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Two That Got Away

Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolaño

Grief: A Novel, by Andrew Holleran

In the past week, I've read two books that held my attention, moved me, and yet left me feeling that I have nothing very useful to say about them. I can point to them, and urge you to read them, on a "take it from me" basis, but I can't criticize them. I don't believe that I fully understood either of them. I do believe that the limitation is mine, not theirs.

The first book is Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth, a collection of translations, by Chris Andrews, of stories by the late Chilean writer (1953-2003). Bolaño is an immediately powerful writer, preternaturally able to convey the dread and loss of political exile. His stories are charged with tragedy, but while the narrators and protagonists may make deals with tragedy, they never quite succumb to it. Also marked is the sense of awakening, sometimes from and sometimes to a nightmare. This awakening feels like nothing less than the rousing of a bi-continental Hispanic secularism that will give writers like Bolaño a seat at the table of Western literature on its own terms, not in appreciation of the exotic flights of magical realism. 

Bolaño grew up in southern Chile and then in Mexico City. He returned to his native country in 1973, to take part in la via chilena al socialismo. He got home just in time for the Pinochet coup. Briefly incarcerated, he was liberated by some high school friends on the police force. He eventually settled in Spain, where he died of a liver disorder a few years ago. I don't know what it is, but there's something about both his fiction and his curriculum vitae that makes the United States look awfully irrelevant to a worldly literary career. Bolaño might easily have become a scourge of the United States, in repayment for its skullduggery in undermining Allende. He opted instead for the far more interesting tactic of ignoring Anglophone America. It is, I hasten to note, very much not the elephant in the room. Bolaño has imagined a world in which the United States need not exist.

That's a great deal more than interesting. To a New Yorker - to an ardent critic of the United States who's more than a little weary with the rest of the world's obsession with my country - Bolaño's disregard is both refreshing and disconcerting, a fizzing rather than clarifying effect. His disregard is also, simply in its of novelty, difficult to assess. How do you measure something that isn't there? Bolaño's stories, moreover, meander in a way that both excites low-grade Anglophone anxieties about getting to the point and suggests a different way of looking at the world about which one perhaps ought to learn a little more before commenting on it. 

All I will say for the moment, then, is that anyone looking for a strong, new voice (sadly silenced prematurely), for stories that prompt political reflection without for a moment losing the intimacy of fiction, or for the thrill of a wholly reinvented noir style will be engrossed by Last Evenings on Earth.

The other book is Grief: A Novel, by Andrew Holleran. This very beautiful novella, bitter but gentle, left me feeling excluded. If I did not already understand and sympathize with his characters' thoughts and reactions from my own experience, the author was not going to explain them to me. If the United States lies outside Roberto Bolaño's frame of reference, then the world of heterosexuals lies outside Mr Holleran's. Grief radiates the sense of having been written "for his people" - gay men. Gay men, I hasten to add, about my own age, sixtyish. They have a lot to mourn. The loss of youth, and the diminishment of access to pleasure that the loss of youth entails. The loss of countless friends to AIDS. Even surviving AIDS is grievous.

"It's not easy being alive," said Frank to me the next day as we sat down in Dupont Circle. "Let's face it - like the rest of us, your landlord has no idea, I'm sure, why he's still here - what the others were doing that he was not. That's your landlord's problem, you know."


"He's one of thousands of gay men who survived AIDS only to realize they are completely alone and have nothing to live for."

The narrator is beset by a further grief, that of having lost his mother to the illness of old age. As a way of recovery, he has taken on a writing course at American University in Washington, and, through Frank, found a room to rent in a handsome house near Dupont Circle. The house is owned by "the landlord" - like the narrator, unnamed. The landlord is attractive and polite, but he projects boundaries to the narrator. The romance of the novel, such as it is, details the waxing of the narrator's interest in the landlord, even as the landlord persists in acting unaware. Is the narrator falling in love with the landlord? It would seem that he is not. But he is ready to treasure a companionate life.

