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.
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 todayAgain 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.
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.
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.
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
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!