In Class With an Icon of Gay Literature

By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- I hadn't known Andrew Holleran 20 minutes before he reached casually across our outdoor table at La Fourchette to try a forkful of my crab-and-spinach flan. For a longtime reader of gay fiction, this is roughly equivalent to sharing an appetizer with, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald (a writer to whom Mr. Holleran is sometimes compared). I had told him while we were ordering that he should taste the flan's lobster sauce, but even so I was surprised by his nonchalance. He acted as though we had been friends for years.

It was a sunny afternoon, and people were strolling and loping and hurrying by on 18th Street. I was trying to steer the conversation around to the graduate-level workshop that Mr. Holleran is teaching at American University, where he is writer-in-residence this year. But he wouldn't stop asking me questions -- about seafood and restaurants and the neighborhood and the city. He had taken an apartment near Dupont Circle so recently that he didn't have phone service yet.

To judge by how intently he listened to each answer, you'd have thought I was the most interesting person he had ever met. But anyone who has read his books or stories knows otherwise. Dancer From the Dance, his first novel, must mention a couple of hundred gay men, many described in passing as exceedingly handsome or surpassingly talented or astonishingly rich or -- well, let's just say "startlingly well favored." All of them seem to be based on real people he'd met in New York in the 1970s -- at dance clubs or parties or parks, on stoops or in steam rooms.

A few nights later, when I went with him to the workshop, I saw that he gave his 12 students the same kind of undivided attention, whether they were talking about each others' stories or coming up to him to make an appointment. It reminded me of Malone, the central character in Dancer From the Dance, who seems to be part Jay Gatsby and part Daisy Buchanan, and who is immediately greeted by all the handsomest boys at the hottest clubs:

He put his head close to theirs when they spoke to him, as if he didn't want to miss a word, and when he replied he spoke almost against their ear: a charming gesture ostensibly to defeat the noise of the room, but one that made you feel you were being winnowed out, selected, for some confidential revelation.

Indeed, Mr. Holleran had confided on the way to the workshop that he dreaded teaching. He has taught at American twice before, but has never taught anywhere else. "You just try to get through the two and a half hours as best you can," Mr. Holleran said, staring out the car window. "You know what it's like? It's like a TV talk show! A two-hour talk show, and there are no commercial breaks."

But once the workshop began, he was ceaselessly animated, asking detailed questions about the evening's readings -- "When did this story finally come alive for you?" "Who is this guy?" "Did it take you a while to figure that out?" He nodded intently as students answered. Sometimes he gestured with both hands, as if playing charades, for them to say more. Once he jumped in ahead of everyone else: "I can't wait! I'm bursting! To me, this is utterly, completely, screamingly like film noir, like any of a million Barbara Stanwyck movies."

Sometimes he led the discussion toward technical matters, like when and how to use detail. Sometimes he interrupted with mentions of Turgenev stories or with favorite quotes: "Milan Kundera says whenever a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." He appeared to be enjoying himself thoroughly.

The next day he asked eagerly what I had thought of the class, of the students' critiques, and of the evening's two stories. "I'm stunned by the fact that none of these pieces is autobiographical," he said. "To me, that's where all writing comes from -- which is a limitation, unfortunately." Then he grinned and told me that teaching a writing workshop is "like selling heroin on a school playground -- it's immoral to help people end up like this."

Actually, any of his students would do well to end up as Mr. Holleran has, limitations or no. He went from an undergraduate degree at Harvard University to the University of Iowa's writing program. He started law school at the University of Pennsylvania, only to quit because he was spending too much time writing. After that, he said, "I had one story published, and a long period of waiting tables." He was about to give up when the Dancer From the Dance began to grow out of a series of letters to friends.

The book's publication, in 1978, is often described as a breakthrough event in gay literature. Earlier gay novels were mostly about anguished homosexuals who wanted to be treated just like everyone else. Dancer opened the door on an urban gay culture that most Americans knew nothing about, a defiant culture of dancing and drag and drugs and, most of all, sex. The book's most unforgettable character is the voluble Sutherland:

[Malone] found Sutherland standing in the middle of the room with a mudpack on his face, round earrings, and a red dress pulled down to his waist -- all that remained of the costume in which he had gone to a dinner dance as La Lupe -- and the twenty-five-foot telephone cord wrapped around his body. He squirmed, like Laocoon trapped by snakes, and made an anguished face at Malone. "I simply must get off," he said into the phone, "the bank beneath us is on fire and we're being evacuated." He hung up the telephone and said, as he shook Malone's hand gravely: "My sister, in Boston. Our brother just cut off three toes in the lawn mower, after defaulting on a bank loan, our other sister has hepatitis and will have to finish school in Richmond, Mother is drinking, Father refuses to see anyone, and the woman across the street went into her garage yesterday and turned on the automobile and asphyxiated herself. What is wrong with this country, for God's sake?" he said, pulling off the red clip earrings.

Next came Nights in Aruba (1983), about a gay man's relationship with his aging parents. It was followed by a long hiatus that Mr. Holleran says he spent looking for a way to write about AIDS. In 1996, he published The Beauty of Men, the sad and elegant tale of a middle-aged man, Mr. Lark, who cares for his invalid mother as he laments the fading looks and thinning hair that make him invisible in the bars and bathhouses where he used to be eagerly pursued. Mr. Holleran's most recent book is a collection of short stories, In September the Light Changes (1999).

The central characters in his books, particularly Mr. Lark, seem strikingly similar to the author. Like Mr. Lark, Mr. Holleran has lived for years in a small town near Gainesville, Fla. Like Mr. Holleran, Mr. Lark is pale and "perfectly skinny." Like Mr. Lark, who sprinkles interior monologues with references to Hannah Arendt and Wittgenstein and Bernini's bust of Louis XIV, Mr. Holleran's lunch conversation touches on architecture, Henry Adams, and a van Dyck painting.

Where Mr. Holleran and Mr. Lark seem to part ways is in their outlook on life. Mr. Lark is often miserable. He is cut off -- both by his age and by his reluctance to say anything to his mother about his being gay -- from "the brave new world of modern homosexuals I am too retrograde to be part of." Mr. Holleran, it's true, is in some respects retrograde: In public, he still goes by his pen name, which he adopted to protect his parents' privacy back in 1978, and he says he still finds it "very freaky" to come to a university and talk openly about being gay. But at 58 he seems as eager as a 20-year-old to talk, to explore, to meet new people. He doesn't seem miserable at all. "That's something I can't explain," he said. "I write depressed."

He also writes slowly -- "I agonize over every word." But just now he's agonizing over another writerly problem. Characters in the story he has most recently completed resemble friends of his so much that he's not sure the work can be published. He has always written "from life," as he puts it, using people he knows as the basis for his characters. The latest story, though, has him worried. Mr. Holleran once became a character in another writer's work, and he didn't much like it. "I felt this jolt," he said, "like hearing yourself on a tape recorder."

"The lines are so blurred now between journalism and fiction," he said at lunch. "You have to ask what fiction can do that journalism can't." I thought about that a lot afterwards. His books offer an answer -- they concentrate experience and emotion, they philosophize in terms any reader can understand, they let you see the world in ways you hadn't before. At the end of Dancer From the Dance, a character who is finishing a novel about gay life in New York in the '70s distills his experiences there into a single image:

I feel like a child who's been awakened from his sleep and taken downstairs in someone's arms to see the party and the guests. Who knows how long it will last, who knows when that considerate adult will send you back to bed and life will once more be that poignant band of light beneath the door, beyond which all the voices, laughter, and happiness lie?

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 18, 2002.