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The first major for us by us novel after Stonewall. The writing is amazing.  The plot?  Yes, only a few people living in Manhattan lived like that, and I wasn't one of them, but it was still fascinating.  
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The most talked about, yes, and I'd guess the best remembered.  Staggering!

Before we get into the book itself, since it was published in 1978 and a lot of it takes place in a dance bar, listen to the only song that's name checked in the book repeatedly.

And in the great meta tradition of the internet, here's the top comment at youtube.com about this song:

Dancer From The Dance is the reason I looked this song up. I've loved the book for years and finally decided while currently rereading it to finally hear the song. I love this and it fits so well with my picture of the dancing at the Twelfth Floor.
There's also this:
Dancer sent you here too? what an unearthly novel that was! i first read it when i was 16, it completely shaped me as a gay man, too bad there isnt a scene like the 12th floor today, everyone's getting married, having kids and joining the army now! i wonder what Sutherland would say about the state of gay culture today
Again the state of gay culture! And not everybody who read it at 16 came away with the same reaction (I wouldn't know, I was 27 when it came out). But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Author

Andrew Holleran.  Real name: Eric Garber, but he teaches creative writing at American University as Andrew Holleran.  Why the pseudonym? From a 2006 interview at Salon.com:

That is reflective of the way history has changed. My book came out in ’78. I was living in New York and didn’t care who knew I was gay. But then I was talking to my editor one day, saying, “It’s no problem with me, but my parents live in a small town down South. I’d hate to have the wrong people use it against them.” And my editor said, “The wrong people are always the first people to get a book. So if you feel that way, get a pen name by 5:00.” So I did, just for that reason.
Beside, he became much more famous as Holleran, so pretty much wotthehell.

The Book

Much less obscure than James McCourt's books. Again, New York City mostly south of 34th Street, mostly the East Village, I'd think Second Ave. to Avenue B between 17th and Houston Streets. Also Fire Island. It takes place in the usual places, but since it revolves around dancing, there's a disco, in the book the Twelfth Floor, in real life the Tenth Floor (West 28th Street, across the street from the Everard Baths), one of the second generation of discos (and a private membership club [scroll down] with a $75 membership fee), and several of the characters live in an apartment carved out of one of the first discos, the Electric Circus (St. Mark's Place between Second and Third Avenues). And Fire Island, specifically Fire Island Pines.

The music that accompanies this will be what was played at the Tenth Floor, and what we danced to between 1972 and 1974. No, I never went there.

Dancer from the Dance been called a gay Great Gatsby by Edmund White, insofar as he thinks it glamorizes a culture, and it resembles Gatsby insofar as it has a narrator, it takes place in and around New York, and it's about money to a degree (Holleran has also said that Gatsby is his favorite book). A narrator, and two very compelling characters. Anthony Malone, a golden boy, comes to New York to practice law and gives it up to devote himself to love and dancing and sex.  Beautiful and seemingly unapproachable, but the nicest gentlest most polite man in the world; the book  is really about him.  And Andrew Sutherland, a character who James McCourt thinks is one of the six or seven best-realized characters in gay literature.  This makes sense, because if you remember what I said about Time Remaining, Sutherland is an Odette O'Doyle for my generation. Sutherland may even have inspired McCourt to create Detta. The scion of an old wealthy Virginia family, there's very little that Sutherland won't do.

About Sutherland:

Sutherland seemed to have been alive, like the Prime Mover, forever. He had been a candidate for the Episcopalian priesthood, an artist, a socialite, a dealer, a kept-boy, a publisher, a film maker, and was now simply -- Sutherland. And yet -- behind the black veil his face was still as innocent and wonder-struck as it was the day he arrived in New York.

I should mention that the book is framed by a series of letters -- six at the beginning and four at the end -- between the Deep South and the Lower East Side.  The sixth letter sends a first novel (Dancer from the Dance) south, to one of the denizens of the Twelfth Floor who escaped the city, and the last four reminisce about the characters in the novel.  The narrator is the letter writer from the Lower East Side.

Here's the beginning of the novel:

He was just a face I saw in a discotheque one winter, but it was I who ended up going back to Fire Island to pick up his things.
"His" is Malone, and the novel is the story of Malone's descent.  Fire Island, and the Sandpiper (now also no more), and then the Twelfth Floor.

