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Nights in Aruba – A. Holleran

April 6, 2016

NIACompared with Dancer from the Dance, I found this book rather boring.

Paul commutes between two parallel worlds. He is the dutiful son of aging, upper-middle-class parents living in Florida, and a gay man plunged deliriously into the world of New York City’s bars, baths, and one-night stands. Holleran reveals the tragedy and comedy of a man’s struggle to come to terms with middle age, homosexuality, truth, love, and life itself.

He longs in vain for a stability and wholeness that neither of his lives provides. So his only moments of peace occur during the plane rides between Newark and Gainesville.

The title refers to the leading character’s childhood. His father, a businessman in the oil industry, is stationed on that tiny island off the coast of Venezuela. His mother, so accustomed to society life in Chicago or New York or Boston, comes to rely on her son for companionship and entertainment and unquestioning love. Whereas his kind, hard-working father rises and retires early, his mother sits up late telling him stories, smoking cigarettes. Shocked and thrilled by his mother’s wickedness, awed and comforted by his father’s male authority, the boy takes this isolated, peaceful household as a model of domestic order that he will never be able to replicate in later life.

(However, is there a deeper meaning?  – looking for treasure and finding it worthless? Popular belief links Aruba’s name with the Spanish phrase “oro huba” which means “there was gold”. In fact the Spanish did not find any gold, and regarded Aruba as “valueless”. Another possibility is that Aruba’s name comes from the Indian word “oruba” which means “well placed “. Yet another possible derivation of the name is from two Carib Indian words “ora” meaning “shell”, and “oubao” meaning “island”.)

He goes to prep school and college and then, because he has no particular ambition, joins the Army and is sent to Germany, where he begins to grow up (and come out). He ditches his pious Roman Catholicism and gets a crush on a handsome co-worker. His weakness for unexpected glimpses of male beauty, which will transfix him the rest of his days, is what the character fears will prevent him from attaining the domestic order for which he yearns.

One of the army characters muses that being homosexual is a full time business whereas if you marry a woman you can get on with other things in your life like your career.

Whenever he tired of Manhattan, he repairs to a town in Florida called Jasper, where his parents have retired. When the dullness of tending petunias and watching television with his parents makes him want to scream, he races back to New York.

He mentions nothing of his family life to gay friends, and vice versa.

Long after he has established his secret life on St. Mark’s Place, his mother asks him, “Are you homosexual?” “No! Of course not,” he says angrily and rushes out of the room. The question implies that the mother either already knows or is willing to accept; the response indicates that perhaps the son cannot accept his homosexuality himself. Why not? What is he afraid of? The answer remains, like the religious faith that wanes in him as it waxes in his once-libertine mother, a mystery.

The author was, himself, born in Aruba and was aged 39 when he wrote this so I wonder how much is autobiographical.

NIA 2 Many rate it for its instinctive elegiac tone, which would turn to melancholy and grief in his later work. It is understated with many a nice turn of phrase.

Quotations:

“You’re not going to bed until I finish this drink.”

“the city…filled with disappointed moviegoers finding fault with films they had just seen”

“ransacked the city in search of love.”

“So shrouded in mystery was my life now that when we went to a coffee shop during my parents’ visit to New York one day, my mother gave me a quarter to put in the jukebox and said, ‘I want to hear what you like. ‘ There was nothing I particularly did admire on the jukebox. The music I danced to was black music played in homosexual clubs Vittorio took me to which seldom surfaced on the radio, much less the jukebox of hotel coffee shops — so we sat there listening to Carole King sing ‘It’s Too Late, Baby’ as we ate our pancakes, and I hoped she would not read anything into the lyrics.”

“Dreams are all equipped with revolving doors: Someone is always walking into the one you are leaving, and vice-versa.”

“Maybe it was merely the chance to rest, the fact that only in the airplane was I momentarily free of the two lives I tried to keep separate on earth. Perhaps it was just a relaxation of the vigilance required to keep the two ignorant of each other — the vigilance a hypocrite can seldom relax.”

“I never spoke to him but he was the most significant feature of my day, and one evening while I was brushing my teeth at the barracks, a hand reached into the basin next to mine to test the hot water and I recognized, without even looking up, my fellow mail clerk — like an archaeologist who could, from a few limbs and fragments of pottery, construct an entire ancient statue, or the villa that surrounded its pedestal in a garden. And the force of this instinct, which wished to transfer its allegiance from my mother, exiled, remote, in Jasper, to some new object, left me astonished.”

“I began to suspect that the world a man occupies is a tiny sphere after all, that as the people who love that individual die, one by one, he is erased gradually like a drawing, limb by limb, till he hardly feels he exists, or the world is real, occupied as it is by hordes of strangers he has never loved and who have not loved him.” This sense of passing time stirs in him a missionary urgency. “Like a ghost, a vampire, I had to find the look in the eyes of a stranger that certified I was still alive, or at least wanted by someone on the street.”

NIA 3“I never knew if Sal was really listening to what I said — it was like talking to a dog sometimes — and I was often surprised when Sal recalled a remark I myself had forgotten making.” Like talking to a dog? No wonder the man winds up alone in the middle of the night, in the middle of his life, haunted by the devastating vision of the world that closes the novel: “I realized that so much memory and desire swirl about in the hearts of men on this planet that, just as we can look at Neptune and say it is covered with liquid nitrogen, or Venus and see a mantle of hydrochloric acid, so it seemed to me that were one to look at earth from afar one would say it is covered completely in Ignorance.”

At the Communion his parents went up to the altar, slowly, his mother already hunched over with the pinched posture that comes to women in old age. Mister Friel turned to me in the freedom their departure allowed and said, “Everyone goes these days. There are no standards anymore, whatsoever. It’s impossible to find a good cotton lisle polo shirt, or a Catholic who does not go to Commu­nion. A Jesuit I know who lives on Eighty-first Street told me not to worry about going to Confession. He told me that if I wanted to go, I should walk into Central Park and confess to a tree! Can you imagine?” he said. “This en­couraging advice only confirmed my belief that the Church is on its way toward oblivion. I wouldn’t dare go to Com­munion without having confessed,” he said.

“Why don’t you confess then?”

“Because the Church considers it a sin, and I don’t,” he said. “Or rather, they consider homosexual acts a sin, and homosexual acts saved my life! Whoops, it looks like Dad has lost his way,” he said, and stood up. Mister Friel left the pew and walked up the long aisle to his father, who stood on the tiled floor with hands joined, looking around at the sea of strange faces and empty pews, unable to remember where we were sitting. Mister Friel led him back down the aisle and went up again to retrieve his mother.

Within a few moments the priest turned to us and gave the final blessing, which Mister Friel took with the eager­ness of one who was glad to receive anything—from invita­tions to costume parties to the blessing of God—free. By the time we left the church he was much calmer, almost reluctant to leave, and he lingered in the foyer, dipping his hand in the font of holy water, turning to look back at the altar and kneel once more.

“Can’t hear a word the man says,” his father remarked as we walked home.

“You didn’t miss much,” said Mister Friel. “There should be a school for men who must deliver sermons. Surely these poor people deserve to have the full splendor of the Catholic Church break upon them! One does not take as one’s text Raiders of the Lost Ark even if you want to suggest that Christianity is also a treasure hunt. That con­cedes too much to the enemy. It makes you think of the scene in which she kisses Harrison Ford on his wounds.”

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