Andrew Holleran’s breakthrough first novel, Dancer from the Dance (1978), has since its publication retained its status as a mainstay of gay literature. It pays tribute to the heyday of gay life in Manhattan in the 1970’s. In Grief, his fourth novel, Holleran turns from the lively whirl of parties, baths, and late-night discos of Dancer from the Dance to a more somber and isolated reality of the late 1990’s. In Grief Holleran’s anonymous, semiautobiographical yet fictional protagonist stands in as a representative of an entire generation of gay men who have survived the devastations of AIDS. The first-person narrator of Grief has reached a late middle age where both spirit and looks are failing him, and the personal Rolodex is peopled with the dead.
Grief can be read as a third part of a triptych in which Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Nights in Aruba (1983) are earlier installments. In this book as in his others, Holleran is a master of a seemingly plotless, character-driven narrative, the pieces of which are made from small, and often redundant, details of personal and everyday life. In Grief he repeats or reexamines certain motifs and themes that appeared in his earlier fiction. These include the search for companionship in a world where connections are elusive and the problems of balancing parts of the self, particularly what can be the Janus faces of adult gay identity and allegiance to one’s family of origin.
Grief begins and ends with a plane ride. The narrative opens as Holleran’s protagonist arrives in Washington, D.C., to take on a brief stint as a sabbatical replacement in a literature department of a major university. It ends as he departs to return to the parental home in Florida that he occupies alone after the death of his mother. This travel through the heavens is literally and figuratively transit between two lives. In going to Washington, the narrator shifts away from his identity as the loyal son and primary caretaker for his demanding but beloved mother and moves toward his gay identity and into the homosexual community of Washington’s Dupont Circle and the city at large. In each emotional settingthe one he has come into and the one he left behindthe protagonist struggles between poles of alienation and symbiosis. In Washington he struggles most poignantly with loss and grief.
In coming to Washington, the narrator enters a kind of limbo. The house on N Street where he has taken a room is unoccupied upon his arrival and features a marble sculpture that could double as an ornament on a Victorian tomb. In a scenario that repeats at various points throughout his sojourn, he appears reflected eerily back to himself from one of the household’s mirrors like a haunt or ghost. In the city where he wanders on long walks in the night, the major buildings loom like mausoleums. The National Gallery, where he attends concerts in Sunday evening off-hours, has a half-lit, underworld-like glow, its exhibits cordoned off from access. The weather, in this in-between place, is neither warm nor cold.
As a boarder, he never succeeds in truly penetrating into the real flesh-and-blood life of his landlord, a middle-aged gay man much like himself, who, though outwardly polite and sociable, rarely relaxes the stringent boundaries that keep the narrator defined in a businesslike way as one of a string of serial tenants, neither lover nor friend. The temporary and replaceable nature of the narrator’s domestic existence is underscored by pieces of mail that arrive for former tenants like him, now long gone. They pour through the mail slot and are discarded, forwarding...
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