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Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran

April 14, 2016

DFTDThis novel is important in the study of gay  literature be cause it shows what gay life was like in the decade after the Stonewall incident of 1969, reveals characters in all walks of gay life, including the gay drug-user, the transvestite, the gay businessman, etc. and it demonstrates one possible path for a gay man in the 1970s: to come out, get laid for the first time with a stranger, join the circuit, meet other gays of every possible stereotype through sex, become a hooker, and eventually become an old and wizened gay, who no longer desires sex as a means to intimacy and personal happiness.

The novel revolves around two main characters: Anthony Malone, a young man from the Midwest who leaves behind his “straight” life as a lawyer to immerse himself in the gay life of 1970s New York, and Andrew Sutherland, variously described as a speed addict, a socialite, and a drag queen. From Manhattan’s Everard Baths and after-hours discos to Fire Island’s deserted parks and lavish orgies, Malone looks high and low for meaningful companionship. The person he finds is Sutherland, a campy quintessential queen. Their social life includes long nights of drinking, dancing, and drug use in New York’s gay bars. Though they enjoy many physical pleasures, their lives lack any spiritual depth. The “dance” of the novel’s title becomes a metaphor for their lives. Malone is described as preternaturally beautiful; much of the plot concerns Sutherland’s efforts to leverage Malone’s beauty by “marrying” him to a young millionaire.

The book switches perspective often. Sometimes characters are tracked closely using more traditional omniscient narrative techniques. On other occasions (especially later in the book), the lives of Malone and Sutherland are seen from the perspective of bystanders in the New York gay scene – the book itself is literally written by the other dancers at the dance.

Though Dancer is a work of fiction, what emerges is a sense of the extent to which underground gay parties built the foundation of all that became recognized as club culture. The story is told from the point of view of one member of the amorphous mass of revelers in Malone’s social sphere, and this device allows Holleran to pepper Dancer with philosophical musings that strike a chord deeper than basic tenets of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll:

It was Holleran’s first novel and reads like one. The author’s writing style seems to consist of lists.

He didn’t do research but kept a diary. He observed: When you went dancing in those days, it was a group gathered in a room at strange hours. There was a secrecy about it, and the music took you out of yourself in a way religious ceremonies can.

Andrew Holleran is a pseudonym. The author’s real name is Eric Gerber. He was born in 1943 in Aruba. He took up the pen name when Dancer was published to avoid homophobic backlash and has stuck with it through the years.

DFTD 4Quotations:

“The greatest drug of all, my dear, was not one of those pills in so many colors that you took over the years, was not the opium, the hash you smoked in houses at the beach, or the speed or smack you shot up in Sutherland’s apartment, no, it wasn’t any of these. It was the city, darling, it was the city, the city itself. And do you see why I had to leave? As Santayana said, dear, artists are unhappy because they are not interested in happiness; they live for beauty. God, was that steaming, loathsome city beautiful!!! And why finally no human lover was possible, because I was in love with all men, with the city itself.”

“They faced each other at opposite ends of an illusion.”

“When you put something down that happened, people often don’t believe it; whereas, you can make up anything, and people assume it must have happened to you.”

“Dreams decompose, darling,… like anything else. And they give off gases, some of which are poisonous and all of which are unpleasant, and so one goes away from the place in which the dreams were dreamed, and are now decomposing before your very eyes. Otherwise, you might die, dear, of monoxide poisoning.”

“Witty people came out in autumn; beauties in July.”

“Tomorrow the rush of men, all working for a living, would drown him; but now, at this moment, in this soft green twilight, this soft green Sunday evening, when the heart of the world seemed to lie beating in the palm of his hand, he sat in that huge house upstairs terrified that he would never live.”

“Indifference is the greatest aphrodisiac.”

“If your friends don’t want your boyfriend, what’s the point?”

“The more beautiful the sky, the more hopeless the neighborhood.”

“The point is that we are not doomed because we are homosexual, my dear, we are doomed only if we live in despair because of it, as we did on the beaches and the streets of Suck City.”

“Imagine a pleasure in which the moment of satisfaction is simultaneous with the moment of destruction: to kiss is to poison; lifting to your lips this face after which you have ached, dreamed, longed for, the face shatters, every time.”

“A moral man is essentially dumbfounded when confronted by a man who is amoral—everything the latter does is met with a certain disbelief.”

“Try not to be self-conscious …or so critical. Don’t mope around looking for someone else to make you happy, and remember that the vast majority of homosexuals are looking for a superman to love and find it very difficult to love anyone merely human, which we unfortunately happen to be.”

“Living for beauty is all very fine, but it’s a hard regimen and burns up the heart very quickly.”

“We want not only to be loved, but to be loved alone.”

