Thursday, 11 September 2014

What I'm reading: Gay life before the Plague

Dancer from the Dance

Thanks to the affordability of Print-on-Demand a lot of so-called Classics are being made available again. Dancer from the Dance, regarded as a modern gay 'classic' has been reissued by the Quality Paperback Book Club. It was hailed in 1978 by one reviewer as "the best gay novel written by anyone of our generation." That generation was about to be decimated by the arrival of a disease first known as GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency), later re-branded as Aids. Reading with unavoidable hindsight I kept thinking of Roger Corman's film of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death with the Plague Bringer wandering up the grand staircase and through the dancers in the palace ballroom. A pestilence was about to descend on the disco dancers of 1970s New York, on the bronzed hardbodies of Fire Island.

The book's two main characters, the unbelievably gorgeous but deeply unhappy Malone and the extravagant drag queen Sutherland, are two of Manhattan's party people whose lives revolve around nights of clubbing and summer weekends at the beach. Every moment is devoted to finding hot new guys to dance with and shag. Poppers come in ampoules rather than (diluted) bottles (simpler times!). In the clubs "everyone was reduced to an ecstatic gloom ... how aching, how desperate." It's not hard to see why the Religious Right in America - 'Christian jihadists', we might call them - saw Aids as God's retribution on the citizens of Sodom and Gotham.

Andrew Holleran's narrator weirdly - even perversely - romanticises the great gay 'delirium' (his word for it), which takes place in toilets and backrooms, in abandoned buildings and under boardwalks. He doesn't call it sex. He calls it love. Malone and Sutherland are, with a new guy every night, looking for love.

The unnamed narrator, infatuated with Malone and amused by Sutherland, tells their story in a prose style in which the textured lushness of Truman Capote is intermittently punctuated by  the blunt terminology of a high-school corridor. There's a lot of lurid sex talk but very few descriptions of actual sex. The chapter in which Malone falls in and out of love with an Italian electrician is almost as overripe as Barbara Cartland but very touching for all that. Hard not to assume that Malone is a self-portrait.

This is a version of gay New York peopled entirely by scene queens, hustlers and mega-rich predators prowling for toyboys. There's scarcely a glimpse of gay men living domesticated or culturally-oriented lives outside the Scene and not many echoes of lonely men closeted in the intolerant boondocks. It's possible that the author is mocking the 1970s scene and its denizens, but the book reads more like a social chronicle than as a satire.

In the second half of this relatively short novel (150 pages) Sutherland's brand of camp and lurid sex-talk becomes wearisome, as it does when you're over-exposed to it in daily life. There's a framing device of cod ladies-of-letters exchanges between the author and a grand queen who's retired to the Deep South; these exchanges are seriously OTT and richly funny.

Holleran's extravagant prose, like his cast, is very much of his time, although of course that style and that lifestyle are still pretty much part of today's 'Scene'. A lot of contemporary fiction (not all of it gay) suffers from florid over-writing, and a lot of people (not all of them gay) still live by the same code: eat, drink, dance, do drugs and fuck our brains out, for tomorrow we ... become old and staid!

Dancer from the Dance - an anthem for doomed youth - manages to read as a book of its time and of ours. For me the great gay novel of the pre-Aids era is John Rechy's City of Night, written in a Beat-era style that owes a debt to Kerouac, a style Rechy never recaptured in the tawdry pseudo-porn books that followed. Rechy is a more urgent writer than Holleran, but Holleran's reputation will probably outlast Rechy's; perhaps it already has.

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