EXPLORING THE GAY SUBCULTURE: Dancer from the Dance and Faggots

I've been meaning to re-read Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran's extraordinary first novel (Morrow, 250 pp., $9.95). But instead, I find myself returning again and again to a single paragraph, the way some people read Proust a page at a time -- and for the same reasons. It goes like this:

We had all see Malone, yet going home on the subway no one spoke of him, even though each of us was thinking of that handsome man -- and he had seen us. What must he have thought of us at that time. What queens we were! We had been crazed for several years already when we danced at the Bearded Lady that winter. We lived only to dance. What was the true characteristic of a queen, I wondered later on; and you could argue that forever. "What do we all have in common in this group?" I once asked a friend seriously, when it occurred to me how slender, how immaterial, how ephemeral the bond was that joined us; and he responded, "We all have lips." Perhaps that is what we all had in common: No one was allowed to be serious, except about the importance of music, the glory of faces seen in the crowd. We had our songs, we had our faces! We had our web belts and painter's jeans, our dyed tank tops and haircuts, the plaid shirts, bomber jackets, jungle fatigues, the all-important shoes.

Dancer from the Dance has dozens of paragraphs just as good, but, in a sense, this one -- which turns up almost exactly midway -- contains the entire book. There are the elusive characters: Malone, the more-revered-than-revealed Adonis of the gay disco circuit that is the novel's milieu; the ubiquitous but unidentified narrator, who switches freely from "I" to "we." There is the amoral reportage of the activities and attributes of the gay subculture: the ceaseless flippancy, the willing suppression of individuality, the awesome and appalling attention to appearance. Most important, there is the language: casual but carefully chiseled, terse but rich in splendid detail, choice repetition and real feeling.

The one thing the paragraph I've quoted lacks is Sutherland, who is as vivid a character as modern fiction has created. We first encounter Sutherland in a disco, where someone spies him in his black Norell, turban and veil, and innocently inquires, "Who is she?" The answer comes; "Her name is Andrew Sutherland, and she lives on Madison Avenue. She's a speed freak. She hasn't long to live." Ah, Sutherland, who's been through the mill and whose motto is, "My face seats five, and my honeypot's on fire"; Sutherland, who's writing a history of religion, who deals drugs and designs clothes, and who spends his afternoons contentedly stationed, with a pocketful of raisins for nourishment, in the men's room at Grand Central Station; Sutherland, who informs a panhandler, "I'm hungry, too, for love, self-esteem, religious certainty. You are merely hungry for food." Like some ghostly comic cross between Quentin Crisp and Baptiste from Children of Paradise, this imposing personage dominates Dancer from the Dance as surely as he orchestrates Malone's rise from Manhattan novitiate to expensive callboy and his search for love among the "doomed queens" who inhabit the bars, beaches, bathhouses and dance floors of New York City. "They were bound together," Holleran writes of all these men, "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."

In the hilarious exchange of letters that opens and closes the book, the author debates the merits of "gay novels" with a friend who has fled the Lower East Side for the Deep South. The latter expresses some doubt that Middle America wants to read about "men who suck each other's wee-wees." The author explains that he feels obliged to capture for posterity the tiny subspecies of "doomed queens" -- a wonderfully ambiguous term that incorporates with irony the sad, self-hating stereotype and the hopelessly, happily gay man of a certain post-liberation age. Historical record or no, the friend replies, the author could do no better than to immortalize "what it was like touching Frank Romero's lips for the first time on a hot afternoon in August in the bathroom of Les' Cafe on the way to Fire Island." The letters are an important framing device -- they not only narrow the book's focus and acknowledge that there are other gay lifestyles besides nonstop partygoing, but also hint at the author's dilemma: choosing between the panoramic shot and the microcosmic close-up, the general and the specific. Amazingly, Holleran spans them both; we get to know the doomed and the "doomed," the dancer and the dance, the clique and the kiss. At the end, when in one cataclysmic weekend, Sutherland ODs, Malone disappears, and the Everard Baths burns down, it is unclear whether an era has passed or whether the beat goes remorselessly on. And we care enough to wonder which is better.

Dancer from the Dance has many familiar resonances. It recalls the flat dense prose of Renata Adler's Speedboat, which disguises plot in lifelike routine and musing; and it recalls the comic frivolity of buried '30s gay novels like The Young and the Evil and Parties. The relationship between narrator and characters is closer to A Book of Common Prayer's than to The Great Gatsby's, though Didion and Fitzgerald are both evoked. And it probably uses the word "love" more often than any torrid Rosemary Rodgers tome. But this ideal mating of style and subject is a strikingly original achievement. Holleran (a pseudonym, by the way) writes with wit, elegance, and perception about a world that has been waiting for a writer with just his talents. Dancer from the Dance may survive as a classic; for now, it certainly provides a major example of how far "gay fiction" can rise above the timid standards set by Patricia Nell Warren's pulpers and trashy novels like Larry Kramer's Faggots (Random House, 304 pp., $10.95).

Faggots surveys almost exactly the same terrain Dancer does. Its main plot concerns screenwriter Fred Lemish's pledge to find the perfect lover in the four days remaining until his 40th birthday -- a mere excuse for a sensationalistic guided tour through Manhattan's gay subculture. Kramer, who wrote the screenplay for Ken Russell's Women in Love and whose first novel this is, does achieve one thing Holleran does not. He makes it exceedingly clear that there's nothing very romantic or beautiful about obtaining an anonymous blowjob lying in a dim, dangerous, condemned boat dock, or about fielding propositions like, "Baby, I want you to piss all over me, or let me piss on you, or fuck my friend and I'll suck your come out of his asshole." (That's the kind of prose the ads for Faggots proclaim is "outrageously raunchy and uproariously funny.") In all other ways, the book is horrible.

Kramer has attempted to write a comic sex novel; his model, it is clear, is Portnoy to Holleran's Gatsby. However, combining intense, John Rechy-type sexual explicitness with broad, crack-timed humor requires the technique of an expert writer, and Kramer is anything but. So his jokes stiff, and his porn goes limp. In fact, he does almost everything wrong. He creates too many characters and gives them farcical names like Randy Dildough and Yootha Truth, so you don't take them seriously; but then he keeps bringing them back and asking you to care about them when you can't even remember who they are. He delivers his wit and wisdom in subtle, clever statements like this: "Of the 2,639,857 faggots in the New York City area, 2,639,857 think primarily with their cocks." He rushes his characters from orgy to orgy with increasingly unfunny running gags in a way that suggests what might happen if Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw were made into a sitcom by Terrence (The Ritz) McNally.

Above all, just as it is the aesthetic pleasure of Andrew Holleran's style that gilds Dancer from the Dance, Kramer's clunky, careless writing ultimately renders Faggots unreadable. The plentiful dialogue is overwritten and unconvincing, the artsy allusions inauthentic ("Lance was a Klemperer as against a Lenny Bernstein"). And Kramer affects a convoluted, interruptions-within-interruptions syntax that means to represent . . . what? Breathlessness? Stream of consciousness? Drug-crazed confusion? In any case, it turns his paragraphs into seas of manic, comma-encased digressions. Sample awful sentence: "And on her deck, the safety guarantee for which advised three hundred, welcoming her four hundred guests, stood Adriana." The work, you really have to work at it, it takes, requires, demands!, just, that is, merely, to get through this, Kramer's, book, can you imagine what kind of advance he got?, not to mention the advertising budget, is simply, absolutely, unremittingly, is it generally agreed?, I think so, not worth it.

Boston Phoenix, January 30, 1979