They lived only to bathe in the music, and each other's desire, in a strange democracy whose only ticket of admission was physical beauty -- and not even that sometimes. All else was strictly classless: The boy passed out on the sofa from an overdose of Tuinols was a Puerto Rican who washed dishes in the employees' cafeteria at CBS, but the doctor bending over him had treated presidents. It was a democracy such as the world -- with its rewards and its penalties, its competition and snobbery -- never permits, but which flourished in this little room on the twelfth floor of a factory building . . . because its central principle was the most anarchic of all: erotic love.
Malone falls in love and sets up housekeeping with a darker Italian man, Frankie, who is just coming out, but Malone tires of him, and since Frankie is violent, he has to hide somewhere. Hence the apartment on St. Mark's Place (where the narrator lives).

I really COULD blockquote you to death from this book. I won't, but it really tells you about New York in the 70s better than I could from living there. But it's difficult to resist.

We ran into [Malone] a few hours before midnight on New Year's Eve.  He was in black tie and black coat (like most of Halston's entourage, like most of us who had been living in New York a while, we had all arrived at the color black; it was in the end a preference that I never could decide was our sophistication or the fact that we were in mourning for our lives) and carried a bottle of champagne in his free hand.
At any rate, since Malone isn't practicing law any more, Sutherland becomes his pimp and tries to marry him off to John Schaefer, just out of Princeton and an heir to the Union Carbide fortune, and the rest of the book is about how that works out. As you can probably tell, genial Malone goes along with it for a while, and then doesn't.

Of course my first quotation tells you that this is an elegiac book, so I'll throw in one more quotation that shows how many ways there were to be gay in New York in the 1970s, from the letter that ends the book:

And, even so, do you realize what a tiny fraction of the mass of homosexuals we were? That day we marched to Central Park and found ourselves in a sea of humanity [the Gay Pride parade used to march up Fifth Avenue from the Village and end at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park], how stunned I was to recognize no more than four or five faces? . . . I used to say there were only seventeen homosexuals in New York City and we knew every one of them, but there were tons of men in that city who weren't on the circuit, who didn't dance, didn't cruise, didn't fall in love with Malone, who stayed home and went to the country in the summer.  We never saw them. We were addicted to something else.
The Reviews

This was published the same month that Larry Kramer published Faggots, a book I'm in no real hurry to reread. According to Edmund White, these were the first major gay novels after Stonewall.

The New York Times gave both books to John Lahr, who headlined his review "Camp Tales." It's a plot summary composed mainly from quotes from the book -- I'll tell you what it says because, heaven knows, you the average Times reader won't want to read it yourself, although it's better than Kramer's book.  However:

In 300 pages of high-energy prattle, not one line [in Faggots] has as much comic pay-off as Sutherland's quip: "Darling, come, we're going uptown. A small Crucifixion at Park and Seventy-Fifth, nothing heavy."
Resistance as well from the Kirkus Review:
That tiny subspecies of homosexual, the doomed queen, who puts the car in gear and drives right off the cliff! That fascinates me."" For any readers similarly fascinated, Holleran has done a depressingly convincing job of recording the rhythms and the paraphernalia of New York's gay-a-go-go subculture: the discos, the Baths, Valium, Quaaludes, poppers, T-shirts, Fire Island, the obsession with physical beauty, and every kink (very gross stuff, but not gratuitously belabored) in the book.

I understand that Martin Duberman (in the New Republic) and Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (in the Washington Post Book World) didn't like it much either.  Paul Robinson, however, was the first to review it for the New Republic.  He found it a post-liberation document that lacked political shrewdness because it told the truth about the narcissism of homosexual life. On the other hand, he liked Holleran's ability to describe the culture:

What the Jews have done for the life of the mind, the French for food, and the Protestants for capitalism, homosexuals have done for the body.  In Andrew Holleran they have found a worthy memorialist.
But then there was David Leavitt's reaction, which showed up in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories:
I saw only, and with a kind of ashen horror, my future, or what I feared my future was going to amount to: relegation to some marginal role in a world where supermen possessed of almost blinding physical perfection preen, parade, ignore, dismiss.
Gee, I wonder what Leavitt would have done if he were my age and his first gay novel was John Rechy's City of Night.

This, plus Ethan Morddren's criticism of Holleran's "sloppiness" and Bruce Bawer's concern trolling that Holleran presents gay life as a carnival of promiscuity peopled by confused, wayward and atypical gay men, is the topic of an article Lev Raphael (a REALLY interesting writer in his own right) published in Lambda Book Report 4.8 (January/February 1995): 10-12, "Why are they bashing Dancer from the Dance?" Raphael's own reaction?

