From dancing to grieving

Andrew Holleran discusses the gay generation gap, coming out in a library and whether we should mourn like Jackie O or Mary Todd Lincoln.

Published July 29, 2006 12:55PM (EDT)

The publication this summer of a new book by Eric Garber marks a much-anticipated event. Garber, now in his mid-60s, has spent his career documenting a generation of gay men, beginning with "Dancer From the Dance," a 1970s New York coming-out tale that has been likened to a gay "Great Gatsby." He later published a poetic but witty collection of vignettes and essays about AIDS titled "Ground Zero" as well as two other novels, "Nights in Aruba" and "The Beauty of Men," which could be called autobiographical fiction.

Never heard of Eric Garber? That's probably because you know him as Andrew Holleran, the pen name he's used since writing "Dancer," a name that's beloved in literary and gay circles alike.

His new book, coming seven years after his last, is a slim but elegant offering. (See Laura Miller's review here.) "Grief" follows an unnamed narrator, a man in his 50s who has temporarily moved to Washington, D.C., to teach a university class. He's mourning the loss of his mother and, like the landlord he rents a room from, he's contemplating his existence as a gay man in midlife. The narrator finds a few random books in his new, furnished bedroom, including "Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters." He discovers surprising relevance in the words and world of the widowed first lady, even drawing comparisons between her husband's assassination and the AIDS epidemic (not as far-fetched as it sounds).

Given the nature of Holleran's work, one might expect him to be quite serious. He's not. When I called for our interview, he began the conversation joking, "You're one minute late!" He's a fast talker, enthusiastic and inquisitive. (I'm an openly gay editor of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender publications in New York and he seemed as curious about my world as I of his.)

His recent appearance at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in New York City drew a standing-room-only crowd of fans and distinguished writers and thinkers. Though Holleran now divides his time between D.C. and Florida, he told the crowd that coming to Manhattan for a reading was like an episode of "This Is Your Life." There in the audience were many old friends, including writer Edmund White and activist/author Larry Kramer. In the early '80s Holleran and White, whose gay pride essay in the Village Voice last month argued that gay literature is undergoing a renaissance, belonged to the Violet Quill, a seven-man gay writing group.

Before reading from "Grief" Holleran explained to the crowd, "The book is about untreated depression -- the narrator is a mess," he laughed, only partly joking. "The story is as much about personal loss as it is about collective loss, a generation's grief from AIDS." The narrator comes to realize that "you stop living in a certain way when someone important dies," as Holleran also did when his mother died and when, earlier in his life, he lost countless friends and acquaintances to AIDS. "I really do believe that grieving is keeping someone [the deceased person] alive," he said.

Despite Holleran's having a new novel out, several people in the audience asked him about "Dancer," the book for which he is most well known. The story follows the handsome Malone as he discovers New York's gay underground scene, including the infamous Everard Baths, after-hours discotheques and Fire Island. A wise and wisecracking queen named Sutherland helps the elusive Malone navigate from naive wonderment to jaded sensuality.

"Dancer" predates AIDS, which was first diagnosed 25 years ago this year. Yet one audience member at the LGBT Center reading noted that an ominous tone imbues the story. "Did you have a premonition?" she asked Holleran.

"It had something to do with what was happening in 'Faggots,'" he said, referring to Kramer's 1978 tale of homo hedonism. Holleran recalled for his audience an incident from that period: "A friend came up to me at Fire Island and said, 'Last night, I had sex with an elbow.' And I thought, 'Is this where it's going?' There was almost no way to rein it in. It's not healthy after a while."

Over the phone, Holleran reflected some more on "Dancer," discussed how scary the Internet can be when you're coming out, and mused on the gap between older and younger gay men.

Let's begin with the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln. How did you discover them, and why did you decide to use her in "Grief"?

I was reading Mrs. Lincoln's letters in two places. In Washington, and then a friend of mine in a little town I live in in Florida is a Civil War nut and has a roomful of Civil War books. So I started just as the narrator did. I had a terrible struggle in "Grief" as to how to use those letters. I wanted the reader to get the sense of the letters themselves.

Mary Todd Lincoln was such a diva. The few excerpts from the letters in "Grief" were so entertaining.

