What It Means to Be an Elderly Gay Man Today

What It Means to Be an Elderly Gay Man Today

What It Means to Be an Elderly Gay Man Today

The latest entry in Andrew Holleran’s biographical fiction project, Kingdom of Sand, offers a portrait of the post-Stonewall generation confronting death and history.

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Published in 1978, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance holds a sacred place in gay literary history for its seductive glimpse of post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS New York City. Dancer’s world is idyllic: The men are handsome; the music pulsates; the drugs are bountiful; the baths are overflowing; and the poppers—they still come in glass capsules you pop! The novel is told in epistolary form, the narrative revealed in letters between an unnamed writer living in New York City and his friend Paul, a gay man who has fled city life for the South. Embedded amid this exchange is the platonic love story of two party queens: Sutherland, famous for his campy outfits, excessive drug use, and undesirably small penis, and Malone, a heartthrob, ingénue, and hustler who, by the novel’s end, has grown weary of his drug-and-sex-fueled life. Described in the letters to Paul as a story about “doomed queens,” the novel unsurprisingly ends in tragedy. Yet despite Dancer’s critique of the era’s gay male sexual culture, it has nonetheless achieved a cult following for its breezy scenes of cruising—what many see as a fictional utopia safeguarded from AIDS.

Curiously, Holleran is thought of as a one-hit wonder, and Dancer as a novel suspended in time, an alternate reality where the disco party never ended. But Dancer is far from Holleran’s only book—since Dancer, he has published three novels, one short story collection, and one collection of essays, the latter of which gathers his columns written for the gay periodical Christopher Street, about the shadow that HIV/AIDS cast on Holleran, his friends, and literary culture. And importantly, Holleran’s fictional work does tell us what happens to the dancers after the last song. The answer isn’t pretty.

In Nights in Aruba, the 1983 follow-up to Dancer, Holleran offers the story of Paul, a gay man who splits his time between New York City, where he shares an apartment with Joshua, a young muscle queen who saunters around in sling-back heels, and Jasper, Fla., a small town where Paul’s parents, who do not know he is gay, have retired. The two locations, and the versions of Paul they represent, serve as the symbolic poles for Paul’s game of psychic tug-of-war: At one end is subservience to his family and the straight version of Paul that they love, and at the other is fidelity to himself and the life he’s built as a gay man in New York City.

Nights in Aruba marked a shift for Holleran as the first in a series of novels whose main characters share a biographical sketch. Whether it is Paul in Nights in Aruba, Lark in The Beauty of Men (1996), or the unnamed narrator of Grief (2006), the early-life facts, and subsequent additions as the narrator ages, remain the same—and mirror many of the events in Holleran’s own life. After a childhood in an American colony on a Caribbean island (usually Aruba), followed by primary and secondary education in New England, Holleran’s narrator (like the writer) arrives in New York City and participates in the heyday of 1970s gay sexual life. As he approaches middle age and finds himself discontented with the gay scene, the narrator decides to divide his time between New York and Florida, moving permanently to the latter when his mother trips over a rug and breaks her neck, resulting in quadriplegia. Soon after, the narrator’s father dies from a stroke, and the narrator becomes his mother’s primary caretaker for the remainder of her life, diligently visiting her at her nursing facility and bringing her home on weekends. Years pass. Meanwhile, the AIDS epidemic rages on, and the reader learns, intermittently, what happens to the other dancers at the dance—most of them die, and the ones who survive exist only for the narrator as voices on the other end of a telephone line.

Viewed within the long arc of Holleran’s subsequent work, the joy and froth of Dancer takes on a different hue. While Holleran’s multi-book fictional project did not begin until Nights in Aruba, we can detect in Dancer the introduction of the themes that Holleran would revisit throughout his career: the indecencies of aging, the power of memory, the nature of grief, and the intricacies of desire (gay male or otherwise). Read in this light, Dancer is less a stand-alone novel than the first draft in Holleran’s 45-year quest to document the life of a gay man as he experiences the sexual openness of the ’70s, the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, and the aftershocks of the epidemic in the 2000s. Holleran continues that project with The Kingdom of Sand, his first novel in 16 years, which offers a stark account of what it means to be an elderly gay man today.