The message I first found in Dancer from the Dance was not "You're doomed," but "Try writing a gay novel as good as this."
My Final Take

Holleran has said

In my mind Dancer is a critical/satiric book. It’s not a glamorization of gay life. It was a younger person’s book so it came out with a certain element of romanticism that has something to do with temperament and false ideals. I do feel I’ve been in the grip of bleak realism for a long time now.
Yes, his subsequent writing has been about AIDS and it's eminently worth reading, but Dancer from the Dance, even if it is satire, is such a brilliant evocation of what the 70s could have been that it's a must-read itself.

And, for getting through this, here's something that we danced to at the Rendezvous in San Francisco in 1972.

4:13 PM PT: Feel free to comment on the music, too!

Originally posted to Remembering LGBT History on Thu May 24, 2012 at 02:46 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA, LGBT Kos Community, Courtesy Kos, Milk Men And Women, History for Kossacks, Angry Gays, and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Awesome history diary, Dave. (13+ / 0-)

    I was still in my teens when I saw Kondoleon's Zero Positive at the old Joe Papp Public Theatre. I was already out, but I never looked at NYC or being gay the same way again. I mean a COMEDY about AIDS?  In the 80's?

    I have never read Dancer from the Dance but I'll put it on my list.

    (It's not just the fact that I am from Boston originally, but I have always liked visiting NYC but could never see myself living there. My experiences visiting as a young gay man and those since have only reinforced my conviction that I'm just not a NYC kind of guy. Doesn't keep me from reading about it or visiting though.)

    Santorum: Man on Dog; Romney: Dog on Car. Ren and Stimpy: Dog on Cat equalitymaine.org

    by commonmass on Thu May 24, 2012 at 03:00:46 PM PDT

  •  repubbed to courtesy kos (14+ / 0-)

    I know it isn't specifically about courtesy, but these diaries deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

    Yes, it is bread we fight for - but we fight for roses, too! Sick of the endless battles, namecalling and hostility? Join Courtesy Kos -- A group dedicated to respect and civility.

    by rexymeteorite on Thu May 24, 2012 at 03:04:31 PM PDT

  •  Sutherland's letter at the end of the novel (12+ / 0-)

    ...was a marvelous coda to a lifestyle that many of us gay men never personally experienced but nonetheless vicariously enjoyed while reading Dancer From the Dance. In 1979 I was a hardcore punk rocker who was emerging from the closet and although I had nothing in common with the characters in the book, I could not help but laugh at Sutherland's quotes throughout the book - none of which I would want to post in a public forum.

    To any gay men (or any reader) wishing to peek into a slice of gay life in the mid-1970s, read it! At worst, you'll bust a gut laughing.

    Cause we find ourselves in the same old mess singin' drunken lullabies--Flogging Molly

    by dalfireplug on Thu May 24, 2012 at 03:09:19 PM PDT

  •  This book, ah, this book. (13+ / 0-)

    It was the centerpiece of my first joyous discovery of gay lit. in the early '80s. Malone, Sutherland and the other characters have been alive for me ever since.

    And I now realize that I always viewed my own experience in the San Francisco scene of the '80s in reaction to, or filtered through, a New York of a decade before which I never knew in real life.

    For me, this was one of the Most Important Books along my journey.

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Thu May 24, 2012 at 04:18:14 PM PDT

  •  I lived in NYC for the month (10+ / 0-)

    of February 1976. Tea dances at Columbia, men kissing in broad daylight in the street. a garbage strike that had trash piled in the streets, a snowstorm that closed the city and caused a lady in a full length mink coat to ride the subway with me because there were no taxis and far far too many people for this Texas boy.

    I remember reading Dancer from the Dance soon after it came out in DC where I had moved in March 1976.

    Mention the title and I see Dutch sailors sitting on a veranda in Jakarta with their shirts unbuttoned at the neck, a pale Puerto Rican boy sitting in a bathtub surrounded by candles reading medical textbooks while Malone looks up at the window and Sutherland leaning out the window of his apartment clutching the avocados in his peasant blouse and screaming in Italian.

    In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria. Ben Franklin

    by nokkonwud on Thu May 24, 2012 at 04:21:49 PM PDT

  •  The music brings back memories (6+ / 0-)

    of dancing in my bedroom because no one would take me to the school dances in junior high. Stronger memories are of Women's Studies in high school, one of the girls passing around her copy of the San Francisco Chronicle so we could catch up on a serialized story called "Tales of the City" by some dude named Maupin.

    This straight chick is intrigued by this book -- may have to take a look for it.

