AUGUST 30, 2020
THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE MISTAKE ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.27.
LIKE SO MANY NONPROFITS AND LITERARY COMMUNITIES, MANY OF LARB’S FUNDRAISING SOURCES HAVE BEEN UPENDED. IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PROVIDING FREE COVERAGE OF THE BEST IN WRITING AND THOUGHT, WE ARE RELYING ON YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER.
I WAS DANCING in a swimming pool when I heard the bad news. A dear friend of mine and his two acquaintances — three men of color enjoying the Fire Island Pines in August — had just been stopped by police officers for having open containers of alcohol. Designer sunglasses hid the trauma behind their eyes. On the pool deck, my friend stood above me and three white boys — our housemates — wading in the water. He told us the story and its collateral effects: rides back to Sayville had been missed, new accommodations needed to be booked, an absurd debt to society needed to be paid. I can’t recall whether they were still holding on to their paper citations, but I didn’t need to see proof of their false criminality. They were Black and Latino in a space that was unequivocally steeped in affluence, and therefore in whiteness, which had shown its less-than-honorable colors that Monday afternoon in 2018. Here we were, vacationing on an overdeveloped sandbar where Caucasian men, tanning to look more like us, drank, did drugs, and made love out in the open — and those freedoms had suddenly been stripped from some of us. I needed a cocktail.
While the incident was taking place, my other housemates and I had been lounging behind the gates of our beach house; 630 Fire Island Boulevard was set back from the wooden boardwalk that ran down the center of the Pines. It was a simple house, accented with white sofas, chairs, countertops, and a large Mondrian-inspired fresco that ran across the long wall of the great room. Over the course of the weekend, the rental had become our little oasis. I’d brought Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class — it seemed like a suitable beach read — and had spent my afternoons sporting the bathing suit I’d bought at a boutique in Florence, near Piazza della Repubblica. The cut of the garment freed my legs for dancing. We’d set the table for formal dinners, meals that required conversations about art, politics, and literature, the intellectual fare of yuppies and creative professionals who supplement their subscriptions to The New Yorker with active Instagram feeds. On Friday, there’d been an underwear party, and on Saturday, we’d attended a similar event at the house of a famous photographer, where DonChristian, a rapper I knew from childhood — we attended high school together — performed. In the middle of his act, he asked the crowd to chant the name Nia Wilson. Only a few of us knew about the tragedy, and, now, looking back on the vacation, I wonder if this wasn’t the first sign that things would go wrong.
But no one could have foreseen what happened that Monday. Later that same evening, as we sat down to dinner, I found myself waiting for my friend to express his frustration. The mood in the house had undoubtedly changed. We were waiting for the floodgates to open. Someone said: “Well, what do you want to do?” We were finally ready to have a difficult conversation. “I don’t feel the need to do anything,” my friend replied. He proceeded to argue that the Pines weren’t for him or people who looked like him. Then he pointed at every white person seated at the table and suggested that it was now their time to do something. His leisure had been policed, and it was now up to our housemates, and not us, to change society for the better. He felt that it was their job to fix what was broken, that his political intervention would be at his place of business and that in the Pines he simply wanted to be on vacation. We all agreed.
In that moment, I began to think about what prior narratives supported or undermined our shared wish to have a certain type of experience in the Pines. I did this because I am a literary person, a reader who’d come across Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel that best encapsulates the spirit of New York gay life — and, as an extension, life in the Pines — in the history of American literature. Ironically, the novel had turned 40 years old that year, and in the spirit of celebrating its anniversary, I thought it best to position the book alongside our experience in the Pines. What literary knowledge or capital did I have to help others understand my friend’s experience and ask whether or not he had the right to leisure?
It has always been the case that Black and Brown people who come from “good” families, attend “good” schools, and sustain prestigious professional careers consistently fight for representation, freedom, and the chance to engineer their lives in ways they see fit. And it has long been the case that members of this same demographic have found refuge on Fire Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Mediterranean coastlines. Sadly, however, my friend still felt like an outsider, someone who would always be on the edge. And yet, Dancer from the Dance articulates how Blackness is essential to literary explorations of leisure, to the stories a certain milieu of gays utilize to make sense of themselves. I didn’t want our time on Fire Island to be tainted by a lie — the suggestion that people like my friend and me have not been an integral part of these pleasurable American narratives. Truth be told, we have always been in “the swim,” even if we have often swum in harsher currents.
