Grief

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1522

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...

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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 addresses unknown.

While landlord and tenant circle each other like satellites in separate orbits in adjoining space, the narrator turns for sustenance to other quarters. There is his old friend, Frank, who lives up to his name. In a series of frank conversations, this longtime resident of Washington serves as a seriocomic truth teller and soothsayer for the protagonist. Frank, riddled by cancer and having witnessed the vast attrition of gay men to AIDS, is a witty realist. He exclaims that he got a suntan one summer just standing outside during the graveside funerals of friends. He explains that the gay community of Washington in the 1980’s seemed like a dinner party where some of the guests “were taken out and shot while the rest of us were expected to go on eating.” He nevertheless urges the narrator away from despair, toward life.

There is also the landlord’s dog, Biscuit, who is sequestered in a windowless study by day while her master goes away to work. The abandoned, resigned, and closely quartered dog and the lonesome tenant bond in the landlord’s absences, yet only to a degree. The dog, like the narrator, maintains a circumscribed order that denies real attachment or intimacy. Frank, ever the armchair psychologist, also reminds the narrator that his relationship with the dog replicates the familiar one of caretaking for his mother.

The protagonist’s best companion, oddly, is not a living character, but Mary Todd Lincoln, the widowor survivorof the assassinated president of the United States. An edition of her letters graces the bookshelf in the narrator’s room, and from the first to the last nights in the house, his reading of her words provides pinpoints of identification for his time in D.C. Henry Adams also looms large, as the narrator passes the historian’s former home near the White House on his nighttime ramblings. Lincoln and Adams, who lost his wife Clover to suicide, lived for years in guilt and grief. Their experiences, like the narrator’s own, raise questions of the power of the past in the present, the metaphysical nature of death, and the differing ways individuals either recover, or do not recover, from the loss of those they love.

It is only when the narrator confesses to Frank the nature of his own guilthis failure to reveal his homosexuality to his mother, even though, like the mother in Nights in Aruba, she directly asked him about itthat a turning point is reached. Spring comes. Blossoms bloom. The landlord runs naked across the common landing. A kind of exuberance fills the formerly dead air. The semester ends, and the narrator returns as planned to Florida. He flies once more a silent stranger among strangers and falls grateful and penitent to his knees between the beds of his parents.

In its worse sense, Grief can be condemned as a shallow narrative of a man about whom little is revealed except the set of facts upon which he privately obsesses. In the first-person access we are given to him as a character, he appears chronicallyif understandably due to his social circumstances, his loneliness, and his depressionself-absorbed. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, who descended into a maelstrom of unhappiness and remorse given the repeated blows to her psyche that came with the series of deaths of loved ones in her life, there is both something horrid and genuine and something self-imposed and stunted in the narrator’s grief. This can be said to be a strength of Holleran’s writinghis unwillingness to create overly idealized characters, or “heroes.” His protagonists tend instead to be fragile, smart, funny, and not entirely likable people who squirm quite unheroically and yet carry on in life. In Grief, Holleran, a “gay writer,” achieves an added level of universality in his appeal, and in the neo-Freudian philosophical matters with which his main character grapples. Though a gay man dealing with expressly gay dilemmas, Holleran’s sojourner, a seeker of meaning and connection, is on a journey of love, death, regret, and yearning that is common in some form to all.

Holleran’s novel is also strangely uplifting, given its overall theme of depression. In its course, as the narrator visits Ford’s Theater and other distinctly Washingtonian settings, he is reminded, through those he meets and sees, that loss cuts across sexual orientation and agethat it is, indeed, a matter of the human condition. Sorrow and abandonment are harbored by almost everyone who touches him tangentiallya fellow tourist is a recent widow, Frank’s elderly cat is on death’s door, the perpetually cheery but unfailingly remote landlord had his heart broken by a beautiful but habitually unfaithful partner, a seemingly troublesome student confesses he has lost a brother to AIDS. Odd and harmed people frequent the street, and a scam artist rings the doorbell. Meanwhile there is a twinge of inspiration and hope, emergent like the cherry blossoms, in the narrator’s dogged effort, in spite of things, to reinvent himself, and in the ongoing lives of the characters, however flawed and compromised they may be.

The narrator suffers a long peripatetic night of the soul in the course of this novel. However, as he moves up and down the stairs of his landlord’s house and along the avenues of the nation’s capital or appreciates the art in the city’s museums, there is something generated within him that is similar to the phoenix rising.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 42

The Advocate, July 4, 2006, pp. 57-59.

Booklist 102, no. 18 (May 15, 2006): 23.

Gay and Lesbian Review 13 (September/October, 2006): 39-40.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 7 (April 1, 2006): 314.

Lambda Book Report 14, no. 2 (Summer, 2006): 13.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 30, 2006): 17.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 14 (April 3, 2006): 36.

The Washington Post Book World, July 2, 2006, p. 7.

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