    Mitt Romney: the Etch-A-Sketch candidate in the era of YouTube

    by Cali Scribe on Thu May 24, 2012 at 04:43:52 PM PDT

  •  Gee, I didn't view it as satire at all. (10+ / 0-)

    I lived in Baltimore in the '70s when I was in my twenties. There was a dance bar, there was a Malone (whom we all adored and I shall never forget his face) and we went to Rehoboth Beach in the summer. None of us had ever been to a bar in NYC but it was all so familiar. The social currency was often measured in inches -- biceps, pecs and penises. Yes, it was narcissistic, promiscuous and completely misguided but deliriously exhilarating. We had never tasted the freedom of our sexual identities before, after enduring so many years of pent-up desires we thought we may never have been able to express. We had no road map, no high school dating experience, we were flying by the seats of our pants. We simply didn't know any better in our innocent amazement. But truly, we never gave up on romance and we all knew by the end of the decade that the party was over.

  •  I'm going to post two comments. Here's the first (6+ / 0-)

    First of all, thanks for a great review and analysis Dave. I seem to recall that there were other things I read before Dancer From the Dance was published but I would not underestimate its influence either.

    It doesn't hurt that Holleran is a terrific prose stylist. Reading him is one of the most pleasant of all pleasant experiences.

    I did not know anyone who lived the lives that the characters in novel lived; I did, however, know, at least tangentially, many people whose lives resembled aspects of those lived by the characters in this book. I lived in Queens before decamping for DC in 1980 and, as a "bridge-and-tunnel person" many of the denizens of Manhattan nightlife did not treat me very well. Nevertheless I managed to...ahem...meet any number of people who were involved in what might reasonably be called the "center" of mid- to late-1970's gay nightlife in Manhattan.

    One thing about the novel that has always intrigued me is the sense of impending doom that pervades it. Without spoiling it too much for those who've yet to read it (yes it is an absolute must), I have wondered whether Holleran had some sort of inkling, even in 1978, as to what was about to hit the gay community. If I recall correctly, the very first whispers of people dying of strange and unexplained conditions began to surface before the first official news reports came out in early 1981; in fact there were rumors as far back as 1979. Nobody would ever have accused Holleran of being ill-informed so I wonder what it is he saw going on before the reality hit a couple of years later.

  •  Here's my second comment...a reminiscence (12+ / 0-)

    Back in 1977 I befriended someone who began working for PEN, the writers' organization at about the time we met. Thanks to that friendship I was able to meet any number of writers, gay and straight, who were then or shortly became extremely well-known. For example my friend introduced me to Ann Rice at just about the time "Interview with the Vampire" was published. He was always getting me invites to work-related parties.

    PEN was and is an interesting organization. There was the sort of career staff, including a professional manager; at the same time there was also a director who was always a writer of some note; the position changed every year or two.

    The real jackpot experience for me was on New Years Eve 1978 when my friend invited me to a party at the home of Richard Howard, the poet and sometime translator of Michel Foucault. I believe he was the director of PEN at the time or was about to take up the position.

    At the time most of the Lavender Quill crew were unpublished; the exceptions were Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano and Edmund White. Many of the individuals at the party later became quite well-known and, sadly, not a few of them also passed away too soon. It's also unfortunate (as far as I'm concerned) that most of the people at this party gave me rather short shrift when it was revealed that I was not a writer. The notable exception was Picano, who was quite gracious. I was otherwise quite star-struck and overwhelmed by the experience.

    At any rate, shortly after I arrived Edmund White showed up very briefly; he did not stay. We conversed briefly; I told him how much I'd enjoyed reading "Nocturnes for the King of Naples." At the time he was working on "States of Desire," his non-fiction survey of various gay communities in the US, which was published in 1980. He was teaching at Johns Hopkins at the time; when I mentioned my connection with the gay community in Baltimore he was singularly dismissive (for reasons I suppose I can understand though not necessarily agree with).

    His abrupt departure was ostensibly that it was too crowded and he'd had to keep Andrew Holleran and Larry Kramer waiting for him outside the door. I did get to meet both of them later on. Holleran at least had a rather vivid recollection of the event. The true nugget was something that Felice Picano told me at a book-signing many years later, after I'd moved to SF. According to him, the real reason White didn't stay and that Holleran and Kramer didn't come in was that Kramer had basically been declared persona non grata by the host and most of the other attendees because of the success and notoriety of "Faggots." Some were offended; others were, I suspect, simply envious of the book's commercial success.

    I can understand your reluctance to discuss "Faggots." I re-read it not that long ago. It's one of those books that's historically important and yet not at all fun to read.

    •  DIARY THIS, PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!! (6+ / 0-)

      How utterly wonderful.  I guess I'll have to report on Faggots if only to tell my story about meeting Sam Bronfman at a meeting on the Paul Masson advertising plan and how awkward that was.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Thu May 24, 2012 at 05:39:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'll see what I can do but I suspect (7+ / 0-)

        that the above is about all I'm capable of.

