On Dancer from the Dance, Almost Three Decades Out


We were recently inspired to pick up Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran’s 1978 work, with a thought to (re)assess the backlist of post-war “gay” American literature, a topic that has been very much at the fore since we posted some preliminary thoughts on the subject a few weeks ago. First the good news: Dancer from the Dance remains a timelessly vibrant masterpiece, a beautifully written elegy to a city that in the intervening years has been as transformed by the influx of capital as it has by the onslaught of AIDS; which is not to downplay the impact of either, although it is only the latter that ever seems to get any attention in the context of Holleran’s subject matter on its most superficial level, i.e., two aging queens looking to escape the drug-and-dance circuit that is 1970s New York City. We won’t spend any time describing Holleran’s magical, romantic and poetic prose other than to say that if by some chance you’ve never read this book, do yourself the favor: it is an eternal star in a rather bleak sky.

From our current vantage point, however, perhaps more telling than the book itself is its treatment by its publisher and the mainstream media (for our purposes here, The New York Times). As for the former, it was with some dismay (particularly after we finished the book) that we noted the lead copy on the back cover of our 2001 Perennial paperback edition: “The classic coming-of-age gay novel” it trumpets, or perhaps bleats would be the better term, given that to describe the book as “coming-of-age” (and possibly even “gay”) completely devalues the true import of the book, which is a strange oversight for a publisher to make twenty-five years after its initial publication (but in this case can be seen as the jailer guarding the jail). Serious readers will agree that there is only one accurate qualifier to this novel, and it is “urban,” for just as Malone (one of Holleran’s characters) realizes that the love he seeks (and can never obtain) is the city itself, this is really the only useful lens through which to view the work, and is one that — not coincidentally — allows us to circumvent the more tedious question of whether it is “gay” or not (though obviously it is, in the best sense of the word). Nor is this the only example to mar this unfortunate edition of the work: the opening sentence on the back cover states that “[Dancer from the Dance is] one of the most important works of gay literature…” Again, we wonder why a publisher would want to limit the appeal of a book like this, particularly when you compare it to the bourgeois drivel being produced by the likes of Roth and Updike; why not just call it “one of the most important and lasting works of fiction from its era?” After all, 25 years should be enough time to recognize the transcendent qualities of the work. Perhaps most maddening, when you consider the (presumably original) testimonials included — one example: “Beautifully written, evocative, and hilarious” (The New Republic) — is that the publisher seems to want to push the work back into a closet in which it was never contained.

Sadly, we cannot expect much help from The Times in this regard. We have already discussed at length the blind spot exhibited by AO Scott and his colleagues in terms of their marked failure to recognize a gay voice in twentieth-century art of any kind, and their treatment of Holleran is typical. In her review of Grief, Holleran’s fourth novel released in 2006, critic (and, apparently, novelist) Caryn James writes thatDancer From the Dance (1978), with its young gay men flocking to New York for carefree sex in the baths, has become a period piece,” and that, “Holleran’s earlier novels can seem so determined to speak for their disenfranchised gay characters that the works become inaccessible to anyone else, like looking through a window at someone else’s world.” If anyone has ever missed the point of Holleran’s novel (or really, any novel) more than James in this assessment, we would like to hear about it! It’s like saying you shouldn’t read The Great Gatsby because it’s about the aristocracy or Beloved because it’s about rural African-Americans (unless, of course, you happen to belong to one of those groups). In short, pathetic.

Dancer from the Dance may in fact be about gay men (but they are not exactly young) having sex in the baths (among other things), but this is no reason not to elevate Holleran’s work to its proper place in the pantheon of American fiction (and not just gay fiction); it deserves the same recognition as other American literary classics, and any attempt to pigeonhole it in the ghetto of gay fiction is not only a disservice to Holleran but to all past, present and future queens who — despite the sickening odds — are drawn to the city in search of a soul, only to have our hearts shattered in the night.


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