay men will never find.

One of the many cruel paradoxes of homosexuality is that gay men are not often attracted to men like themselves but are looking for that elusive, almost mythical individual—the really masculine man who happens to prefer men to women as lovers. Although Becker is definitely and promiscuously gay, he is a powerfully built outdoorsman who comes as close to the mythical ideal as Lark is ever likely to find. The fact that Becker actually fathered a child adds to his aura of normal masculinity.

On many a lonely night Lark will drive for miles out of his way to park across from Becker’s house and stare at the lighted windows, trying to imagine the humdrum domestic life going on inside and wishing he were part of it. He knows Becker’s telephone number but has been discouraged from calling...

(The entire section is 2065 words.)