One of the most important works of gay literature, this haunting, brilliant novel is a seriocomic remembrance of things past -- and still poignantly present. It depicts the adventures of Malone, a beautiful young man searching for love amid New York's emerging gay scene. From Manhattan's Everard Baths and after-hours discos to Fire Island's deserted parks and lavish orgies, Malone looks high and low for meaningful companionship. The person he finds is Sutherland, a campy quintessential queen -- and one of the most memorable literary creations of contemporary fiction. Hilarious, witty, and ultimately heartbreaking, Dancer from the Dance is truthful, provocative, outrageous fiction told in a voice as close to laughter as to tears.
The title of the novel is from the last line of William Butler Yeats's poem "Among School Children" which ends, "O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,/ Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?/ O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
The Stonewall riots weren’t even a decade behind the timeframe of this story, and in the eyes of someone outside the gay community, this book depicts how people who had been cruelly restrained by persecution and societal shame began to express themselves explosively and unabashedly, even as they carried their past shame with them. Certainly, the main character, Malone, seems to struggle to express his true nature while wallowing in shame that was forced on him from external sources, and he carries both to extremes.
This book, along with the next books I read from this genre (by authors such as Edmund White and John Rechy), are the reason I didn’t go to see Brokeback Mountain. By the time that film came out, not only did I not need to be told what happens when people are forced to live lives that are against their natures, but also I was chomping at the bit for stories in which gay people had promising futures, stories in which their fortunes were not dictated by their sexual orientation alone, but by the entirety of who they are as people. And these are the stories I write. So to Holleran’s classic I owe the impetus for my own work in a genre I didn’t even know about before I read this book.
Oh, and the writing is gorgeous.
I adored this novel. Which, I realise now, at the end of lots of period-accurate racism and fetishisation, is a position of privilege. This project has taught me
(Hence why I am determined to read, purchase and support LGBTQ living authors as well, but this is a train of thought you're not here for, you're here for the review).
Behold, Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran. Dancer from the Dance begins with two letters between friends. One, still living in New York City, is updating his friend on the drama, the gossip and the hook ups and break ups. On page 12, it reads:
"I am in fact so depressed that last night while Bob Cjaneovic was sitting on my face, I began to think how futile life is, no matter what you do - it all ends in Death, we are given such a short time, and everything truly is, as Ecclesiastes says, Vanity, Vanity, Vanity. Of course, that only made be burrow deeper, but still - to have the thought!"
And from page 12, I was hooked. So many readers these days are tired of New York City as a setting for a book, and that I understand, but listen. Holleran brings New York to life in this novel. Few authors have so artfully rendered New York as the hot and heaving beast of my memory.
This long, sprawling book goes on and on and on about men shirtless in the summer, sleeping in parks because it's too hot to sleep in their apartment. Fire hydrants spewing water out into the street, and soda cans cooling in fridges of bodegas.
There's something Proustian about Holleran's writing, which feels odd to say, but he writes in such a worshipful way, going over every detail again and again with such care and attention that you can really feel the craft of it all.
“The greatest drug of all, my dear, was not one of those pills in so many colours that you took over the years, was not the opium, the hash you smoked in houses at the beach, or the speed or smack you shot up in Sutherland's apartment, no, it wasn't any of these. It was the city, darling, it was the city, the city itself. And do you see why I had to leave? As Santayana said, dear, artists are unhappy because they are not interested in happiness; they live for beauty. God, was that steaming, loathsome city beautiful!!! And why finally no human lover was possible, because I was in love with all men, with the city itself.”
The book certainly has its flaws. A lot of it sounds the same. The racism, the sex, and the characters just go on and on and ON. Sometimes it feels a little bit self-important, but somehow still satirical. It's a hard book to recommend, because either you'd love it or you wouldn't.
That is to say, this book is not a fast read, but a slow, meandering one. Complete with a nameless narrator in the style of Daphne du Maurier and I have to say it reminds me more of Henry James or any other great American author, perhaps a little like F Scott for all the excessive drinking, drugs and beautiful parties surrounded by beautiful people.
Glittering, gluttonous, how will we ever tell the dancer from the dance?
tw: racism, fetishisation, suicide (p. 220 or so)