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THE SATURDAY READ

Grief and the pang of recognition

Grief A Novel Andrew Holleran Hyperion: 150 pp., $19.95

June 03, 2006|James McCourt | Special to The Times

ANDREW Holleran is not only one of the most accomplished homosexual writers in the United States, he has proved over a long career to be the one most resolute in delineating the gay experience in America within the broader context of civil society. His new novel, "Grief," is likely to be seen as his most socially and politically significant work yet.

It is set in the dark and empty heart of the nation, its capital, and framed in what that legendary arbiter and remarkably astute critic Leo Lerman once called "the essential American loneliness." In terms of the perfection of composition, it also equals the most exquisitely written of his previous novels, "The Beauty of Men," about an aging gay man who has left New York to care for his ailing mother in Florida, where he becomes depressed remembering the glamorous friends of his youth, all of whom have died of AIDS.

"Grief" simply unfolds, giving the attentive reader a generous amount of quality space-time (between the lines, as it were) in which to think back at it, so that the novel is not so much lifelike as reading it is like the experience of living. Thus the narrator's chance discovery of the Mary Todd Lincoln letters lying derelict in the meager company of two other books on a shelf in the elegant home where he has taken lodgings becomes an instance of the ordinary things that seem to happen all the time.

Legerdemain, art that conceals art, the less that is indeed more, the numinous resonance in every detail: All have been characteristic of Holleran's later period ("The Beauty of Men" in 1996, "In September, the Light Changes" in 1999), in which, apparently having said all he felt compelled to say concerning the valorous exertions of "camp" (in Susan Sontag's definitive categorization, the passionate celebration of certain failures), he has concentrated on something that is little known to Americans (but is, for instance, central to Japanese sensibility), the nobility of failure itself.

In "Grief," Holleran entwines his tale of a gay man in mourning for his best friend, his mother, with the heartbreaking story of Lincoln as revealed first by two tour guides in a visit the unnamed narrator makes to Ford's Theater and to the rooming house across the street where President Lincoln expired. Then he reads her famous letters. It takes little reflection to realize just how, in what startling ways, this weaving is apt.

"The bedroom in which Lincoln had died was the sort of room a student rents in a Midwestern university town," the narrator explains. "Then the woman next to me asked, 'What did Mrs. Lincoln do -- when he died?' " A guide tells the tourists that Mary Lincoln was taken to the White House crying out as she left, " 'Oh my God and I have given my husband to die.' "

When the woman tourist asks what happened to Mrs. Lincoln after that, the guide answers, "She went to bed and stayed there for more than a month.... She went to bed in a little spare room she had fixed up for Lincoln's use in the summer, because she refused to enter any of the rooms on the second floor of the White House that were associated with the past, like the bedroom in which her son Willie had lain dying, while his parents gave a party downstairs in the East Room.... She did not attend the funeral. Every blow of the hammers seemed to her like a pistol shot as they built the platform in the East Room for her husband's coffin."

This is the kind of heart-stopping composition found in Holleran's 1988 "Ground Zero" as well as in James Joyce's short story masterpiece "The Dead."

Mourning, melancholy and unavailing grief are psychoanalytical and religious concepts that, as poet and critic Richard Howard would have it, have been "assimilated into the language so closely as to be often used without conscious (or responsible) reference to their origins." Mourning we recognize promptly. Melancholy and unavailing grief are disparate terms for the same thing: In psychoanalysis, melancholy occurs when "the shadow of the object falls athwart the ego," and in the more spiritually evolved Christian denominations unavailing grief is the sinister gateway to the deadliest, most terrible sin, that of defiant despair in the face of the Holy Spirit, disburser of all consolation.

Each is important in discussing "Grief" because Andrew Holleran has proved to be the most psychologically astute observer of the particular sorrows of the American gay man. There also is ample evidence, particularly in his later work, of a subtle, austere, even Jansenist strain to his unobtrusive but unquestionable (and as with Samuel Beckett, unnameable) religious convictions.

"Grief" is an important, beautiful book. It will repay your investment.

James McCourt is the author of numerous books, including the novel "Mawrdew Czgowchwz" and "Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985."

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