They were! Not all are like what I quoted, which are mostly over-the-top. I can't recommend them enough. Do you know the book "Little Me" by ["Auntie Mame" author] Patrick Dennis? A camp classic. There was an unconscious element of "Little Me" in Mary Todd Lincoln, a diva quality that was campy and hilarious. She did definitely take herself seriously as the widow of Lincoln.

But she never moved past being "the widow," and your narrator seems close to repeating that mistake, even though it's his mother who has recently died.

Early on in "Grief" there's a conversation about the merits of Jackie O vs. Mary Lincoln. Jackie Kennedy seems all the more admirable because she did move on after her husband died, and Mary Lincoln did not.

You've referred to the narrator's friend Frank as the Thelma Ritter of the novel. Like that no-nonsense character actress, Frank doles out sage and sassy advice. Some of the book's main pleasures are the conversations between Frank and the narrator exploring grief and relationships. Frank advocates the Jackie O moving-on approach. Which do you lean toward?

There's a wonderful Yeats line in which he says, "A poem is simply overhearing a poet argue with himself." That is the answer. I'm both people. Technically, Frank is right, you must move on. But the emotional part of me is with the narrator.

One intriguing part of "Grief" comes when the narrator teaches a seminar on literature and AIDS. He mentions a novel from the '70s that a reviewer criticized because its characters were motivated by lust.

That was "Dancer," to be honest. The line was something that happened to me, a reviewer from Ohio. I thought, "God, this is so judgmental and dismissive." Then I thought, "In a strange, reductive, crazy way, she [the reviewer] is on to something."

One of the narrator's students agrees with the review, adding that the men shouldn't have been promiscuous if they wanted love and that they should have sensed the looming of disease -- AIDS. Since you teach writing classes, I'm wondering whether that reaction too was based on real life?

Yes, it was a fictional version of something that also happened to me. When I was teaching I had a class where a student said a similar thing. I assumed this was a straight student who was being judgmental and sort of homophobic. But then [a teacher] said, "No, he's gay." I said, "Oh my God. That makes it so much more poignant." Here is a young gay man who is himself morally in judgment of gay life and gay men, making it harder, I assume, for him to be gay. I was never able to work that subplot into "Grief." It was going to be the big surprise.

Have you always retained contact with younger generations of gay men?

I've always been curious about new generations. But I was very cut off for many years. I didn't have friends in younger generations. I was constantly trying to find out -- What was it like in 1988 to be a 21-year-old gay man? What was it like in 1998 to be a 21-year-old gay man? It's terribly interesting. On the one hand I thought nothing has changed; it's still difficult and depressing for people at that age. Every generation produces its version of queens. They still go out and are still looking for a kind of Malone [the protagonist of "Dancer"]. Then I said to myself, "That's ridiculous. They have to be different. Their circumstances are different." And I had no way of knowing, and it baffled me. It's only in the last four years of teaching and moving to Washington and getting to know some younger gays that I got any way of beginning to find out -- and yet I still don't know.

When people read "Dancer" today, do you think they look at it as --

A fossil, a relic? How could they not?

I was going to say something more positive. The book buyer at Rainbows and Triangles, a gay shop in New York, told me that "Dancer" remains one of their bestsellers. It's an iconic story: escaping to a gay ghetto, discovering nightlife, creating a new "family," sleeping around.

New York is a place that changes, but then it doesn't change at all. It offers the same standard initiation experience. I had this theory after leaving New York that the first five years were really magical five years for me because everything was new.

In addition to "Dancer" I often recommend Larry Kramer's "Faggots" to guys just coming out and discovering nightlife.

That book was so unfairly lambasted when it came out; a lot of people got angry and it wasn't justified.

I read "Faggots" shortly after I came out at age 19. It terrified me. I mean, guys were urinating on each other.

Did you get that it was broad, Jewish black humor?

Not at all. I've since reread it, though, and found it hilarious, if scathing.

The press at the time took it in a very literal way.

How was "Dancer" received?

I was the good little boy. It was good cop, bad cop, really. "Dancer" and "Faggots" came out almost at the same time. We had the same agent and everything. In fact, Larry helped me get my book published.