Dancer from the Dance is a Big Novel. Hunger, lust, poverty, joy: these are just some of the subjects that Dancer from the Dance deals with even as Holleran ultimately allows desire to take center stage.
The book profiles the life and times of Anthony Malone, a lovestruck protagonist, who falls into a pit of longing for another, freer life in his early 30s following an upper-middle-class American childhood. There is Yale, of course, and a stint working in the legal profession near the nation’s capital, but following a late-night kiss with a Puerto Rican man in a Manhattan office building, Malone moves to New York to live his truth. The conceit of the novel relies on how Malone’s WASPy-ness is complicated by his desire for Puerto Ricans and other brown-skinned men who represent the underbelly of desire and sexual fulfillment in Manhattan. Nonetheless, Malone falls in love with an Italian man, Frankie, who beats him, because his desire for Malone — and his desire to keep him and protect him from romantic vices in the city — cannot be controlled. These are the dual tragedies that send Malone into the protective arms of Andrew Sutherland, a true New York City queen, who further introduces Malone to the grandiose world that was post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS Manhattan. And as Holleran details Malone and Sutherland’s licentious exploits, including Sutherland’s late-inning attempts to prostitute his friend — in a move that’s reminiscent of American slavery given that Sutherland’s ancestry is based in Virginia — we learn that Holleran’s project is not simply to articulate Malone’s sexual urges but also to contextualize his yearnings for freedom.
The notion of Blackness playing an identifiable, but often ignored, role in American literature is not a new idea. Toni Morrison, in her famous book of criticism, Playing in the Dark, develops a critical framework to understand how whiteness, as a construct in American literature, relies on otherness — and historically, on Blackness — to add texture to Caucasian characters. Morrison identifies these supposed phantoms as representative of the continual Africanist presence in American letters and society. Her particular angle has a pedagogical slant — she recontextualizes works by Cather, Twain, Hemingway, and others by paying attention to how the Africanist idiom operates in their fiction. On how the Africanist presence is romanticized, Morrison writes:
Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism — a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American.
Black and Latino sexuality holds a unique position in American literature, particularly in novels that rest on male homosocial tales of the heart. We see this easily in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Yet Holleran’s novel, like many works in the canon of 20th-century gay literature, is interesting in its acknowledgment of how an Africanist presence acts upon its white characters — Malone, Sutherland, and even the author’s omniscient first-person narrator follow suit. Dancer from the Dance not only complicates Morrison’s read of Africanism but forcefully utilizes the idiom to make sense of Malone’s selfhood even when describing the protagonist’s phenotype:
Then there was Malone. He was the other kind of blond. He resembled those stylized warriors drawn with black lines on the umbrian hue of Greek amphorae, whose thighs were sheaths of muscle so clearly defined they might be plates of armor on the leg. He had the grace of a gazelle grazing on some golden plan in the heat of an African noon […] He had the perfect manners of a man of his upbringing; but even this restraint and formality could not extinguish the glow. On our deathbeds we will remember faces — not what we accomplished or failed to accomplish, what we worried over anxiously, but the face in the subway, the grace of two black boys who washed each other’s shaven heads with shampoo one afternoon in an army camp in Georgia, the sight of Malone when his eyes met yours.
The fact that Holleran uses tenets of Africanism to describe Malone’s looks and effect on others is apparent in this excerpt. What lies slyly beneath the surface is the author’s implicit ranking of Black aesthetic beauty above whiteness, which a reader might find amusing, but not entirely out of left field. When Holleran notes that Malone is an “other kind of blond,” we ask ourselves what other kind of blond is he? By the end of the paragraph our question is answered. He is the type of blonde whose features are comparable to Black boys with shaven heads, those men that have little use for hair color and the status it may render on its subject. This idea is further supported by Holleran’s rendering of Malone as a mythical Greek god in comparison to real Black soldiers, who have no stated interest in the Malones of the world. Their attention is centered on one another. They are the true fighters, who embody a grace that precedes their homoerotic activities and who have freed themselves from the weight attached to blondeness. In this process, even as Holleran tries to construct Malone as a lustful and desirable subject for the benefit of the novel, his protagonist becomes an object — a thing that has no control over itself.