        I should mention, by the way, that while I did not in fact meet Kramer back then, I did meet him about two years later, at the very beginning of 1980. There was some sort of forum (I don't recall who put it on; it may have been PEN; at any rate I was once again invited by the same friend) with the topic of "The Future of the Gay Novel." Looking back it was not only more than a bit pretentious, it was also entirely incorrect overall in the ideas that came from it.

        By this time White was quite as well-known as Kramer and Picano, thanks mainly to his having co-authored the original version of "The Joy of Gay Sex." He was one of the main speakers. The others in the Lavender Quill group were just starting to get published; I don't recall who else participated on the panel. Needless to say, Kramer was once again not among them but we met outside after it had ended. It's amazing the stuff you remember and the things you forget. What I do remember is that it was a standard-issue January night in Manhattan; chilly with a bit of snow on the ground. My friend and I were walking away from whatever the venue for the event was and we somehow ran into Kramer who my friend seemed to know. He seemed like a rather sweet gentleman; he was carrying a foofy little dog (a yorkie I think). Not only was he not at all like the person whose horror resulted in the founding of Gay Mens' Health Crisis and whose rage resulted in the founding of ACT-UP and the launching of an unending series of diatribes (some of them entirely too accurate), I could not imagine why anyone would have been angry with him. He seemed utterly harmless and quite charming.

  •  read Dancer as a teen (5+ / 0-)

    eager for books about the gay experience - there weren't many. I found it intimidating, as I recall. Not appealing.

    But I was shy and acned, felt ugly and undesirable, nor did I yearn to have sex in alleys ...

    I should give the book another chance. I'm much more interested these days in prose style than in fiction modeling life choices.

  •  Ah, how my reading of Dancer (4+ / 0-)

    back in 1983 has stayed with me. I was 22, a senior in college in New York City. Like Holleran's character, I was a Southerner who had come to the big city. When I came out that year, one of my dear and trusted new gay friends was a literature grad student, Oscar, who told me to read Dancer from the Dance.  I was such a neophyte, I had barely finished reading Giovanni's Room! Oscar was ten years older and a student of literature. He had lived the novel a bit, and he loved beautiful writing. I recognized the beautiful writing, but did have a something of a David Leavitt reaction. (Oscar also turned me on to reading Leavitt that same year.) The AIDS epidemic swept away dear Oscar in its flood a few years later, and I'm left remembering how he admired the humor, the piquancy and beautiful writing of Holleran's novel.

    "Individuals need to know how to judge truth claims objectively; how to be skeptical; how to be avoid gullibility, nincompoopery, fraudulent and counterfeit promises; how to live with ambiguities and uncertainties." Paul Kurtz

    by Tennessee Dave on Thu May 24, 2012 at 08:04:25 PM PDT

  •  Hey Dave (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge

    Just the day I didn't check in on DKos, you post this. (-: I feel Holleran's work with this and Nights in Aruba stand as the very best of gay literature in its golden age. Thanks for the presentation.

    There is a critical difference between feeling discriminated against because you're disagreed with and being discriminated against because of who you are.

    by EdSF on Fri May 25, 2012 at 04:56:02 PM PDT

  •  Ahem (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dave in Northridge
    This was published the same month that Larry Kramer published Faggots, a book I'm in no real hurry to reread. According to Edmund White, these were the first major gay novels after Stonewall.
    Patricia Nell Warren published The Front Runner (which would almost certainly make it onto my "five favorite books" list if I ever had to write such a list) in 1974. Last time I checked, that was post-Stonewall.

    She's quite an "interesting" character. She can say some of the most perfectly rational things that need to be said (e.g. that a lot of censorship laws intended to "protect" youth are really about controlling youth), and the next moment she can be spouting nonsensical HIV/AIDS denialist rhetoric. Oh well, I don't judge people by their worst flaws.

    If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse. --Mark Crislip

    by ebohlman on Sat May 26, 2012 at 12:57:34 AM PDT

    •  Ahem, redux (0+ / 0-)

      I wrote

      The first major for us by us novel after Stonewall.
      Unless Ms. Warren were a gay man writing under a pseudonym, which you make very clear she wasn't, that disqualifies her from "by us."  

      I'll accept the fact that since I'm someone who objects to "gay marriage" because it's "marriage" I should not have written "gay novel."  There's also a matter of literary quality, and that accounts for my not mentioning Gordon Merrick either.

      Thanks for commenting!

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Sat May 26, 2012 at 06:13:56 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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