Revisiting Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance

The novel that introduced a new post-Stonewall gay sensibility

Garth Greenwell

Doron Langberg, Drawing Mike (panel #1), 2020, oil and color pencil on linen diptych, 80 x 96 in. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

By his own account, the exchange of letters that opens Dancer from the Dance (1978) saved Andrew Holleran’s career. For ten years he had been trying and failing to write a publishable novel; he had given himself one last summer, at his parents’ home in northern Florida, before calling it quits. In these letters, exchanged between two New York circuit queens, one of them—like Holleran—retired to Florida, Holleran fashioned a voice that hadn’t existed, quite, in American literature to that point. He managed to capture a specifically queer expressiveness, what he calls, in an essay written decades later, “campy exuberance.” This was a mode of expression on display in the letters he was exchanging with friends in New York and in newsletters distributed at the gay clubs he had left behind: the sound of a post-Stonewall New York gay sensibility. Once Holleran forged this style, the novel came with ease; the queer aesthetic he crafted served, he says, as an “Open Sesame” for the book.

“Queer aesthetics” is a difficult concept to pin down, maybe because one of its constitutive elements is an allergy to definitions. In fact, what’s exciting about the voices that open Dancer is the clash of radically different, and differently queer, aesthetics. The first letter writer—his name, Paul, is revealed at the very end of the novel; his correspondent is never named—speaks with rhapsodic excess, the overripe lushness of a Tennessee Williams heroine. His first letter is a paean to springtime in Florida: “At this instant a rust-red moon is hanging low above the water lilies on the lake, and the leaves of the live oaks gleam in its light. . . . Everything is in bloom, azaleas and dogwood, the air is soft as talcum powder.” His New York correspondent, who has abandoned himself even further to the gay world, having quit his job and living now as a sex worker, turns this on its head: “Sunday afternoon I walked down the steps off Columbus Circle into Central Park, and the odor of piss rose up from the rest rooms, and I knew a year had passed.”

One impulse toward lush rhapsody and romantic inflation, another toward parody and puncture: these are the dueling queer modes that characterize Dancer’s style, and that are embodied in the two main characters of the narrative framed by the opening letters. Paul’s correspondent, a novelist, shares a manuscript chronicling the bathhouses and circuit parties of the New York gay existence Paul has fled; this manuscript forms the bulk of Dancer. Malone, the protagonist of the novel-within-the-novel, is all earnestness; his quest—for an authentic life, above all for love—provides the book with most of what it offers in the way of plot. The long second section of the novel recounts Malone’s biography: childhood on a Caribbean island; boarding school and college; the beginnings of a dutiful and uninspired professional life; the crisis of homosexuality that changes his life’s course. Gay life for Malone is a complete revolution, the replacement of one set of values with another. He becomes not merely a devotee of the world of Dancer but its presiding spirit, “the figure on which everything rested. The central beautiful symbol.”

The greatness of Holleran’s novel comes from its ambivalence; its moralism wrestles with profound sympathy and desire.

Sutherland, the outrageous queen who mentors Malone in queer life, is one of the great creations of postwar American fiction. We learn little about his past—only his provenance in an economically fallen aristocratic Southern family and a stint as “part of Warhol’s stable.” He seems always to have been a fixture in the bathhouses and dance clubs where he takes Malone. His camp insouciance is the perfect foil for Malone’s earnestness, everywhere defusing sincerity. “I think I should change clothes if we’re going to be serious,” he says at one point, parrying Malone’s overtures to intimacy. His outrageous pronouncements arrive evacuated of meaning, as when he hilariously parrots conservative rhetoric: “‘We live in a rude and dangerous time in which there are no values to speak to and one can cling to only concrete things—such as cock,’ he sighed.”

That Sutherland is so lovable, despite the outrageous things he says, is due in large part to his good works. Unlike Malone, who spends long stretches of the book immobile, lying in bed or sitting on park benches, Sutherland is a whirlwind of activity. He keeps a hyperactive social calendar, cruises toilets and throws lavish parties, maintains byzantine networks of gossip. Much of this labor, one realizes, serves to sustain communities; much of it is a labor of care. After Malone, who becomes a sex worker, is injured by a trick, Sutherland nurses him in full Florence Nightingale drag. Here Holleran collapses the novel’s dialectic of “substance” versus “style” with a sable of camp manner tossed over earnest action: Sutherland’s care may be parodic, but it is still care. Indeed, for all of Sutherland’s deflections of sincerity, much of the emotional impact of Holleran’s novel comes from the relationship between Malone and Sutherland, the queer family they form. “The house of Guiche shall never refuse the protection of its manor to the poorest of its subjects,” Sutherland responds when Malone—a homeless stranger, beaten by his lover—first approaches him and asks for help. The declaration, with its affectation of royalty and mock-epic tone, is pure camp. It is also a statement of extraordinary, unglamorous generosity.