Written in the first person, The Kingdom of Sand is the account of an unnamed, aging, and single white gay man who lives in small-town Florida in the present day. In the final scene of Holleran’s previous novel, Grief, the unnamed narrator returns to his deceased parents’ home from a semester of teaching in Washington, D.C., sinks to his knees between their beds, and thanks God for “bringing [him] home safely.” While The Kingdom of Sand is not explicitly Grief’s sequel, it reads as its continuation: If at Grief’s end the narrator embraces living in a perpetual state of mourning for both his parents and those lost to AIDS, The Kingdom of Sand suggests that the retreat to the family home is what enables his past to continue living in the present.

Holleran’s characters are lonely men who often exist on the periphery of the story they tell, and this holds true for The Kingdom of Sand, whose central drama is the deterioration of the narrator’s friend, Earl, whom the narrator first meets at a secluded boat ramp that doubles as a cruising spot in the Florida town they both have come to inhabit. Earl is 20 years the narrator’s senior (they meet when Earl is 62), and the subject through which the narrator filters his own feelings about loneliness and aging. A well-known homosexual archetype, Earl is a mostly chaste, semi-unattractive aesthete with a love for opera, classical music, and early-20th-century Hollywood divas. The narrator’s relationship to Earl is platonic and casual; they meet to watch movies and listen to music in Earl’s movie parlor (which was once the master bedroom of his house), eat at a local diner as an excuse to people-watch, and go blueberry-picking at a local farm.

But the presumed casualness of the relationship is called into question when Earl, now in his mid-80s, begins to decline. First is a cancer of the lymph nodes, which is successfully treated, though the radiation therapy leaves Earl’s taste buds permanently damaged. Then, likely due to the susceptibility of his weakened immune system, Earl develops a case of shingles, which results in nerve damage so severe that his only recourse for easing the pain is to hold his shoulder at an awkward angle and confine himself to bedrest for most hours of the day.

Debilitated, Earl must now rely on others for assistance with everyday tasks. And the narrator, once the caretaker for his parents, not only readies himself for the responsibility of becoming Earl’s primary support but welcomes it as a chance to redress the past mistakes he made during his father’s end-of-life care. However, this hope doesn’t come to fruition. Instead of the narrator, Earl turns to his handyman, a local straight man (and petty thief), whose responsibilities quickly expand beyond the housework and yard work to include Earl’s grocery shopping, banking, and transportation. Monitoring this relationship with suspicion and jealousy, the narrator reasons that the only thing standing between Earl and a nursing home is the handyman. Earl seems to recognize this, too, as he one day announces his plans to leave the handyman his house after he dies.

In preparation for his death, Earl begins to divest himself of his worldly possessions and attempts to pawn off sundry household items onto the narrator, who demurely refuses. These scenes are crucial for understanding the fundamental difference between Earl and the narrator: their attachments, or lack thereof, to the town in which they live and the objects they own. Earl feels no sentimentality about the town or the house he now inhabits; the town was simply the best place, once he’d retired, to find a house that could accommodate the objects of his passion: his collection of books and films. In contrast, the town holds an enormous emotional weight for the narrator, who has lived there, in some capacity, for 60 years. The same goes for the narrator’s house and the items within it. “This story is about the things we accumulate during a lifetime but cannot bear to part with before we die,” the narrator tells us, and this adage applies especially to his house, which the narrator has not redecorated, organized, or cleaned since his mother’s passing, some 20 or so years before the events of the novel. A modern-day Miss Havisham living in the literal dust and rot of the past, the narrator is so immobilized by grief that his present recedes into the background, and memory takes the foreground. “I consider my parents, and the memory of them, my main relationship,” he confides.

