Thursday, August 21, 2008

Twilight of the Clones

Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath (Da Capo Press, 2008) is a partial reprint of Andrew Holleran’s Ground Zero (William Morrow, 1988). Holleran explains in his introduction that

Dale Peck and the English editor Richard Canning were upset that certain books written during the AIDS epidemic by people like Allen Barnett, Harry Kondoleon, Christopher Coe, David Wojnarowicz, and John Weir were not only out of print but, they felt, had not received their due because of the times in which they were published. So they spoke to Don Weise, an editor at Carroll & Graf, about launching a series of reprints, a series now in abeyance because of the demise of that publisher. (Ground Zero was the only one that squeaked through.) What drew Weise to the project, however, is still valid: He was afraid that this part of gay history was being forgotten [page 2].

I share that concern, though I’m not sure that other parts of gay history are being remembered any better. From time to time I ask volunteers for our local GLB Speakers Bureau what is the most recent gay-related book they’ve read, and the most common answer is, “Um … I don’t remember …I don’t think I’ve read any.” It seems to me that these people, just by virtue of volunteering to speak publicly about being gay, would be more motivated than most GLB people to have read something. When other queerfolk of my generation remember how they scoured their libraries for any information about homosexuality they could find, and marvel (or lament) that today’s gay kids can see gay characters on TV, I have to remind myself that we bookworms were as atypical then as now.

So, it’s good that Holleran’s writings from the peak years of the AIDS crisis, which appeared as essays in the pioneering gay glossy Christopher Street, are back in print. They are primary sources for what it felt like to live in gay Manhattan during the early 1980s, and as always with Holleran's work they're beautifully written. If you’re concerned about history, though, you should probably skip Holleran’s introduction, because it’s a mess. He confuses the gay psychologist Walt Odets with his playwright father, Clifford Odets (3); he includes Samuel Delany (whose surname he misspells, but then so does almost everybody) in a list of writers who “wrote nonfiction that many consider their best work” (8) out of the AIDS crisis, all of whom also died of AIDS. Delany is still alive, and while he’s written important nonfiction, I’m not sure that his writings about AIDS are considered his best work. In the same list Holleran includes “Alan Barnett”, probably a misspelling of Allen Barnett (whose name, as you can see above, he does know how to spell correctly), who is known not for nonfiction but for a single volume of fiction, The Body and Its Dangers and other stories (St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

I know, I know: these are details – but there are more of them, and they’re the kind of details that should have been checked before putting them into print. There are also dubious historical judgments, like his defense of Arlene Croce’s denunciation of dancer / choreographer Bill T. Jones’s Still/Here – which she refused not only to review but even to see – as “victim art.” Holleran says, “When the dance critic Arlene Croce asked in The New Yorker how she was supposed to criticize a ballet about AIDS by a choreographer who had AIDS, she was predictably assailed for inquiring, but her question was valid. Who had the right to write about AIDS at all, much less make judgments? The only people, it seemed to me, with authority to do so were people with HIV” (6). Consider the errors of fact in his summary: Still/Here was a combination dance and theatre piece not a “ballet”, it was not only about AIDS but about other life-threatening conditions besides, and Croce didn’t defer to the authority of PWAs but denied that the work had any validity at all. (There’s an abstract of her polemic here.) And if only people with AIDS had the right to write about AIDS at all, what was Holleran doing?

It seems that Holleran still feels defensive about his lack of involvement in AIDS activism; he returns to the issue several times in the introduction:

Years ago a friend who had been as skeptical as I about Act Up at the beginning, but started going to its meetings after deciding the protests had accelerated medical help, accused me – after his death, through a mutual friend -- of not doing enough about AIDS. This has always bothered me. Last fall, reading the latest volume of Gore Vidal’s memoirs, I came upon this line: “I am also chided for not doing enough about AIDS, but my virological skills are few.” That’s it. If a virus could only be stopped by a scientist, it seemed to me at the time, all the rest of us could do was stand by friends [14].

Everyone has to make his or her own decisions in these matters, and I’m not casting the first stone at Holleran for not joining ACT-UP. What annoys me about his apologia (and Vidal’s, come to that) is the assumption that either you invented a cure in the laboratory, or you did nothing. By Holleran’s own standards, an uninfected person had no business even writing about it. What he’s doing here is not just justifying his own inaction, it’s devaluing the action of others, who not only ‘stood by friends’ but stood by people they didn’t know. It’s one thing for Holleran to have felt this way in the 80s; it’s another to try to exalt it now. (It may be worth noticing that among the writers on AIDS Holleran doesn’t mention is the lesbian novelist, playwright, and AIDS activist Sarah Schulman.)