When my landlord was at home in the evening, there was no need to leave. What is better than reading in the same room or same house with someone at night? Reading is an activity both communal and separate. The lighted lamps, the quiet, the knowledge that my landlord was downstairs, all made me happy: the two of us seemed to constitute a household then; that home for which everyone is looking. In truth, of course, I felt my status all the more keenly at such moments.

It was this feeling that sometimes made me dress and go out for a walk even on nights when my landlord was home; though even then, before I left, I had to know what he was doing.

If the landlord fails to return the narrator's interest, does that make this just another case of unrequited love? Or might it be that the landlord, already in possession of "that home for which everyone is looking," is wary about being taken advantage of by everyone? Mr Holleran is almost too discreet: I wished more than once that Proust were filling in between the lines.

Grief is an elegy, enriched by the counterpoint of Mary Todd Lincoln's letters, which the narrator is reading throughout the course of the book, and by the sui generis beauty of Washington, DC - a city that, because it belongs to the nation, no one can own a part of. In the end, though, I couldn't tell whether grief was a stage in the narrator's life or a pavilion in which he intended to spend the rest of his life. I didn't quite understand why the sound of the landlord's laughter through the closed study doors invariably made the narrator "furious." Jealousy? I can't think of another explanation, but at the same time I should expect the narrator to express an awareness of the inappropriateness of jealousy. In this and many other small touches, Andrew Holleran suggests that entrée to the sense of Grief is available only to those readers who know a secret handshake. I don't mean for a moment that the handshake is known to all gay men. On the contrary: it is the handshake of bright, sensitive, and formerly more or less hot men for whom the old excitements - not all of them carnal - have ceased to provide stimulation. Mr Holleran portrays this cashiered life with a wealth of detail, but he never explains why any intelligent man would settle for it. It is as though men of his generation had two options: to die of AIDS or to succumb to a grey futility.

In the following passage, Frank and the narrator are sitting in Dupont Circle, having just been left there by the landlord. Mr Holleran's description of the three men's predicament is astute in all ways but one: it lacks any sense of morality. (There used to be a time, of course, when "homosexuality" was so "immoral" that one could not conceive of a soundly moral gay life, but we don't live there anymore.)

"On paper, he's perfect," I told Frank, as we watched my landlord wend his way home through the traffic. (He never stayed long; it was as if there were some urgent business calling him away, although what that could be I could not imagine.) "He's attractive, appropriately dressed, owns his own house, mostly paid for, with several rental properties besides, a good job, and says he wants a partner. But he's alone! What's wrong with this picture?"

"You tell me," Frank said.

"Well, I can only judge by my own experience," I said, "but I suspect casual sex is beyond him now. Because there's nothing casual about sex to a man who's looking at the problem of long-term nursing home insurance. Who's wondering who will drive him to the hospital when he has to go - who, when he looks up on those quiet evenings and wonders, why he is alone, hears a voice say: 'Because we spent our lives having the sort of sex that was accompanied by an unwritten guarantee that it was completely dissociated from any form of emotional or social attachment whatsoever.' I mean how many of us were ever really able to integrate sex with the rest of our lives? And now we realize we're not looking for sex anymore - we're looking for fidelity. Tenderness! Intimacy! And that's why he's going to put an ad in the Personals."

In the novel that I could more fully understand, the question about being able to integrate sex and love would be the focus of the book. Here, it is written off as hopeless. I don't believe that homosexuality is a personal choice, but I haven't quite arrived at the conclusion that homosexuality condemns anyone to a life of detached promiscuity, any more than heterosexuality obliges straight men to ring the changes of playmate possibilities. But that is my outsider's view, or, rather, a view that I am made to feel is an outsider's view. As with Last Evenings on Earth, I heartily recommend Grief, only hoping that I'll understand it someday. (December 2006)

¶ Paul Morton interviews Andrew Holleran at Bookslut. (March 2007)

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