Thursday, August 14, 2008

Don't They Know It's The End Of The World?

That's strange: I could have sworn I'd posted this review already, but evidently I haven't. And here I was trying to get my act together to write something about the new reissue of this book (with a different title and somewhat different contents), which would necessitate referring to this review. It originally appeared in Gay Community News, March 12-18, 1989.

Ground Zero, by Andrew Holleran. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1988. 228 pp. $16.95 clothbound

No matter how funny and lyrical they were, no matter how beautifully written, Andrew Holleran's earlier novels were damaged for me by his ambivalence about being gay, particularly in Dancer from the Dance. He wrote some of the most exhilarating accounts I have ever read of the sheer excitement of being an urban gay man in the 1970s: the ecstasy of dancing, the beauty of men's bodies, the "joy that there were men who loved other men." Yet at the same time he seemed unable to shake the feeling that there was something wrong with it all. His characters' complaints seemed to come from his own heart: "Homosexuality is like a boarding school in which there are no vacations." "Gay life fascinates you only because it is the life which you were condemned to live." On the other hand, it was this ambivalence which not only made Dancer bearable but may have been the engine which drove it to the heights it achieved, giving us the incomparable comedy team of Malone and Sutherland: every time Malone's Fifties self-pity reared its head, Sutherland would slap it down: "Perhaps what you a good facial." I always felt that if Holleran had done one more draft of Dancer, he'd have found the proper balance for the guilt and the joy, and it would have been a better book.

But after reading Ground Zero, his new collection of essays about gay men's life in the age of AIDS, I think I understand what was going on. Holleran is one of those writers who has a Theme, and his is Lost Innocence. In Dancer, Lost Innocence meant the days before you had come out, preferably the days before you'd had any sex with men at all: "A homosexual will never have such a close relationship with his heterosexual peers again, unless he enters the army, a relationship that sublimated sexuality makes even more moving." Now, however, the Plague has changed all that, at least for Holleran. Lost Innocence now means the days before AIDS: sex, drugs, dancing, and all; when Fire Island was the Dangerous Island only because there you might lose "your heart, your mind, your reputation, your contact lenses." As a result, Ground Zero is Holleran's best book so far; while it hasn't (thankfully) become uncritical, his ambivalence no longer rejects gay life. Holleran's obsession with Lost Innocence unifies these pieces, which were originally published in magazines over several years. Everything has fallen into place; he's never been funnier—

In ancient Rome, a certain empress would slip out of the palace at night, Juvenal tells us, to take a room in a local brothel and entertain customers till dawn. This was being both promiscuous and a prostitute. (And bored.) (And an empress.) ["Notes on Promiscuity"]

SUGGESTION: Put a little sign above the bathroom mirror that says: 1. I will wash my face every night. 2. I will not let anyone sit on it. ["Beauty NOW"]

or angrier --

It still seems against nature, a violation of the hierarchy of things, that a microbe could destroy a man who could stop on a summer evening and talk about friends, Rome, Christmas, while the city he loved went past us. It still seems a scandal that an item scientists do not even define as living -- a microbe that can't paint angels, trumpets, clouds, or gods upon a ceiling – can devour a creature who can. It still seems a reproach that a virus can return us from the twentieth century to the Stone Age. . . .

Human beings lie broken and shattered on the ground, like statues pulled down by barbarians invading Rome, or Protestants smashing the art in a cathedral. ["Snobs at Sea: 1983"]

The high-pitched giggle Pat Buchanan broke into whenever interviewing a homosexual on Crossfire -- the blush, the expression of a nine-year-old boy telling a dirty joke that inevitably suffused his face, the near falsetto of his voice when homosexuality was the subject of the program -- only typifies the way legions of people like him view homosexuals: as an off-color joke. ["The Absence of Anger"]

or more lyrically elegiac --

Or the dance floor at Track's. It's filled with people dancing; the handsome men take their shirts off at a certain point, as they used to formerly, observing rituals practiced by a court that no longer exists. It is all muted, a ghost of itself, all difficult to explain, till I see a muscular man beating a stick against a gourd while a woman dances to his syncopation and, as she whirls around, read what the sweatshirt she's wearing says: CHOOSE LIFE. That is the caption that explains the dance now, and our whole community. ["Trust"]

-- or prouder to be gay, and he never strikes a false note. Because of AIDS or despite it, there seems to be a new renaissance of gay men's writing going on, with exciting new writers like Stephen McCauley and older ones like Holleran and Edmund White working at the peak of their powers. I'm now thirty-eight years old, the age at which Malone swam into the sea from Fire Island; I've looked a long time for gay books which speak fully to me about the complexity of my life. Our lives. They're starting, finally, to appear. Ground Zero is one of them.