While reading Dancer from the Dance we wonder whether Malone’s character is conscious of his connection to Africanism. Sutherland is undoubtedly aware of its presence. Early on in the novel, while speaking to a random stranger at a nightclub, Sutherland discusses how Black men are ahead of the curve: “Blacks, darling. Shvartzers, negroes, whatever you like. Why are they the better dancers? For they are. They get away with things here that no white boy could in a million years.” Sutherland completes this gospel by mentioning that if gloves ever came back in style, it would be Black boys who’d wear them first. Rhythm and good accessories: these are the hallmarks of desire in Sutherland’s world. Again, we see how Black people and their accouterments become the primary means for Holleran to orient his characters, and for his characters to orient themselves.
But we also must consider the other side of Sutherland’s envy. The other side is hate, of course. It is the sort of hate that would allow a man like him to see a crime, or an incident of harassment beside a harbor, and not think twice about getting on a ferry, about leaving the Black boys to dance their own way out of a tricky situation.
On Wednesday afternoon, my housemates and I went to the beach. The media had reported that Aretha Franklin was dying. The Atlantic’s rip tides were too dangerous for swimming, and, following the incident that happened two days prior, it also seemed too dangerous to drink on our beach blankets. Men in uniform were patrolling the beach, leaving SUV tracks in the sand. Their presence did not stop some of us — me included — from sipping on cans of Montauk Pale Ale and cruising the men who strolled along the shoreline in the skim created by the waves. I was relaxing, and yet I still felt the need to fight for my friend. We had been inseparable when we were younger, but I wasn’t with him on Monday at the dock, and it felt like I had gotten away with something: a feeling of autonomy, a promise to myself that Monday’s incident wouldn’t overwhelm me on these coastal social stages.
My friend and I first met when I was 21 years old, an undergraduate student at Columbia. Thirteen years of private schooling had prepared me for the institution, and, like many type-A teenagers, I arrived in New York City without the guardrails of a full-time job to help keep me on the straight and narrow. In college, my education relied on the presence of novels just as much as it relied on the decadence of Manhattan nightlife; on early mornings spent at Chelsea clubs and 23rd Street diners; on gypsy cabs headed down the West Side Highway and yellow cabs for journeys up the FDR; and, most importantly, on my own perception of this world. As a millennial, it seemed not only commonplace but also chic to be in control of my own narrative, the story that I told myself about myself. I suspect that this type of agency is what a man like Malone would’ve wanted, but never could’ve had, because my ability to centralize myself and my own needs, and be selfish in the face of a society that attempted to neutralize and categorize my social footprint and desires, had been honed after two decades of being a person of color in America. My sense of irreverence in the face of stereotypes and bigotry was, and still is, inherently political. As a 21-year-old, it announced itself in the way I moved through Manhattan without seeing locked doors. Obama had just been elected, and his rise seemed to dignify the ease in which I found myself charging into spaces, untethered to any concept of access. I was only committed to my search for good times. These were found downtown, but also in Harlem and Washington Heights, where Black and Brown boys danced — like, really danced — while they drank, did drugs, and made love out in the open.
As time passed, the anecdotes of my life seemed to fit perfectly alongside the stories written by Holleran and older generations of similar authors. I was a voracious reader of their works, but I was also something else: an inheritor of a set of experiences that had been distilled in literature, replete with stories that were all too familiar. Reading and writing fiction with an identifiable tradition in mind that stretches back to Henry James led me to Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less, which won the Pulitzer a few months before my vacation in the Pines. The book also fits alongside the aforementioned canon; like Dancer from the Dance, it’s a novel that seeks to explore otherness in ugly and romantic ways.
Greer’s novel follows Arthur Less after he decides to travel around the world. His desire to flee his current life on the West Coast is prompted by the news that his “friend-with-benefits” is getting married to another man. Less, a novelist whose latest work has been turned down from his publisher, turns 50 during his time abroad, and this life transition is the primary hook to generate a sense of empathy in the reader. Less is lonely; he’s getting old. And now he is seemingly colonizing the world with his loneliness. In the process of watching this comedy unfold, we almost forget the reason for his extended journey abroad. Freddy, a man with a “Mexican mother” and “nut-brown” skinned uncle, has cooled on him. With this in mind, a specific metaphor is easy to identify: Less’s anxieties are exemplary of those faced by many white Americans who sense impending doom as the current demographics change in America.