“It was all over: dead. He had no idea, where Frankie had gone. But what was worse, he was everywhere.”

“…especially the young ones, come into the canyon for the first time, quiet as deer, some of them, coming to your hand for salt: their dark eyes wide and gleaming with the wonder and the fear we had all felt at seeing for the first time life as our dreams had always imagined it… at seeing so many people with whom they could fall in love. The old enchantment composed of lights, music, people was transfixing them for the first time, and it made their faces even more touching.”

DFTD 3“You are doomed to a life that will repeat itself again and again, as do all lives—for lives are static things, readings of already written papers—but whereas some men are fortunate to repeat a good pattern, others have the opposite luck—and you can surely see by now that your life is doomed to this same humiliation, endlessly repeated.”

“For the fact was drugs were not necessary to most of us, because the music, youth, sweaty bodies were enough. And if it was too hot, too humid to sleep the next day, and we awoke bathed in sweat, it did not matter: We remained in a state of animated suspension the whole hot day. We lived for music, we lived for Beauty, and we were poor. But we didn’t care where we were living, or what we had to do during the day to make it possible; eventually, if you waited long enough, you were finally standing before the mirror in that cheap room, looking at your face one last time, like an actor going onstage, before rushing out to walk in the door of that discotheque and see someone like Malone.”

“For that is the curious quality of the discotheque after you have gone there a long time: in the midst of all the lights, and music, the bodies, the dancing, the drugs, you are stiller than still within, and though you go through the motions of dancing you are thinking a thousand disparate things. You find yourself listening to the lyrics, and you wonder what these people around you are doing. They seemed crazed to you. You stand there on a floor moving your hips, wondering if there is such a thing as love, and conscious for the very first time that it is three-twenty-five and the night only half-over. You put the popper to your nostril, you put a hand out to lightly touch the sweaty, rigid stomach of the man dancing next to you, your own chest is streaming with sweat in that hot room, and you are thinking, as grave as a judge: What will I do with my life? What can any man do with his life? And you finally don’t know where to rest your eyes. You don’t know where to look, as you dance. You have been expelled from the communion of the saints.”

“But Malone was thinking now and as he watched the men lighting cigarettes for each other in the dark, having sex beneath the trees, he turned to his friend and said in a wondering voice: “Isn’t it strange that when we fall in love, this great dream we have, this extraordinary disease, the only thing in which either one of us is interested, it’s inevitably with some perfectly ordinary drip who for some reason we cannot define is the magic bearer, the magician, the one who brings all this to us. Why?”

“Have you ever noticed,” he said, stirred now by this vision of domestic bliss that was beyond his reach, and shocked earlier that evening to find himself crying in the subway on his way home from a client, “that gay people secrete everything in each other’s presence but tears?”

“I’m in mid-passage, darling,” he said, beginning to talk like a queen so as to demystify himself, so as to destroy the very qualities John Schaeffer had fallen in love with, “I’m menopausal, change of life, hot flashes, you know. Wondering how much longer I can go without hair transplants and whether Germaine Monteil really works on the crow’s feet. I’ve had it, I’ve been through the mill, I’m a jaded queen. But you, dear, you have that gift whose loss the rest of life is just a funeral for—why else do you suppose those gray-haired gentlemen,” he said, nodding at his friends on the floor, “make money, buy houses, take trips around the world? Why else do they dwindle into a little circle of close friends, a farm upstate, and become in the end mere businessmen, shop-owners, decorators who like their homes filled with flowers and their friends flying in on Air France and someone pretty like you at the dinner table? It is all, my dear, because they are no longer young. Because they no longer live in that magic world that is yours for ten more years. Adolescence in America ends at thirty.”

“Never forget that all these people are primarily a visual people. They are designers, window dressers, models, photographers, graphic artists. They design the windows at Saks. Do you understand? They are a visual people, and they value the eye, and their sins, as Saint Augustine said, are the sins of the eye. And being people who live on the surface of the eye, they cannot be expected to have minds or hearts. It sounds absurd but it’s that simple. Everything is beautiful here, and that is all it is: beautiful. Do not expect anything else, do not expect nourishment for anything but your eye—and you will handle it all beautifully. You will know exactly what you are dealing with.”

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

“There was a moment of silence and then Sutherland breathed, “But, darling! Gossip is the food of the gods.”

“Because,’ he said—thinking, Because sex is wonderful, and who wouldn’t want to do it as much as possible? Because sex is ecstasy, and there’s no ecstasy left in this civilization anymore. Because we thought penicillin could cure everything. Because people are looking for Love. Because in this society we can’t find support for stable partnerships. Because we’re ashamed, and seek out sex with a stranger we don’t have to say hello to in the street the next day, much less mention at our funerals. Because, because, because, he thought, and then he turned to her and said. ‘Why do you smoke?’.”