What struck me as I read Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited was how different the tone and mood were from Ground Zero as I remembered it. This is partly because Holleran left out “six satires on safe sex” that appeared in the original. My count disagrees with his, though: as far as I can tell, seven essays from the original edition were left out and replaced with other (quite good) pieces. Holleran kept one of those satirical pieces, “Beauty NOW”, abandoned three (including an essay on Henry James), and added yet another, “My Little Trojan.”

But even the essays that remained from the earlier edition seemed to read differently after twenty years. This may be partly because I’ve read the books Holleran has written in the interim, and except for some of the stories in the collection In September, the Light Changes, his writing has descended more into gloom and – dare I say it? I dare – self-pity. How much this reflects Holleran’s own personality I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter: I’m talking about what he writes and publishes. His most recent book, the novella Grief, is about a gay man in late middle age coping with his mother’s death, and the title accurately reflects its mood. The novel The Beauty of Men, parts of which originally appeared as essays in Christopher Street, was about a middle-aged gay man who mourns his increasing inability to play the game of Fast Food Sex (as Holleran had called it before) that had been his preferred pattern in gay life. Unlike Holleran, who writes and teaches, the narrator of The Beauty of Men seems to have no life outside of the baths and other cruising places, except for visiting his mother in the nursing home. Holleran's fictional world has, if anything, shrunk over the past three decades.

Holleran’s sense of the country he inhabits also seems skewed. Reflecting on the spare, puritanical paintings of Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Thomas Eakins, he wrote (62):

We have always been two countries – Puritan and Cavalier – as there are two cities in New York right now: the infected and uninfected. One country is chaotic – illegal immigrants, heart transplants [?], pornography and drugs, homosexuals and AIDS. The other has been around much longer, and speaks from these paintings. Nothing decorative, nothing baroque. No crosses, and no Virgin Marys. No birth, and no death. Just the trackless forest, the mountain pass, the shaft of sunlight landing on a clearing in the valley, the solitary sitter.

How can a southerner like Holleran write as though America equals New England? The “Puritan” strain has not “been around much longer” than the “Cavalier” – among the English, Cavaliers beat the Puritans to the New World by a couple of decades, and of course the Spanish, with their crosses and Virgin Marys, were earlier by a century. To say nothing of the people who were already there when the Europeans landed bearing plague: people with towns and farms and their own lives. Even the Puritans weren’t as colorless as Holleran wishes to believe. No, Holleran sees America this way because he wants to see it this way, just as he wants to ignore all gay men (let alone lesbians) outside the clone subculture. It’s part of what, with perverse pride, he and “the Jesuits call ‘morose delectation’ – an addiction to melancholy” (3).

In the essay “Tuesday Nights” he writes about a gay men’s discussion group he attended in Gainesville, Florida:

Ten years ago I would never have come to a meeting of this sort. People who belonged to groups like this, or went to the gay churches, were, I assumed, people who did not have the nerve to look for a partner in the actual world: the baths, beaches, and bars. In the old days tricking was how we met people. … How to integrate our homosexuality with the rest of our selves, our lives – our family, our society, our upbringing – was a problem a minority, not a majority, of the gay men I knew were able to solve before the plague [203, 205].

I notice that when Holleran writes “we,” he usually means “I.” Like many who write about the gay male fast lane, Holleran has paid lip service to the notion that such men are only one subgroup among gays – Doomed Queens, he called them in his first novel Dancer from the Dance (Morrow, 1978, page 249):

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, how stunned I was to recognize no more than four or five faces? Of course our friends were all at the beach, darling; they couldn’t be bothered to make a political statement.) I used to say there were only seventeen homosexuals in New York, 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.

But in most of his writing he and his narrators simply equate that “tiny fraction” with (male) homosexuality tout court. Like too many gay men I’ve known, Holleran has painted himself into a corner, called that little spot the world, and then complained because it’s so cramped and isolated. Holleran really ought to get back in touch with his inner Sutherland. Let me quote Holleran to himself once more, from Dancer again, page 51:

“You know, I hate being gay,” said the boy, leaning over toward Sutherland.“I just feel it’s ruined my life. It drains me, you know, it’s like having a tumor, or a parasite! If I were straight I’d get married and that would be it. But being gay, I waste so much time imagining! I hate the lying to my family, and I know I’ll never be any of the things they expect of me,” he said, “because it’s like having cancer but you can’t tell them, that’s what a secret vice is like.”

Sutherland was speechless at this declaration; he sat there for a moment, and then he said, “Perhaps what you need … perhaps what you need,” he said, in a speculative tone, "is a good facial.”