What is it about the attraction between two men that hypnotizes some people into spending years of their lives sampling one partner after another to the virtual exclusion of everything else? What is it about the bond between parent and child that prevents some people from perceiving themselves as creatures independent from the ones who gave them birth? What is it about homosexuality that makes it so irreconcilable with the family, that creates in some people an alienation unlike anything else? These are the questions that visit, in the middle of the night, in the middle of his life, the narrator of Andrew Holleran's
Nights in Aruba, the second novel by the author of Dancer from the Dance.
Just like the madeleine that sends Proust spinning through Remembrance of Things Past
on a spiral of memory and desire, it is a yellow lift ticket still attached to a blue ski parka -- a gift from a former lover that years later commemorates the long-past affair -- that launches Holleran's protagonist on a meditative journey through the first half of his life. To a man hooked on the pleasures and promises of Manhattan's gay subculture, that yellow lift ticket is a symbol of excitement and despair. It is at once an invitation to ride again and again to the exhilarating heights of romantic passion and a reminder of his failure to appreciate anything but the thrill of the ride. "Some nights I told myself that even though I was exhausted I should get out of bed and walk up Second Avenue to Stuyvesant Square and find someone standing under a tree and bring him back to the room in which I lay alone, wasting yet one more night of a youth already artificially extended by my failure to find anything more compelling than this experience."
Few images are more tragic and romantic than that of a wasted life, particularly a life devoted to the pursuit of love. Andrew Holleran has made that tragic and romantic life the subject of his fiction.
Dancer from the Dance, which was published in 1978, captured a breed of people "bound together by a common love of a certain kind of music, physical beauty, and style -- all the things one shouldn't throw away an ounce of energy pursuing, and sometimes throw away a life pursuing."
Dancer's hero, the beautiful and enigmatic Malone, wastes a good deal of his life by being unable to distinguish the image of the perfect lover that looms like an oasis in the distance from the alluring mirage of gay life in discos, bathhouses, and Fire Island mansions that surrounds it like a shimmering veil. Trapped between two illusions, Malone disappears into the breach. The first-person narrator of
Nights in Aruba is also haunted by opposing ideals, but his are more concrete and he's determined to keep them apart: the gay life he conducts from his roach-infested apartment on St. Mark's Place, and the family life he maintains at his parents' home in a sleepy Southern town.
Yet like Malone, the protagonist of Nights in Aruba longs in vain for a stability and wholeness that neither of his lives provides. So his only moments of peace occur during the plane rides between Newark and Gainesville. "Maybe it was merely the chance to rest, the fact that only in the airplane was I momentarily free of the two lives I tried to keep separate on earth. Perhaps it was just a relaxation of the vigilance required to keep the two ignorant of each other -- the vigilance a hypocrite can seldom relax."
Hypocrite is an odd word in this context. For Holleran, it applies to someone who leads a double life, like an actor in a long-running show -- a situation with which the author is intimate. Andrew Holleran is, after all, a pseudonym, and after
Dancer from the Dance came out the author took some flak for celebrating a flamboyant gay lifestyle in print yet disguising his identity to protect, he said, his family, who indeed live in a sleepy Southern town. It was the equivalent of catching Madalyn Murray O'Hair on her knees in a chapel.
Nights in Aruba is a response to such criticism, an attempt to explain the contradiction of being a noted chronicler of gay sexual indulgence and a closet queen. It is not as entertaining or as exquisitely polished as
Dancer from the Dance. But those are qualities that often come easily to a first novel, especially one that takes on a subject as fresh and ripe as the manners, mores, bon mots, and wardrobes of the young men who have in a remarkably short time made homosexuality a visible, even unavoidable presence in urban America.
