Pbriefly during his rounds of almost motorized erotic pleasures in New York, the hero of Andrew Holleran’s first novel, dancers from the dance, proclaims the glory of gay liberation and foresees its downfall. “We’re completely free,” he says, “and that’s the horror.” That was 1978; three years later, AIDS ended the disco festivals and Holleran began writing essays about a city that had turned into an ashen graveyard. His subsequent novels, published at intervals of a decade or more, have undergone a long retreat—from New York to Florida, where Holleran moved to care for his aged parents, and from hedonism to metaphysical melancholy, or “grumpy joy” he absorbed from his Jesuit training.
Now in The Sand Kingdom, an unnamed narrator deputizing for the nearly eighty-year-old Holleran, takes a sober look at what Christian eschatology calls the last things. The dry corner of Florida where he’s stranded may be a parody of Fire Island, the sandbank off Long Island where the characters of dancers from the dance take turns sunning and mating on the shore, triple or quadruple in the dunes. The sands spreading across the new novel’s drought-stricken environment are a morbid symptom and a warning that the planet being destroyed by our “factory madness” may soon be uninhabitable. Sex, for the narrator, consists of occasional blowjobs administered to unattractive strangers in sessions that amount to what the Catholic Church defines as physical mercy. Otherwise, he spends his days watching porn, comparing it to his dying father’s miserable solitaire games. But the on-screen coital fights only compound his boredom, as it takes the performers so long to climax that “watching her is like waiting for a bus.”
Forget Florida as the home of Disney World, Tupperware and Donald Trump: Here the state is the antechamber of death. The city of Gainesville is a concentration camp for retirees, all hospitals, nursing homes and crematoria; A cardiac station is like Nasa’s space station at Cape Kennedy, with patients as would-be astronauts preparing to be ejected from Earth. Death is not the end either, as posthumous humiliations follow. Corpses being taken to the morgue release a final burst of gas, which doctors call “corpse farting.” Fluids from an undiscovered body seep into a concrete floor, and an ozone machine has to work overtime to clean the polluted air in the room.
Depression is alleviated by Holleran’s grim wit and by flashes of holiness from above. The Characters in Tony Kushner’s Gay Fantasia Angels in America are visited by seraphs, and Holleran occasionally sees castaways from heaven. A handyman has the face of a Giotto angel, though his “huge butt” is disappointingly down-to-earth, while a bearded youth outside a pizzeria who looks like Jesus turns out to be a drug seller instead of promising salvation. Saint Benedict provides the novel with his haunting epigraphy, and noting the sagging, raccoon-infested roof of his house, the narrator recalls Saint Jerome’s judgment on the empty temples of the pagans, occupied by owls and bats, after God had done business elsewhere. St. Francis is never verified by name, but the chaotic housekeeping described by Holleran brings with it a Franciscan respect for lower forms of life. Tree frogs that hop into the house are gently led out and earthworms are paid homage because their work makes “agriculture and therefore human civilization” possible. Stray, tangled vegetation is allowed to take over the garden simply because it wants to be there; even crabs, like Virginia creeper or Spanish moss, show “the same phenomenon: growth.”
Once you stop expecting, Holleran’s writing is as calm and engaging as the repetitive chores that make up a monastic day. The narrator picks blueberries one by one, not in bunches, at a pace that “takes you back to the Middle Ages.” Sentences that gradually unfold and loop in circles share this soothing deceleration. Holleran is modeled on the meticulous manner of the late Henry James, whose comment on the stroke that killed him is quoted here: As he collapsed, James solemnly saluted “the excellent thing.” In this distinguished but heartbreaking novel, Holleran seems to anticipate his own end.
in the Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise Literary critic Jack Parlett recalls the heyday of the resort where the Sybarites stayed dancers from the dance cavorted. Though Parlett’s book longs for that carnal Eden, the story it scrolls through is dystopian, a reminder that “gay life should be a little bit sad.” Brawls break out at a lesbian bar frequented by Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin laments the futility of addictive sex, while poet Frank O’Hara, who was killed on the beach by a runaway dune buggy, is ‘sad’ about the surf . shatters the land into windblown granules. Holleran once described Fire Island as a blessed appendix to the mainland where Puritan America could be forgotten for the duration of your vacation. Today, as the ocean rises and hurricanes rage, this fragile, erosive barrier is being nibbled away – annihilated, as we will all eventually be, by the sifting kingdom of sand.
The Sand Kingdom by Andrew Holleran is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). In support of Guardian and observer Order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.