A million years ago, back in 2016, I sat on a panel at a literary conference in New Orleans. At the time, I was working on my second novel, and my first, Brothers, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. The topic of the panel was “Rebel, Rebel: The Outsider in Writing and Literature,” and I was over-the-moon excited to be sitting next to one of my favorite authors, Andrew Holleran. I had read Holleran’s masterful Dancer From the Dance and Nights in Aruba as a young man, and they had inspired me not just to write but to live life by my own rules as much as I possibly could.
Looking back, I don’t remember much about the panel discussion. I know we talked about the things that authors love to talk about — our writing, how we construct characters. But I do remember vividly thinking that I had so much less context than the man sitting beside me, who was writing before I was born. He had lived through Stonewall and the protests of the ’70s; he was an adult when AIDS was in full swing. I was a debut novelist who had not even come out of the closet until the Clinton administration.
I recently opened up my copy of Dancer From the Dance again. It’s a first edition hardback from 1978, with the cover still in pristine condition, sheathed in a clear Mylar dust jacket. I meant simply to peruse it, maybe read through a few memorable passages. But I could not put it down and ended up rereading the entire novel. For a long time afterward, I tried to digest the rich combination of sadness, triumph, and perspective that Holleran delivers.
The book chronicles the lives of two characters, Sutherland and Malone, as they navigate the gay scene of New York City in the ’70s. Malone comes from a traditional Midwest background and lives up to traditional expectations — the right schools, the right job as a lawyer, all the right friends. But he lives a lonely, solitary existence, until, one day, he falls in love at first sight with a man in the subway. The relationship ends badly, with Malone getting beat up and kicked out by his lover. That’s when he meets Sutherland, an eccentric, fabulous, self-styled drag queen, whose whims set the trends for gay New York. Sutherland introduces Malone to queer society, and it’s this relationship that allows Malone to explore his own feelings about life, love, and beauty.
The story is told by a mysterious narrator who is involved in the story but never identified, and it’s through this voice that we watch Sutherland and Malone become the talk of the town. It’s a relentless ride through the fashions, music, parties, discos, bars, and back rooms of the era. Yes, it glamorizes the drugs, sex, and violence that come with that territory, but as he exposes the scene’s seedier side, Holleran emphasizes the toll it takes. Sutherland and Malone are in search of freedom, ecstasy, and love, but, in the end, are left only with questions about the value of ceaselessly chasing the next big thing.
It’s impossible to read the book without being touched by the desperation and romantic highs of the two main characters. It forces the reader to rethink his or her own world and why we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing. Reading this during the current plague provides a special kind of vantage point. We are not going to parties and galas or even bars and dance clubs right now. Though Dancer From the Dance presents a somewhat dated and a much more extreme social life than many of us will ever have, its central questions remain valid — what are we all chasing? Is it worth it? Is it even achievable? What do we seek from others? Since most of the world has hit pause, we can take this central question and reflect on it.
In Holleran’s book, the rebels, Sutherland and Malone, live life as they want, but it consumes them in ways that are both frightening and fascinating. The book’s ambiguous end gives the reader an opportunity to decide what happens. Whatever ending we choose to believe in, the point of the book remains the same: living life by your own rules, just like living by someone else’s, has a price. Neither choice can protect us from chasing fulfillment through others.
As I closed the book, I tried to remember more about meeting Holleran but couldn’t. That was actually a blessing — I was able to reread Dancer From the Dance without trying to fit it into a memory of the author. Instead, I was able to move beyond the glitter and glamour that had so impressed me as a young reader and take something else that applies more to my current state of mind. The story ends in the mid 1970s, pre-AIDS, and offers a fearless view of gay life that wouldn’t exist again for decades. In the midst of this new pandemic, where simply sharing a cup of coffee carries the risk of illness or even death, it reminds us that there was a time when everyone could live a free and glorious existence. And though we may have years to go before this pandemic is over, we will see that time again.