Nights in Aruba is a more somber tale with a broader scope. Its efforts to discover not merely the surfaces but also the origins of gay life -- not the biological phenomenon of homosexuality but the mysterious emergence of one's own gay life -- is more ambitious. And though it proposes no social theory, it does make the point that beneath the frivolity and hedonism we associate with the extreme quarters of contemporary gay life there can frequently be found a yearning for domesticity and religious certainty -- just as contemporary fiction about heterosexual life commonly portrays people desperately trying to escape the constrictions of matrimony. It is one of the choice ironies of our time that while straight novelists and playwrights from John Updike to David Mamet, Richard Price to Janet Hobhouse are creating characters who chafe under social conventions and long for the promiscuous abandon homosexuals enjoy, the values of family and religion are being wistfully idealized by gay writers like Harvey Fierstein and Lanford Wilson, Edmund White and Andrew
The title of Nights in Aruba refers to the leading character's childhood. His father, a businessman in the oil industry, is stationed on that tiny island off the coast of Venezuela. His mother, so accustomed to society life in Chicago or New York or Boston, comes to rely on her son for companionship and entertainment and unquestioning love. Whereas his kind, hard-working father rises and retires early, his mother sits up late telling him stories, smoking cigarettes, and saying, "You're not going to bed until I finish this drink." Shocked and thrilled by his mother's wickedness, awed and comforted by his father's male authority, the boy takes this isolated, peaceful household as a model of domestic order that he will never be able to replicate in later life.
He goes to prep school and college and then, because he has no particular ambition, joins the Army and is sent to Germany, where he begins to grow up (and come out) when he gets a crush on a handsome co-worker. "I never spoke to him but he was the most significant feature of my day, and one evening while I was brushing my teeth at the barracks, a hand reached into the basin next to mine to test the hot water and I recognized, without even looking up, my fellow mail clerk -- like an archaeologist who could, from a few limbs and fragments of pottery, construct an entire ancient statue, or the villa that surrounded its pedestal in a garden. And the force of this instinct, which wished to transfer its allegiance from my mother, exiled, remote, in Jasper, to some new object, left me astonished." His weakness for unexpected glimpses of male beauty, which will transfix him the rest of his days, is what the character fears will prevent him from attaining the domestic order he yearns for.
So the hypocrite is born, and he's doomed to drift obsessively from one ideal to the other. Whenever he tired of Manhattan ("the city...filled with disappointed moviegoers finding fault with films they had just seen"), he repairs to a town in Florida called Jasper, where his parents have retired. When the dullness of tending petunias and watching television with his parents makes him want to scream, he races back to New York, where he and his fellow disciples of Eros "ransacked the city in search of love." He mentions nothing of his family life to gay friends, and vice versa. "So shrouded in mystery was my life now that when we went to a coffee shop during my parents' visit to New York one day, my mother gave me a quarter to put in the jukebox and said, 'I want to hear what you like.' There was nothing I particularly did admire on the jukebox. The music I danced to was black music played in homosexual clubs Vittorio took me to which seldom surfaced on the radio, much less the jukebox of hotel coffee shops -- so we sat there listening to Carole King sing 'It's Too Late, Baby' as we ate our pancakes, and I hoped she would not read anything into the lyrics."
Long after he has established his secret life on St. Mark's Place, his mother asks him, "Are you homosexual?" "No!
Of course not," he says angrily and rushes out of the room. The question implies that the mother either already knows or is willing to accept; the response indicates that perhaps the son cannot accept his homosexuality himself. Why not? What is he afraid of? The answer remains, like the religious faith that wanes in him as it waxes in his once-libertine mother, a mystery.
Nights in Aruba shares many qualities with Dancer from the
Dance. Both books run on emotional energy, vivid characters (besides the narrator
Aruba offers the Clam, who's named after his slimy palms, the handsome and troubled Vittorio, and a tart-tongued older queen named Mister Friel, and glittering, almost aphoristic language. Both possess a lifelike plotlessness that links them to such meditate fictions as Renata Adler's
Speedboat and Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless
Nights. There are even word-for-word recyclings of stories and images; for instance, after their first sexual encounters, the heroes of both books wash their mouths out with soap and invoke the image of the body as the temple of the Holy Ghost. The extraordinary thing about
Nights in Aruba is that it covers virtually the same territory as
Dancer yet tells a different story. The two complement each other, like transparent overlapping diagrams in anatomy textbooks.
Dancer floated giddily on a sea of glamorous parties, favorite songs, clothing fetishes, beautiful men, and sexual ecstasies, with only a hint of the gloomy undertow that would eventually sweep away its Gatsby-like hero.