“I couldn’t not write. Sometimes I ask myself, How do people get through life without writing? I write to calm anxiety, to process pain. Writing to me is reflection.”

“Some live for love more than others. And he experienced a death that night.”

“Can one waste a life?”

“I can’t help its being gay. I have been a full-time fag for the past five years, I realized the other day. Everyone I know is gay, everything I do is gay, all my fantasies are gay, I am what Gus called those people we used to see in the discos, bars, baths, all the time—remember? Those people we used to see EVERYWHERE, every time we went out, so that you wanted to call the police and have them arrested?—I am a doomed queen.

I would LIKE to be a happily married attorney with a house in the suburbs, 2.6 kids, and a station wagon, in which we would drive every summer to see the Grand Canyon, but I’m not! I am completely, hopelessly gay!”

“I’ll go live in the woods,” said Malone.
“You’ll be lonely,” said Sutherland. “Even Thoreau went to town in the afternoon to gossip.”

“…what happens to most of these people anyway? They have their fling and then they vanish. They have to take jobs eventually as telephone operators, bartenders, partners in a lamp shop in some little town in the San Fernando mountains… and others take their places… but mostly they just vanish, and you forget about them unless you hear, one day, a certain song.”

“… and the only reason he came out at all, during that period after he left Frankie, when he wanted to go away and hide forever, was the crazy compulsion with which we resolved all the tangled impulses of our lives—the need to dance.”

“They were the most romantic creatures in the city in that room. If their days were spent in banks and office buildings, no matter: Their true lives began when they walked through this door—and were baptized into a deeper faith, as if brought to life by miraculous immersion. They lived only for the night.”

“He did not wish to be the man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

“What, we may well ask, is there left to live for? Why get out of bed? For this dreary round of amusing insincerity? This filthy bourgeois society that the Aristotelians have foisted upon us? No, we may still choose to live like gods, like poets. Which brings us down to dancing. Yes,” he said, turning to Malone, “that is all that’s left when love has gone.”

“Now of all the bonds between homosexual friends, none was greater than that between friends who danced together. The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life; and for people who went without lovers for years, that was all they had.”

“Love is a career with its own stages, rewards, and failures . . . a vocation as concrete as a calling in the Church, worth giving a lifetime to.”

“For you cannot live in New York City very long and not be conscious of the niceties of being rich—the city is, after all, an ecstatic exercise in merchandising—and one evening of his visit to Venezuela Sutherland sat straight up when he read a line of Santayana’s: “Money is the petrol of life.”

“You know, we queens loathed rain at the beach, small cocks, and reality, I think. In that order.”

“You know, when people who were once religious no longer believe in God, they never really change; they just go on, hunting for the ecstatic food, trying to satisfy that hunger.”

“But still we go on, he thinks with a sigh as he crosses his legs, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the police station and doctor’s office.”

“Homosexuality is like a boarding school in which there are no vacations.”

“For even now the drums were in our blood, we sat forward almost hearing them across the bay, and the van raced on through the streets so that the driver could hustle back for another load of pleasure-seekers, so bent on pleasure they were driving right through Happiness, it seemed, a quieter brand of existence that flourished under these green elms. We kept driving right through all the dappled domesticity, like prisoners, indeed, being moved from jail to jail imprisoned in our own sophistication.”

“They were bound together by a common love of a certain kind of music, physical beauty, and style—all the things one shouldn’t throw away an ounce of energy pursuing, and sometimes throw away a life pursuing.”

“During those snowy New England winters, besides learning to rise at five to study calculus and trudge two miles through the drifts for breakfast down the road, he had suppressed some tremendous element in himself that took form in a prudish virginity. While his life was impeccable on the surface, he felt he was behind glass: moving through the world in a separate compartment, touching no one else.”

DFTD 2“He saw in that instant a life he could not conceive of opening before him, a hopeless abyss. Either way he was doomed: He did what was wrong, and condemned himself, or he did what was right, and remained a ghost.”

“Malone had been raised by a lady both Irish and Catholic, in a good bourgeois home in which careless table manners were a sin, much less this storm in his heart.”

“We lived only to dance. What was the true characteristic of a queen, I wondered later on; and you could argue that forever. “What do we all have in common in this group?” I once asked a friend seriously, when it occurred to me how slender, how immaterial, how ephemeral the bond was that joined us; and he responded, “We all have lips.” Perhaps that is what we all had in common: no one was allowed to be serious, except about the importance of music, the glory of faces seen in the crowd. We had our songs, we had our faces! We had our web belts and painter’s jeans, our dyed tank tops and haircuts, the plaid shirts, bomber jackets, jungle fatigues, the all-important shoes.”

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