The ambition of Dancer from the Dance is declared in its title, which is taken from one of the most revered poems in English. W. B. Yeats’s “Among School Children” is a deeply mysterious poem, the subject of endless, contradictory commentary. But one possible meaning of Holleran’s title seems clear enough, a recasting of perennial questions about the relationship between the one and the many, the individual and the group. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Yeats asks, and one of Holleran’s preoccupations is the relationship, in the world he chronicles, between any individual and the dance in which they are caught—both the literal dance of the book’s many discotheques and less tangible libidinal currents. This is one justification for the book’s beguiling narration, which alternates between first person singular, the enigmatic narrator whose circumstances we only ever glimpse, and a communal “we.”

The question of the one and the many raised by Yeats’s line, in this reading, is also central to the book’s exploration of love. At the start of his journey, Malone believes love to be the great individualizing force, singling out and sanctifying one dancer among the crowd: “And wasn’t that the whole allure of love, and why Malone had been such a genius at it: our struggle, always, to isolate from the mob the single individual, having whom society meant nothing?” Malone is a formerly religious child who has lost his faith; love becomes a new object of devotion. He finds it, once, in his relationship with Frankie, the passionate, possessive, finally violent man with whom he shares a home early in the book. Frankie is a type familiar from gay literature, and this section reads like an homage to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Frankie is the fantasy of a certain strain of gay male culture: impeccably masculine, he leads an apparently heterosexual life until he meets Malone, for whom he leaves his wife and child; like Giovanni, he is devoted to his lover and strives to create a home they can inhabit; like Giovanni, his model for that home seems to be heterosexual marriage; like Giovanni, he fails. Even the image repertoire for their relationship—life at the bottom of the sea—can be found in Baldwin’s novel.

At its most blissful, Malone’s relationship with Frankie is painted as a kind of pastoral idyll (“Malone would lie awake all night in wonderment and peace, like a shepherd who keeps watch over his flock”), and it remains an ideal; Frankie’s image will interpose itself between Malone and all of his later lovers, a “double exposure” that will keep Malone from fully loving anyone else. But it is also suffocating, and Malone’s faith in love as an individuating force finally fails. Finding, as he wanders his neighborhood, young men as beautiful as Frankie, Malone realizes that far from enshrining individuals, desire fills the world with “replicas.” “Love was like drinking seawater,” he thinks; from being “a prisoner of love,” that romantic ideal, Malone becomes “a prisoner of habit.”

There is a powerful strain of moralism in Dancer, which has been read, and with good reason, as a condemnation of the world it documents. Holleran has said that he wanted to register his feeling that the gay New York of the 1970s had become unsustainably wild, a view that the arrival of AIDS a few years after the novel’s publication seemed to vindicate. Another important gay novel published in 1978, Larry Kramer’s grotesque picaresque Faggots, offered a similar view in a more scabrous form. Kramer’s novel is everywhere monovalent, strident in its disdain for the world it documents. The greatness of Holleran’s novel comes from its ambivalence; its moralism wrestles with profound sympathy and desire.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby—an acknowledged influence on Dancer—Holleran is always inside and outside of a punctured dream, enchanted and disenchanted at once. The moralism of Holleran’s book can seem strident, fixed, final, as when the image of men treading the “Via Dolorosa” of bars and piers for sex is juxtaposed with that of pig carcasses sliding on steel wire into a butcher’s shop. But the novel can also enter into the intoxication it condemns, as in this ecstatic passage, one of the most beautiful in this very beautiful book:

What queens we were! With piercing shrieks we met each other on the sidewalk, the piercing shriek that sometimes, walking down a perfectly deserted block of lower Broadway, rose from my throat to the sky because I had just seen one of God’s angels, some languorous, soft-eyed face lounging in a doorway, or when I was on my way to dance, so happy and alive you could only scream. I was a queen (“Life in a palace changes one,” said another), my soul cries out to Thee.

I’m not sure there’s another sentence in any of Holleran’s books quite like that last one, with its snapped spine of a comma splice, the sudden leap to a devotional register in the final clause. Religious language suffuses Dancer: the “doomed queens” it takes as its subject are referred to as friends of Christ, “martyrs,” “saints receiving the stigmata,” “the Magi coming to the Christ Child”; in a striking passage, the narrator says that Malone’s “eyes are like Jesus Christ’s.”

