Too many books are forgotten as soon as they're published—that doesn't mean they're not worth reading, writing, or talking about. My reading list is generated by interest, whim, and chance—and by what's available at the Brooklyn Public Library.
When writing my reviews, I don’t Google anything about the book or author. To draw my impressions, I rely only on the book itself.
Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel, Dancer From the Dance, is about gay men in 1970s New York looking for love—and falling for the city itself. The romantic, elegiac tone has much in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. All three of these stories meditate on the power of beauty, mystery, doom, glamour, summer, and romance. All three are narrated by characters that stand outside the main action, and all three feature New York City as a central character. The city as it’s depicted here is more than a place: it’s an idea, often a romantic ideal, and sometimes a trap.
The story is framed by an exchange of letters between two friends. One letter-writer has remained in New York; the other has relocated to “The Deep South.” The letters are addressed to “Madness,” “Vision,” “Delerium,” “Life Itself,” and are signed, campily, “Agathe-Hélène de Rothschild,” “le Duc de Saint-Simon,” “Marie de Maintenon.” They contain traces of real feeling disguised in witticisms such as “Homosexuality is like a boarding school in which there are no vacations.”
It seems the friend from the South is trying to escape painful shared memories the friend in New York is still inhabiting, and his letters emphasize his ideal of the wholesome life to be found outside the city: living domestically with a partner, “’picking strawberries—big, beautiful ones.’”
The New York friend writes:
“’It’s very cold again; I passed the woman who lives next door coming up the stairs—she was drunk, as usual, and had to grab the railing to keep from falling over. She has such a sad face, the faded face of a woman who was once pretty, and now her face is just resigned, and it gives me a chill in my bones. THAT is what I want to write about—why life is SAD. And what people do for Love (everything)—whether they’re gay or not.’”
The letter is signed “Victor Hugo.”
The friend from the South sends “’one azalea, a faded shrimp color; I don’t know what it will be when you get it.’” The friend from New York sends along his novel about people they both knew, adding, in a parenthetical aside, “’I did not change the names; there are no innocents to protect!’”
The story contained in that novel (“’I’ve called it Wild Swans; do you think people will think it’s about birds?”’) focuses on the friendship between handsome, haunted Malone (new to the gay scene and physically and emotionally recovering from his first failed love affair with a brutish lover), and the campy queen who takes him under her satin wing, the imperial Sutherland. The New York letter-writer is the unnamed narrator in the novel, who, like many of the gay men around him, pines for Malone, and tries to pick apart his fascination.
Theirs is the gay scene in 1970s New York: discotheques, bathhouses, cruising for sex in shabby little neighborhood parks. Men have sex in abandoned warehouses, or in the backs of parked trucks, in the middle of the day, as casually as dropping in a bodega to buy cigarettes or milk. It’s a natural portrayal of sex, without stigma or shame (and without an awareness of the consequences that would shortly become the focus of gay lives everywhere: the advent of AIDS).
But while the sex is rampant, what drives these exertions is a search for love, sometimes with gay men who don’t believe that love is possible between men. Yet everyone seems motivated by a longing for love and “the crazy compulsion with which we resolved all the tangled impulses of our lives—the need to dance.”
The book measures time in disco beats. “We could not stop dancing. We moved with the regularity of the Pope from the city to Fire Island in the summer, where we danced till the fall, and then, with the geese flying south, the butterflies dying in the dunes, we found some new place in Manhattan and danced all winter there.”
While out dancing, the narrator sees Malone for the first time, and for the rest of the book, watches him from afar, using his attraction to him as a kind of emotional barometer: “I had no idea who he was, he was just a face I saw in a discotheque one winter; but he was for me the central symbol on which all of it rested”—the “it” here being both life and love.
It’s the narrator who brings the reader into these scenes, to show us what he’s seeing and why it’s important to him, and we begin to get a deep sense of the separateness of gay lives. The narrator notes that, “Many of them were very attractive, these young men whose cryptic disappearances in New York City their families (unaware they were homosexual) understood less than if they had been killed in a car wreck.” Elsewhere he remarks, “As homosexuals tend to do, he had simply ceased to communicate with his former world; like a brother who, once he enters the monastery, renounces all his former life.”
While Malone is visiting his family back in Ohio, his young niece asks, “’When are you going to get married?’” and “Why don’t you have a car?’” These were the two things in her five-year-old mind that constituted—and was she wrong?—adulthood in America.”
At times like these, the book goes places the narrator couldn’t possibly go: deep inside the other characters’ minds, and especially their pasts. But at one point, the narrator describes serving drinks in a disco as “the perfect form of life for a ghost such as I,” and this declaration actually illuminates his role in the book, as he is both no one and everywhere, appearing and receding imperceptibly and indiscriminately as needed. Over time, even Malone, the object of the narrator’s affection—endlessly scrutinized, analyzed, and speculated about—is realized to be “just as lost as we were, living on faces, music, the hope of love, and getting farther and farther away from any chance of it.” After years of being observed, Malone “had ceased, like us, to have any identity at all.”
Who is this “us?” It’s every gay man in New York the narrator stands in for. Perhaps they are interchangeable because they share the same dream and suffer its same torments: “I had come to town—when I no longer remembered—and stayed, and time ceased even to be measured, nothing was measured except the cylindrical progress of love.” The suffering seems unique to New York—“The streets were made of quicksand, the air was an odorless gas, time passed and we couldn’t rouse ourselves”—and this point of view might be reinforced by the presence of the Southern letter-writer as one who got away. The faded azalea flower he sends is not unlike Sutherland, who declares he can never leave New York because he’s “like a sea plant that is beautiful beneath the sea, but taken from the ocean turns another color altogether.’”
Sutherland—with his cigarette holder, his satin gloves, his wigs, and his avocados for breasts; his darling this, darling that; the drugs he takes and deals to cope with and sustain his theatrical lifestyle—is both the maddest and the sanest presence in the book. He’s a mentor for Malone, sometimes his pimp, and with his big heart and “small cock,” a maternal presence for the gay men he surrounds himself with. Sutherland doesn’t merely talk; he instructs and pronounces, and warns (or does he reassure?) “’that is all that’s left when love has gone. Dancing…’”
“The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life” is one of the sentences underlined in blue ink my raggedy, water-stained copy of the book, on loan from the Brooklyn Public Library. (The others are: “The door slides shut, and you go dashing off away from what in the very interior of your heart means most to you,” and “We lived for music, we lived for Beauty, and we were poor. But we didn’t care where we were living, or what we had to do during the day to make it possible…”).
It’s not hard to realize why this book has been so important to so many generations of gay men. I can’t imagine it ever not being important to them. It puts love, not sex, as the central defining feature of a gay man’s life.
In the book, though, romantic love changes with the fashions. It’s the friendships that endure. “’Go out dancing tonight, my dear,’ the Southern friend writes, ‘and go home with someone, and if the love doesn’t last beyond the morning, then know I love you.’” He signs the letter, for the first time, with his real name, Paul; his true feelings finally revealed, he reveals himself at last. Dancer From the Dance is a gay love story, but it’s really a valentine to gay friendship.