Nights in Aruba is all undertow. Whereas in Dancer
Malone is presented as desirable and sympathetic (heroic, really), Holleran makes the narrator of
Nights in Aruba an unpleasant person, blind to self-contradiction and foolish in love. At first his romanticism seems appealing, even eloquent. "I began to suspect that the world a man occupies is a tiny sphere after all, that as the people who love that individual die, one by one, he is erased gradually like a drawing, limb by limb, till he hardly feels he exists, or the world is real, occupied as it is by hordes of strangers he has never loved and who have not loved him." This sense of passing time stirs in him a missionary urgency. "Like a ghost, a vampire, I had to find the look in the eyes of a stranger that certified I was still alive, or at least wanted by someone on the street."
But then he meets The Lover, Sal, an airplane mechanic who lives in New Jersey. And in a stunningly compact nine-page passage that is the high point of
Nights in Aruba, he discovers, cherishes, turns against, and finally disposes of exactly the sort of relationship he supposedly desires with his entire being. Just before the affair dissolves, he says, "I never knew if Sal was really listening to what I said -- it was like talking to a dog sometimes -- and I was often surprised when Sal recalled a remark I myself had forgotten making." Like talking to a dog? No wonder the man winds up alone in the middle of the night, in the middle of his life, haunted by the devastating vision of the world that closes the novel: "I realized that so much memory and desire swirl about in the hearts of men on this planet that, just as we can look at Neptune and say it is covered with liquid nitrogen, or Venus and see a mantle of hydrochloric acid, so it seemed to me that were one to look at earth from afar one would say it is covered completely in Ignorance."
Dancer from the Dance seemed to speed along on a single breath. In contrast, the more episodic structure of
Nights in Aruba exposes Holleran's weakness in the mechanics of narration, of keeping a chronological story afloat. The continual flights from family to faggotry and back grow repetitious as the book wears on, and they muddle our sense of time. Then there are the liabilities of confessional fiction. I do not understand, for instance, the significance of the emotions and actions that bind this man to his mother; the details of that relationship seem to have been insufficiently translated into the language of the novel.
Still, Holleran's gift for observation, his unabashed embrace of human passion as his subject, and his ability to illumine emotion mark him as a writer with sure talent and an original voice. He could, I imagine, continue to plow indefinitely the terrain he has staked out in his first two novels -- the glamorous face and the turbulent soul of contemporary gay life in New York City. Each installment would be a revelation. But I hope that Holleran will find a way to proceed to a work of pure imagination in which his keen eye, his gay heart, and his poetic tongue are set free to transcend themselves.
If Andrew Holleran did not exist, some other amusing gay novelist would have invented him. An enthusiastic reporter of the fashions, fixations, jokes, and sorrows that characterize the tribe of New York gay men, he looks, acts, and lives much like the characters in his books. Tall and thin with short reddish-brown hair and mustache, the 38-year-old novelist shares a sparsely furnished, sixth-floor-walkup apartment on St. Mark's Place with a roommate and a cat. In conversation he is at once bubbly and eloquent, intense and friendly, blase yet capable of a childlike astonishment.
When we met, Holleran was shy about revealing the details of his personal history, no doubt because they closely parallel those of characters in his fiction. He grew up on the Caribbean island of Curacao, went to Harvard, spent two years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was drafted into the Army and stationed for a year in Germany, began law school but abandoned it to write full-time. His first published work, a 1971 story in the
New Yorker called "The Holy Family," appeared under the name Charles Garber. Just before
Dancer from the Dance came out in 1978, he decided to adopt the pseudonym Andrew Holleran, partly to protect the identity of his parents and partly to maintain some anonymity within the world he writes of so knowingly.
One of the strange things about interviewing him was that it quickly became difficult to tell whether we were talking about his real self or Andrew Holleran or the characters in his books -- seemingly separate entities strangely intermingled. Also, he asked me as many questions as I asked him. We ended up talking about how to get to Jones Beach, what are the best hours to work out at the 23rd Street YMCA, New York media and their shortcomings, bathhouse etiquette, and how to get and keep a lover -- all the things one shouldn't spend five minutes discussing and sometimes spend an entire interview discussing.
Why does the character in Nights in Aruba say no when his mother asks him if he's gay?
That was my choice of subject, really. I wanted to write about the one who doesn't tell. One of the odd things about writing is that there's nothing to say about happiness. You couldn't write about the kid who went home and said to his family "I'm gay" and they said, "Oh, we were afraid you didn't know." That's the ideal scene for every gay man, it's the civilized response. But there's not a book in that -- or there was, but it was a bland book. It was
Consenting Adult by Laura Hobson, did you read that? It was a perfectly rational and civilized and decent book, but there was no pain in it. And while many gay men have gone home and told their parents, I chose to do the other one.