It can be hard to know what to do with this language. It begins very early in the book, with the New York correspondent’s first letter:

I am in fact so depressed that last night while Bob Cjaneovic was sitting on my face, I began to think how futile life is, no matter what you do—it all ends in Death, we are given such a short time, and everything truly is, as Ecclesiastes says, Vanity, Vanity, Vanity. (Of course that only made me burrow deeper, but still—to have the thought.)

It would be easy to read this as the kind of religious language that frequently forms part of queer camp, in talk about worshipping at a certain man’s church or going down on one’s knees in prayer. One word for it—as when the novel describes men “exhibiting themselves to view much as the priest on Holy Saturday throws open the doors of the Tabernacle to expose the chalice within”—might be blasphemy. But blasphemy is a tricky, indeterminate thing; once a circuit is formed between the sacred and the profane, it’s hard to constrain which way the energy will run. What happens when one quotes Ecclesiastes while rimming? Is the wisdom text degraded, brought down to the carnal? Or is the carnal exalted? Or, more excitingly, is the very distinction between carnal and sacred subjected to question? This is another turn of the dialectic between irony and earnestness in Holleran’s novel, between rhapsody and parody, Sutherland and Malone; and again, it’s difficult to keep the terms of the dialectic safely distinct.

Great art often refuses to resolve its quandaries, to constrain our judgment, and this seems to me part of its generosity.

The final gesture of the rimming passage (“but still—to have the thought”) is characteristic of Holleran, and one might think of it as trying to shut down this circuit, to dismiss the possibility of taking the religious references seriously. And yet, as I’ve read and reread Dancer, its repertoire of religious language and images has become harder to dismiss, and I have wondered whether the novel might accommodate a genuinely theological register. Certainly at times the sincerity of religious allusion seems indisputable. Consider this passage, when Sutherland first brings Malone, still a stranger, to his home:

Sutherland pushed off his bed the manuscript on the history of religion that he had been writing the past five years, and lay Malone down to wash his bruises—and it was this, years later, he never forgot, as Christ’s definition of charity is the simplest and truest: You took me in when I was wounded.

I think we are meant to take this seriously, and that it participates in a very long, often heretical, Christian tradition of finding Christ in unlikely places.

The novel also opens space for taking seriously the language of devotion and martyrdom that surrounds Malone, and for seeing in a different light his ceaseless search for love and finding of replicas. As he falls from middle-class respectability to the poverty of the Lower East Side, Malone becomes a “true climber on the ladder of love,” completing something that looks very much like a mystic’s journey: enchantment, disenchantment, ascetic discipline, enlightenment. By the end of the novel, he has become something close to a monk, “a man who has been crossing a desert, a place without shadows, for some time now”; he is even called “a prophet.” Hardened, emaciated by his devotions, Malone achieves—maybe—something like apotheosis in his final act, when he swims away from Sutherland’s party, into the darkness surrounding Fire Island.

I don’t think Holleran allows us to resolve that “maybe.” What gives the novel its profound moral force, its depthlessness, is its refusal to solve the mystery of Malone’s existence. When I teach the novel, this is sometimes a source of frustration for my students, who want to know, finally, what they should think about the questions the novel raises, what judgments they should draw. But great art often refuses to resolve its quandaries, to constrain our judgment, and this seems to me part of its generosity; it is a way of respecting our freedom.

To return to Yeats’s poem. I’ve said that questions of the one versus the many are one way of understanding the line Holleran borrows for his title. But there are others. “Among School Children” is a poem about love, but it’s also about labor. Holleran uses the poem’s final stanza as his novel’s epigraph:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

In the context of this stanza, the poem’s final line does not suggest anxiety about individuality so much as it presents a utopic vision of a world where body and soul are reconciled, where beauty is not linked with despair or wisdom with crushing study. Yeats dreams of a world where “Labour is blossoming or dancing,” where distinguishing a dancer from their dance is as impossible as deciding whether leaf, blossom, or bole is most constitutive of a chestnut tree.

Holleran’s novel is also about labor, its meaning and what it is worth; one way of reading Dancer is as an investigation of differing systems of value. When Malone decides to leave the world of respectable labor, quitting his office job and devoting himself to the pursuit of love, resigning himself to poverty, he becomes in important ways unintelligible to the world he has left: “In a country where one is no more than what one does (a country of workers) or the money one possesses, Malone had ceased, like us, to have any identity at all.” To be unintelligible within a dominant system of values is one way of being free. The world of queens that welcomes Malone offers a different system, one built on beauty and pleasure, “a dream in which the things the world cared about were irrelevant.” A question at the heart of the novel is how much hope this queer system of value can have of competing, or even surviving, against the dominant system of American capitalism.