Through the narrator’s detailed accounting of his daily routines, the reader can glean that his reclusive style is an attempt to withdraw from the demands of temporality itself. What purpose does time serve—other than to expand the reservoir to hold one’s grief—when one’s primary relationships exist with the dead? But time passes nonetheless, and Earl’s decline is a reminder that the narrator is not only still kicking but aging, his own decline now on the horizon. While in previous Holleran novels, the anxieties of gay aging is tied to the perennial question “Am I still attractive?,” in The Kingdom of Sand aging has moved to a new terrain: the choices that face elderly gay men as they near the grave. In prior books, a (younger) Holleran character might have pondered a new diet or gym routine as he hurtled toward old age, but in The Kingdom of Sand, where the narrator cannot deny his age, he weighs moving to a retirement community against dying alone in his house, his body decaying for months before anyone notices.

What will happen when I start to die? Who will take care of me? These are the questions the narrator both ponders and avoids, and ones that trigger the memory of both his parents and his friends who died of AIDS. The sadness of reading The Kingdom of Sand is the realization that these questions are cyclical for the narrator and those in his generation: Once questions asked daily in their 30s and 40s during the AIDS epidemic, their return, decades later, is unnerving. And for the narrator, it’s a reminder that he really is alone.

Although grief provides a ready explanation for the narrator’s reclusive life, there is another reason for it: shame. In a 1996 interview with NPR, Holleran—when asked about lying to his dying mother about being gay—pointed to the novel he had just published for an answer. “The book [The Beauty of Men] is not a politically correct poster child for how one should be gay,” he said. “The thing about fiction that I think is wonderful is that you can put down all sorts of things that aren’t perfect, aren’t ideal, but to me are the human reality.”

The question of gay shame hovers throughout Holleran’s work, and he has addressed it in mostly ambivalent ways. While the narrators of the earlier novels, especially Dancer, have moments of self-lacerating shame, I find that Holleran’s narrators never jump onto the prescribed track of “It gets better” gay progress, and instead remain ashamed of their sexuality and out of step with narratives of representational gains. Even Holleran, in the same 1996 interview, admits feeling a sense of shame for being gay—why else, he asks out loud, would he have lied to his mother about his sexuality?

The narrator of The Kingdom of Sand is no different. Despite living in the town for nearly six decades, the narrator is still uncomfortable with being publicly gay, and he refuses to engage with neighbors who tell him that his sexuality is no secret throughout the town. Importantly, the narrator’s shame isn’t tied to sex acts or even homosexual desire, but rather to his own aloneness: He feels guilt for not having married a woman, raised children, and fulfilled a heterosexual familial function that might carry on his family’s name and history. His life in his parents’ house is a Freudian arrested development, perpetuated by his own sense of guilt: He is ashamed of what his life has become, ashamed that others will judge him for being gay and alone, and it is this shame that renders him frozen, only to feel more guilty as time passes. Earl’s death not only marks the passing of a friend but also a rupture in the narrator’s solitude—a reminder that he will soon need others as he ages, and a trigger of the shame that accompanies that knowledge.

And yet, after Earl’s passing, in the closing pages of the novel, a nearly imperceptible shift occurs. The narrator is entertaining the same internal debate, one year later, that opens the book: whether he should travel to his sister’s for Christmas or spend it alone. Without Earl’s evening company, the narrator has begun taking nightly walks to Walgreens for moments of fleeting sociality with two young men who work there. Despite his isolation, the narrator finds pockets of joy: surveying the holiday decorations, purchasing a bar of Lindt’s Dark Chocolate 70% Intense Orange, anticipating having one of the men at Walgreen give him a flu shot. The story is over; the book has come to its natural end. But instead of retreating to his home forever, something else occurs: He suggests going to the beach the next day—something he hasn’t done in years. He is still alive. I wonder what happens next.

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