Tell me how autobiographical this book is. It's obviously more personal than
It is. I wanted to write about the family. And rather than amalgamate friends' experiences with their families, I decided to write about the things I knew and had felt or suffered in my experience. But I mixed in a lot of other stuff with the autobiography, and the thing I learned -- which was so hard in the learning -- is that the stuff you make up is truer than the stuff you don't. I took the greatest pleasure in the Friel sections, which were totally made up.
The part that seemed made up to me was the Germany sequence with the gay servicemen, which seemed almost out of a Firbank novel. The dialogue and the characters seemed outlandish.
Isn't that incredible? All that is perfectly transcribed from life, it's true, that's how I came out. They got me drunk one night and took me to a bar in Ludwigshafen. I had had crushes on people in college, but they were always sublimated. As it turned out, most of my friends in college were gay and didn't know it. Isn't it ironic? You think afterwards, oh, if I had known then, would I have gone down to Sporter's, would I have been a better person, would college have been less of an agony or would I have gone crazy running down to the bars every night and paid no attention to Emerson? If someone who was 19 and in college came to visit you and you knew he was gay, would you tell him?
Do you think someone who's 19 now would be gay and not know it?
That's a good question. I hope they would know. Maybe that's why we're writing and reviewing these novels.
Who are your models as a writer?
Scott Fitzgerald. I think Gatsby is just it for language and the beauty of the prose, and
Tender Is the Night. And I love Proust. But he's the dangerous one. He's so overwhelming, so immense, so brilliant on so many levels that that book is stultifying in a way. It stands like this enormous mountain, and you can't go up it. You have to go around it.
What is your challenge as a writer? What do you have to work on?
Obviously, it's plot. I always thought it's wrong to make up a plot for the sake of having a plot. Fitzgerald said he always started his stories with an emotion, and I think that's the safest and the strongest and the best thing to do. I think I go for character first. Now I realize that out of this character there must be some plot. But not a caper plot or a false suspense plot. So much of life is plotless that I would never want to create a plot that was not, I felt, realistic. Henry James said the criterion for a book is the sense of felt life, and I think that's really true. When I'm almost finished with a book, I often go through and try to put in things at the last minute, because to me that roughens it up and freshens it up. A book to me really has to say how you feel about life. That's why I felt bad making this book so gloomy. I kept saying, this is too melancholy, it isn't the way life really is, why can't you be funnier? My only excuse was that this was a mood book, it was in the narrator's brain. This was his reverie, his night thoughts. I wanted to call the book
Night Thoughts, to say this is nothing more than those horrible moments sometimes when you go to bed and you can't sleep and everything seems to attack you. When you wake up the next day, they're no longer there. But at night they're terribly real. They have their validity.
Why did you call the book Nights in Aruba?
Good question. I had a terrible time with this title. I was gonna call the book
Happiness at one point. This narrator is obsessed with being happy, and why not just make it a book about that incredible, silly illusion that one must be happy? I would love to have called it
Sleepless Nights, but Elizabeth Hardwick took it, damn it to hell. It's a faboo title. I guess
Nights in Aruba because in the narrator's lack of perception he still feels somehow that those nights are when it all began.
Are you completely devoted to your parents like the character in the book?
Terribly involved with them in some very deep way, but not something I would apologize for or consider neurotic. One of the things that fascinates me about people in New York is that you see everyone as a separate entity with no strings attached -- the cut flowers image. I hate gay life in the sense that it seems to sacrifice family. On the other hand, I feel, as Vittorio says somewhere, in a basic way they're incompatible, and it's silly to try to reconcile them.
One thing I like about all your writing is the way you refer to the baths frequently as an icon of gay life, and I wonder how you would explain the appeal of the baths to straight people.
To me family life is domestic and bourgeois and Christian or Jewish -- religious, anyway. But there's something about homosexuality that is to me inherently pagan and has a different value system attached to it. There's something not particularly Christian, bourgeois, or domestic about homosexual values. And homosexual values are for some reason to me epitomized by walking down the hallway at the baths and seeing men in towels in their room. The first novel I tried to write in New York was a novel about a man who is simply in the baths for a year trying to write a novel about it. For a long time, I would never go to the theater or a movie because I equated everything with the price of admission to the baths. If for six dollars you could go to a play or to the Everard, I would go to the Everard because it was infinitely more vivid and more fascinating than anything the theater could produce.