To his credit, Greer seems aware of these underlying tensions. He has minor characters question his emotional state of being and the feasibility of his protagonist’s failed literary project. When Arthur Less mentions that his novel is about “a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco,” Zohra, a new friend he meets while riding camels in Morocco, replies as follows:
Zohra asks, “It is a white middle-aged man?”
“A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”
“Jesus, I guess so.”
“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”
It’s a little hard, indeed, but surely not impossible. Arthur Less shies away from explicitly acknowledging the sentiments I mentioned above. His fear of the other is identified with coded language: his sorrow. Following this passage, when Zohra wants to push the conversation forward, Less says, “Bugger off.” I smirk when I read this section of the novel. Greer’s use of comedy in the novel feels evangelical, except he suggests that humor, and not grace or providence, has the power to come to the aid of his protagonist. In this way, the novel feels very contemporary. We want to laugh. We need to laugh. It is another way that readers and arbiters of cool-kid content feel like they can generate agency in a world that leaves them little room to bring about happiness on their own terms. Giggling is easier on the mind and the body than controlling one’s tears. But it is also the case that in Less, humor kicks a more enlightened conversation about the protagonist’s selfhood down the road. Like Holleran’s Malone, Arthur Less is artfully characterized by who he is not: by men who aren’t white or middle-aged or mobile. A certain type of reader laughs at Arthur, or with him at times, while another type of reader grins, because when it comes to Less’s sense of himself, he struggles to acknowledge the vapidity of his character. His time traveling around the world is tainted by unspoken truths so much so that the journey itself becomes an approximation of something else: a desire to experience the better version of his avatar, if only for a moment in time.
I wonder whether someone was reading Greer’s novel as they boarded the ferry during my friend’s ordeal on Fire Island. Did their experience seeing three men of color being accosted by police make them question their selfhood? It should have. If it didn’t, then their time in the Pines would have worked out similar to Less’s travels abroad. Either way, I’m sure someone grinned as they hustled on board, leaving three Brown boys to ask themselves “Is this all a joke?”
Our last night in the Pines was a slow night, a quiet dreamlike evening. The five of us went for a walk to see the houses located east of the harbor on the bayside of the island, and on our journey home we decided to stroll in the darkness on the beach. I had trouble seeing the waves, but I could hear them crashing. My ears were well tuned after a week of listening and dancing to music. We’d danced in our pool while listening to Travis Scott’s new album and Alice Coltrane’s compositions, to Biggie’s lyrics and Tupac’s polemics, to Sampha’s tracks and Lil Silva’s melodies, and to the voices of Shirley Caesar and Kelis and Beyoncé and James Blake. Yes, I think we needed some type of fire, or disturbance, so that we could remember stories about real dancers, with shaven heads, who don’t mind being fashioned as criminals when they steal joy.
In the court of public opinion, these dancers are villainized for their very spirit; their way of moving through the world upends the status quo. They’re often told they’re aloof or naïve, but their dancing is itself a radical project, condemned by conservative and liberals alike. It is a waltz that requires neither the rights nor privileges licensed by state authorities or dinner party attendees. It is a waltz, homegrown on the shores of America, that relies on graceful, simple steps, choreographed in the face of perpetual retribution from skeptics and critics. The single dancer becomes an anathema for an oppressor who seeks to know, own, and depict every aspect of what he oppresses. How did you learn that dance if I never taught you, he says. I didn’t invite you for a reason; this party isn’t for people who look like you. But the dancer smiles as he glides through spaces with abandon, thereby undermining preconceived notions of authority. I mastered this waltz years ago, the dancer says as a matter of happenstance. I thought you knew? He laughs. He knows his feet can spark a blaze. The dancer finds strength in his individualism that is plain and absolute. It keeps a steady rhythm. It’s a wonderful sight to see. The dancer’s movements are powerful enough to destroy the oppressor’s false perceptions and stories, the fictions that he tells himself about the true meanings of jubilation, leisure, and love. This is just how I move, the dancer reminds us. His scalp is as naked as the day he was born as he glides through our contemporary American wilderness beneath trees that will not stand.
So yes, I think it’s time for a conflagration. Literature can surely help fan the flames, but only if it sticks to its principles and asserts itself again in our society as a mirror that reflects truths in the face of misinformation. Don’t we all want something to burn? The ashes will be dark and beautiful. We can watch them simmer. This activity will be relaxing, akin to lounging in deck chairs near the ocean on a brilliant summer day.