The District of Sorrow

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, July 2, 2006


A Novel

By Andrew Holleran

Hyperion. 150 pp. $19.95

"The beautiful life was brief."

These words, from Constantine Cavafy's poem "In the Evening," could serve as an epigraph for the body of work produced over the last 28 years by Andrew Holleran. Holleran's 1978 debut novel, Dancer from the Dance , was hailed for its groundbreaking and unapologetic account of gay life in the post-Stonewall era. Its themes and swooping prose owed much to Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby . When one rereads it now, nearly three decades later, the novel seems eerily prescient of the devastating effect the AIDS epidemic had upon the gay community (and continues to have throughout the world).

But in its wake, a generation of gay men came to build their own glittering clubs and mansions and memories upon a landscape that for many years resembled a war zone. Most of Holleran's later writings -- two novels, a story collection, the searing essays in Ground Zero , one of the best dispatches from the epidemic's height -- have dealt with these survivors.

Grief , his haunting and unexpectedly exhilarating new novel, takes his longtime themes -- loss, desire, the deep joy and solace humans derive from their homes and surroundings -- and distills them into a heady, bittersweet aperitif. And like the best aperitifs, this slender novel whets one's appetite for an entire meal of the author's other work.

The unnamed narrator has arrived in Washington, D.C., to teach a university seminar on Literature and AIDS. In addition to the systemic sense of loss shared by many gay men of his generation, he feels a nearly insuperable burden of guilt over his mother's death, compounded because he never came out to her. He rents a room near Dupont Circle, in a townhouse he shares with his landlord, another middle-aged gay man. The two pass each other on the stairs and sometimes in the kitchen. Occasionally, these fleeting encounters extend into conversations but nothing more intimate. In his free time, the narrator walks around the city or reads a book he has found in his bedroom: "Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters."

That's pretty much it for plot.

Yet, as with the fiction of James Salter -- the writer Holleran's prose most evokes -- this slender volume conjures up a rich and deeply seductive, satisfying world, one that welcomes readers gay, straight, single, coupled or otherwise.

Despite its title and minor-key ending, Grief is not a depressing book. "Beauty does not lose its allure under the spell of grief," Holleran writes in one of his essays, and Grief is suffused with beauty -- not just the beauty of men but the beauty of the city whose streets the narrator wanders as though in a waking dream. I have never read a novel that so powerfully and movingly evokes D.C. -- its spirit, its ideal essence. "People never say anything nice about Washington," a character laments, but Grief provides a potent corrective. Like Cavafy leading one through the alleys and restaurants and history of Alexandria, Egypt, Holleran's narrator is a guide to the labyrinth of ambition, death, art and desire that lies within L'Enfant'scarefully executed grid of streets and parks: "The National Archives had the same cold light as the Tomb of Napoleon," he writes, "and the National Gallery made you feel, when you entered the echoing rotunda, and walked between its dark marble pillars, you were entering the palace of Pluto."

"They will make wonderful ruins," Sen. Thomas P. Gore, grandfather of Gore Vidal, once remarked to a visitor enthusing over Washington's architectural marvels. Until they do, they make a wonderful setting for Holleran's acute and often droll observations of the city.

The parallels between Grief 's emotionally immured protagonist and Mary Lincoln, ravaged and ultimately destroyed by grief over her husband's death, are evident but not overplayed. And the narrator's decision as to how to live the remainder of his life seems as etched in stone as the words he reads on the city's monuments. Still, in the end, Holleran's moving novel is mostly about human resilience and hope; our enduring need to love, despite our losses. The beautiful life is brief: all the more reason to embrace it. ?

Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel, "Generation Loss," will be published next spring.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company