How has the AIDS epidemic affected that?
Oh, the AIDS thing revolutionized the baths completely. People have rubbers on the nightstand now, and when I go there I will only do that horrible solution to sex but the only safe one, which is jerk-off scenes. It's amazing that everyone makes his own little compromise to get through this. Of course, you go to the baths and find there are still people there who are lunatics. You walk by and you take mental photographs to put in the AIDS handbook as examples of the most dangerous things. You cease to wonder how this spread or to be at all surprised that this happened. Doctors could not have dreamt up experimental laboratories better than the baths for the spread of anything. You watch people having sex, throwing open the door, and the man who leaves goes right down the hall and enters another room without washing, and the person whose room he was in accepts another partner without washing. And the baths people are worried about whether they should close the baths? Darling, it's not their fault. Theoretically, the baths should be the most antiseptic environment in which to have sex. There are more showerheads and more soap than in the average home. And those assholes, all they have to do is get up off their fat tush, walk down two flights of stairs and take a shower, and they don't. It makes me crazy!
Then you hear these stories about people who go to the baths who have AIDS. You refuse to believe it the first time you hear it, and then you hear it several times. And you see in yourself a certain deterioration of morality. You get crabs, and you get crabs the eighth time, and it doesn't shock you anymore. You do the A-200, you're not too sure the A-200 worked, and you think after you've had sex with a person, "Well, it's only crabs." You know what I mean? That's just a small example of the larger amorality which explains why the AIDS people do it.
Do you have the same gloomy attitude toward love as the character in the book? Have you ever had a lover?
Yeah. Probably not a lover in your sense, not a lover with whom I lived for a long period of time. Do you think it's true that if you really want a lover you'll get one?
No, I think it's a talent you have to develop. This is a criticism I have of the character in your book. He's only attracted to a certain physical type, a young Puerto Rican, a beautiful guy from another culture, who can only displease him in the long run because they have nothing in common.
How do you explain that, that people have illusions or dreams which are not what they really want?
I don't understand why people don't learn after one time that this is a self-destructive pattern. I can only assume that some people really don't want mates, that in fact it makes them happier to be lonely and writhe in pain in their solitary room than to be with someone.
What you're saying is essentially a rational objection, and this business is irrational. That's the trouble. Okay, so people who do have lovers, what is it in them that enables them to do it? The fact that they're rational? The fact that they're not selfish, romantic idealists? What is it?
You just answered the question -- how can love possibly survive under that idealism? You have to realize that this person you love and idealize is going to do something like fart at the wrong moment, and you will think less of them if you idealize them. But if you just realize that you fart, too, at inappropriate times, you just go along with it. That's a banal example.
Yes, but it's my favorite example. Integrating the fart into society is the heart of the matter. Okay, so you can fart. So what kind of feeling is it that you have for your lover? The romantic thing goes pretty quickly, and something else happens. So what is the other thing?
It's a sense of shared destiny, it's something you will into existence. It's also a basic creature comfort. I had the idea the other day that what keeps us together is that in New York City we absorb each other's panic and hysteria, which makes it possible to live.
Yet you can imagine living with your lover in the country?
Well, I don't romanticize the country. The trick to having a lover, I think, is that there's this critical period where the romanticism wears off. Then you can either say "I'm just bored," which is very selfish, and go off to the next person, or you can say, "Let's see if it can get better, what we can know more about ourselves." It's like being a student, really. A good student thinks he can never know enough. A bad student thinks he knows it all the first day of class.
I think that's very important, and most gay people are so far down the pike in the other direction. They barely get to the point of saying sex was not as good as the last time before seeing somebody else.
Is "Andrew Holleran" a separate person from you?
He does exist for me as another person, the author me, a writer who's identified with certain things, that readers can expect certain things from. It's interesting to watch Andrew Holleran assume an identity as he goes on writing.
Does he make public appearances?
They sent him on a tour for the first book to do readings and autographings in six cities outside New York. People have asked me to do readings here, but I never want to do readings in New York because then I couldn't go to the baths. I don't want anyone to come on to me because I'm Andrew Holleran. (Laughs) I really just want to go to Jones Beach and eat peanut butter and go to the baths.
Boston Phoenix, 1983