When the Dance Stops
I'm Reading as Fast as I Can
The Beauty of Men
By Andrew Holleran
Morrow, $24 hard
Midlife Queer: Autobiography
of a Decade: 1971-1981
By Martin Duberman
Scribner, $23 hard
One of these books is the antidote of the other, and in keeping with the usual order of things I'll take the dote first.
Holleran's latest novel is a cautionary tale of how a silly, superficial young person has become a cynical, superficial, middle-aged person and is on the verge of becoming a bitter, superficial old person. We meet Lark as he stares 50 in the face from a little out-of-the-way boat ramp in Florida. Here, men meet to have meaningless sex. Some people just can't get into the spirit of meaningless sex and Lark is one of those people. As if he has been playing cards for matchsticks, but then expects to cash in the matchsticks, Lark's problem with meaningless sex is that it is meaningless.
Once, just once, he met the alluring Becker at the boat ramp. Becker is an ex-Navy SEAL and is thirtysomething. They went to Lark's place and had meaningless sex, but Lark can't leave it at that, and that is why he has started to stalk Becker. Lark just can't let go of the matchsticks: They must be worth something, he thinks. One ought to say on Lark's behalf that he is very good to his mother, who is quadriplegic and who counts on his daily visits and on being brought home from the nursing home on weekends. Yet, even this won't cover all the karmic checks he wrote in his youth, because he simply has failed to furnish his life with anything interesting. He has gone from mindless disco-hopping to mindless stalking; he had no interests in common with older and less attractive people and now he is older and less attractive and surprised that he has nothing in common with younger, more attractive people.
He doesn't work -- although he doesn't seem to have to worry about money. He doesn't have any hobbies. He doesn't seem to have anything to think about except who is to blame for his situation, and his situation is that the world is simply not making a real effort to entertain him. Well, this is all very tragic in its own way, but it is not the stuff of a tragedy like Death in Venice. Holleran has done some fine writing here, and made it as palatable as possible, but the problem with novels about shallowness is that the more accurate they are, the more repulsive they are, and The Beauty of Men is right up there with Ship of Fools on the well-written, accurate, and repulsive scales. If you need a bit of drab and superficial in your life, this is the place to come.
Now, for the antidote, have some of Midlife Queer. Duberman takes up his memoirs of the Seventies by subjects. The subjects are, roughly, gay politics, groovy illicit-drug experiences, playwrighting, and having a heart attack. And all of it, even the heart attack -- especially the heart attack -- is full of life and interesting stuff. Duberman is interesting because he is interested in stuff, and he's still learning things at an age when most academics can kickback, relax on their tenure, and recycle their syllabi.
Whether it is a nearly out-of-body experience doing acid under the supervision of a chemical guru or the infighting of the Gay Academic Union of New York or duping the Kerouac estate into granting permission to include some material in a play they don't know will explore some of the homoerotic overtones of Kerouac's life or gaining an insight from the ironworker in the next bed on the coronary ward, Duberman is fascinated with everything and fascinating to everybody.
The part about the gay movement in the early Seventies is the best summary of this period that yet exists. Duberman doesn't believe in objective history, and this isn't an objective history, yet it is complete enough and fair enough that at least one can learn where to look for the other sides of the story. Whether this is ancient history to you, or explains things you experienced but didn't fully understand, the broader point is that Duberman's life is fully furnished with stuff that he cares about, stuff that he is interested in -- and evidently a certain amount of meaningless sex, which he is content to allow to be meaningless because there is other stuff in his life to be meaningful. He's playing for matchsticks, but he knows they are matchsticks.
The choice is really pretty clear: Everything Holleran's fictional Lark has done wrong, Duberman has done right, and anyone wishing to avoid a very tedious middle life may well pick up some pointers from the comparison. Everyone who lives long enough will have to stop dancing sometime, and the question is: Will there be anything left for the dancer when the dance stops? n