I first read Andrew Holleran’s mesmerizing novel Dancer From The Dance over a decade ago ago, long before I was completely comfortable with my sexuality, long before I realized I could be a gay dad and a sexual being. I tore through the story of men running wild in late 1970s New York with a deep sense of nostalgia for a time I never even knew. When I was in high school, a teacher showed us the documentary The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, which told the inspiring and ultimately tragic story of Harvey Milk’s life and death. The movie began my love affair with gay life in the 1970s; that small pocket of time when the gay community was sexually liberated and AIDS didn’t exist. I used to wish I could have been a gay man in the 1970s. I thought that perhaps some of the things that most haunted my life (particularly equating sex with death) wouldn’t and couldn’t have existed back then. I associated the era with a sense of freedom I never had. So it was with great surprise that I found myself rereading Dancer From The Dance recently and seeing its world more as a prison than an escape. Perhaps my false nostalgia really was false.
Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, the year Harvey Milk was killed. It is a mesmerizing, rhythmic novel, short on plot and long on mood. It tells the story of a subset of gay men living for love, living for the moment, and living for the dance, and like the music that is vividly described in its pages, the novel seems to have a beat of its own; both a heartbeat and a drum beat. The novel begins with letters written between two friends who sign off as Victor Hugo, Madeline de Rothschild, Marie de Maintenon, or Diane von Furstenberg. Immediately, we are clued into a key element of the story and its universe, one in which identities are created, tossed off, and then recreated. In one of these opening letters, one friend responds to another’s revelation that he is going to write a novel:
“The story of a boy’s love for a boy will never capture the world’s heart as the story of a boy’s love for a girl. (Or a boy’s love for his DOG-if you could tell that story again, this country would make you rich as Croesus!) Also you would have to make your novel very sad-the world demands that gay life, like the life of the Very Rich, be ultimately sad, for everyone in this country believes, down deep in their heart, that to be happy you must have a two-story house in the suburbs and a FAMILY.”
This paragraph alone shows how much things have changed since the writing of this novel. Sure, many mainstream movies about gay men (Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain, Milk) end in the death of the protagonist, but at least they exist. And of course, we now have gay men who live in two-story houses with their FAMILY. I am one of them. I am not implying that gay representation is perfect today. It is severely flawed. But the idea that “a boy’s love for a boy will never capture the world’s heart” has lost some of its validity in the post-Brokeback era.
Eventually, we are treated to the novel written by one of these two friends, and it is the story of an another gay friendship between Malone, a handsome middle-class refugee from the Midwest who moves to New York to “pursue a career in love,” and Sutherland, a gender-bending drug-snorting socialite. What happens is of little importance. Malone falls in and out of love, sometimes in a night. Sutherland serves apricots and paté in his bathhouse room. Malone pisses on men for money. Sutherland picks pubic hair out of his teeth. What matters is the mood that is captured, the authentic description of a group of men “so bent on pleasure they were driving right through Happiness,” men “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.”
With depressing descriptions like these, I have to ask myself why I ever wanted to inhabit the world of this book so badly? Perhaps because I once shared the level of shame and self-loathing embodied in its characters. And truth be told, part of my false nostalgia rested on the idea that before AIDS, gay men didn’t equate sex with death. This is clearly a false theory, as the following passage makes abundantly clear: “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.” Apparently, gay men didn’t need an epidemic to cross-wire their brains to associate sex with death. Societal shame was more than enough to do the trick. And when there wasn’t shame, there was syphilis and venereal warts to help out. Even Malone, the great object of fantasy, gets a bad case of warts, and on Christmas no less.
Perhaps I would’ve felt more freedom back then, but do I want that freedom? Says Malone: “We are free to do anything, live anywhere, it doesn’t matter. We’re completely free and that’s the horror.” I am no longer completely free. My life is tethered to a partner, a home, and the schedule of my children. But I don’t miss the unbearable lightness of being an untethered gay man. And I am letting go of my nostalgia for an era I never had a chance to experience, though someday I might just bring apricots and paté to a bathhouse just for kicks.