Do you think that more gay people nowadays can go through the coming out process without just going to bars? I mean, these days you can join gay sports clubs or do pretty much any mainstream activity and find other gay people.

I agree. It seems to me that two things happened. One was assimilation, what you're talking about. And the other was the Internet, the effect that had on people. When I go over to Whole Foods, I see these gay couples coming out with kids and the stroller and cheese and wine and gladiolas, and I'm thinking, "Who are they?"

I recently interviewed gay activist Patrick Moore about his new crystal meth memoir, "Tweaked," and he argued that only people who are economically well off have more options when they come out today -- that for many gays and lesbians, the bar scene is still it. And with that scene come certain challenges, like addiction and promiscuity. "Dancer" would certainly be relevant to these people. Would it be fair for them to read that book as a cautionary tale?

A cautionary tale? God no, I would hope not.

But many do. Especially because it documents the hedonism of the '70s, right before AIDS hit.

There's always a scary thing about writing gay material, as with any minority: You're held up as commenting on the minority and the minority experience. This was just my particular little take. But there were things I was angry enough about -- things like the emphasis on physical beauty -- that I was trying to comment on in "Dancer."

Yet "Dancer" also captures the allure of the underground with all its exotic and erotic beauty.

Oh that's good. I did mean it as an evocation of things I loved and found beautiful. Absolutely.

So why did you choose to use the pseudonym Andrew Holleran?

That is reflective of the way history has changed. My book came out in '78. I was living in New York and didn't care who knew I was gay. But then I was talking to my editor one day, saying, "It's no problem with me, but my parents live in a small town down South. I'd hate to have the wrong people use it against them." And my editor said, "The wrong people are always the first people to get a book. So if you feel that way, get a pen name by 5:00." So I did, just for that reason.

Do you teach as Andrew Holleran?

I do. You have no pseudonyms at your publications, right? No one does it anymore?

Certainly not at the New York Blade. And not at HX Magazine, except for porn reviewers, and those are mostly humorous nom de plumes, like Peter Gozinya or Tyler Ciccone Spears-Aguilera. Actually, some photographers use pseudonyms, even though we don't show nudity. Truth be told, it can compromise their careers.

It's interesting, the degrees of coming out.

I've had friends get upset if their name was printed in the gossip column about something as innocuous as attending a Broadway show. They were afraid their employers or family would read it.

It's evidence that some things just don't change. You think gay life is evolving, and it just doesn't. People are out in different degrees in different departments of their lives and that's their own arrangement.

And with the Internet -- your grandmother in North Dakota might find out you're gay from a New York gossip column.

True. I find that privacy issue extraordinary -- people putting their photos on the Internet having sex with other people. I'm thinking, "God, they really don't care."

Do you think the information available on the Internet has made it easier for people to come out?

I know of someone who is 22 who is going through a deep depression over admitting he's gay. It is still a fraught, fraught thing for some people. Was it hard for you to come out?

Yes. But I grew up in rural Missouri and came out in college during the late '80s -- probably the last generation that came out by going to the university library and looking up homosexuality in the card catalogue.

You too! That's how I came out.

What freaks me out is that many of my relatives -- very red state kinda folk -- are seemingly comfortable with it. They ask me, "Oh, are you dating anyone?"

Isn't that flabbergasting? And the irony is that gay people seem unable to accept their family members' being comfortable.

Without spoiling "Grief," can you say whether the narrator's situation in terms of coming out to his mother is based on your experience?

Pretty close. I was partially out to my family, and it was always a source of great, great stress for me with my parents. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. I came out to my sister in a letter; she's always been wonderful. I think my mother knew. I can't imagine my father ever having known. It's a generational thing, too; it was a different time. Again, part of me suspects that it's not easier for some people even in 2006. That's one reason I think I wrote "Grief." In the U.S., we're such an airbrushing culture in which all problems can be solved. And I thought, "There's another side of life that people experience and I'm going to write about that one."

By Trenton Straube

Trenton Straube is the editor of The New York Blade, a gay and lesbian weekly newspaper, and former editor of HX Magazine, a gay entertainment guide to New York.

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