One answer the novel offers is: not much. “For the truth is, darling, what happens to most of these people anyway? They have their fling and then they vanish. They have to take jobs eventually,” writes the unnamed New York queen in the exchange of letters that closes the novel. Even Sutherland, who has survived so long in the queer economy and understands so well the value-poverty of capitalism—“But I have all the things money can’t buy . . . charm, taste, a curious mind. Why run after gelt?”—eventually attempts to shift from one economy to the other, as he introduces several wealthy suitors to Malone. The novel marks this shift by suddenly, charmingly changing gears in its final third, taking on the veneer of an unimpeachably traditional novelistic device: the marriage plot. In his typical way, Sutherland at once flourishes and rips off the veil of that device. He is as industrious, as fluttery and nervous, as a heroine’s mother in a Jane Austen novel; he is brutally plain about his designs to sell Malone.

Ideas about what queer literature should or should not do are often conditioned by an imagined straight response, and they are always a trap.

But Malone is a commodity who takes himself off the market; his commitment to his alternative economy is total. This isn’t just a question of money but of an entirely different understanding of reality. Of Sutherland’s suitors, we’re told that Malone “considered them realistic in a way he didn’t want to be.” (From Paul, in the letters that close the book: “You know, we queens loathed rain at the beach, small cocks, and reality, I think.”) By “reality” I take the novel to mean the world of American values Malone has renounced, with its “common sense” of what it means to lead a meaningful life.

When Malone swims off, away from the marketplace Sutherland has set up, he’s making a final pledge of allegiance to his alternative system of value. Is this the tragic waste of a life or an apotheosis? The novel won’t let us know, and so it’s both: maybe Malone’s devotion to his queeny life of pleasure has killed him, as surely as it killed the nine men who perished in the May 25, 1977, fire at the Everard Baths, a real tragedy that enters the fiction of the novel. Or maybe, in a possibility the final exchange of letters leaves open, it has led him to an unimagined, fabulous existence.

In his second letter at the start of the book, Paul, the queen who has retired to Florida, offers a theory of the queer novel. He presents it as more or less a doomed endeavor. Straight people won’t be interested, he says; even if they give enlightened lip service to queer rights, really they’re disgusted by queer lives. In order to satisfy them, gays must be punished: the novel must “be ultimately violent and/or tragic, and why give in to them?” Maybe Paul’s book could have historical value, he begins to say, capturing “the madness, the despair, of the old-time queens,” but then he dismisses this: a work of literature shouldn’t be a historical document. The real value of art is to capture fleeting sensation, a “nearly impossible” task.

Ideas about what queer literature should or should not do are often conditioned by an imagined straight response, and they are always a trap. Is a queer novel with a tragic ending catering to a straight audience? Does that mean that queer novels have to restrict themselves to triumphalist visions, denying that “gay life does have its sadness”? An enduring inspiration of Holleran’s novel is the way it steps around this dilemma, finding a way to have its queer cake and eat it, too. It claims the pathos of tragedy: Sutherland overdoses (accident or suicide, we can’t know which), and Malone disappears. But tragedy is never more than one mode among others. The letters that frame the narrative insist on fictionality: in the opening exchange, Sutherland is very much alive; in the final one, Malone has—maybe—been sighted elsewhere. The relationship between what we have read and the world beyond the framed novel is radically unstable. Also bracing is the book’s rejection of any claim to be representative; it describes only “that tiny subspecies of homosexual, the doomed queen, who puts the car in gear and drives right off the cliff!” If these queens are doomed, they are also privileged, chosen, superior: “It was those whom Christ befriended, not the assholes in the ad agencies uptown who go to St. Kitts in February!”

The importance of Holleran’s novel lies in part in how utterly it seems to refuse to cater to a straight audience, or to accept that writing about queer lives means any restriction of aesthetic ambition. Dancer is about a specific, unprecedented world; it is also about America; it is also about the dilemma of being a boundless spirit in a bounded existence. It lays claim to queer specificity and universality at once, making a stage for existential drama out of a 1970s dance floor, “that blond rectangle of polished wood” that is also, at least for a time, “the aesthetic center of the universe.”

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Andrew Holleran, Dancer from the Dance, published by HarperCollins Publishers LLC in December 2023.

Garth Greenwell is the author of two books of fiction, Cleanness and What Belongs to You. A new novel, Small Rain, is forthcoming in fall 2024. His nonfiction has appeared widely, including in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and he writes regularly about music, film, and literature for the newsletter To a Green Thought. He is currently a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at NYU.
Originally published:
December 4, 2023


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