On the shelf
The Sand Kingdom
By Andrew Holleran
FSG: 272 pages, $27
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Andrew Holleran’s fifth novel, The Kingdom of Sand, announces its subject early. “This story is about the things we accumulate throughout our lives that we cannot part with until we die,” explains the unnamed narrator. That means it continues the project Holleran began four decades ago: elegant, contemplative works obsessed with themes of intimacy and loss.
Holleran’s debut, 1978’s Dancer From the Dance, is one of the great post-Stonewall novels, capturing the fading youth of a clique of New York gay men. His 2006 novel Grief is a melancholy masterpiece about how so many of these men died from AIDS. His essays and other works of fiction are similarly rooted in the lives of gay men, but his Jamesian powers of observation have not translated into significant awards or notoriety. Blame it on long waits between books or a mainstream literary culture that often treats LGBTQ literature as a niche venture. Regardless, a Library of America volume would be the least he deserves.
In such a collection, “Sand” would feel like a synopsis of Holleran’s work, which circles more closely than ever before around questions of desire and mortality. The narrator has seen many losses: he lives in north-central Florida and catalogs the deaths of his parents, his friends, and perhaps his own approaching. While still sane, he fends off the inevitable by trying too hard – proving his manhood by consuming porn and navigating a nearby boat ramp and video store in hopes of hooking up. But he realizes his activities don’t provide the validation he craves, that there’s little joy in chasing “the same quintet of egg-shaped men in baggy T-shirts.”
This sentiment is underscored by the narrator’s friendship with Earl, a man some 20 years his senior. They first met at the boat ramp when the narrator was in his early 40s, and while there was no romantic or erotic spark, they’re content with their easy-going, platonic relationship. The narrator just stops by Earl’s to make small talk and watch movies. But when their friendship is cozy, Holleran also makes them easy to bury. Earl’s home is a vacuum, orderly sanctuary of records and films meticulously cataloged on index cards. “While I was there, I never saw Earl open the vertical blinds that covered the sliding glass doors that led outside. It was as if nature didn’t exist; just art.”
A world full of art but without nature is, well, unnatural. And Holleran is slowly injecting an increasingly otherworldly, spooky vibe into the relationship. One of Earl’s bathrooms is closed because it constantly attracts cockroaches. Earl is quiet and reserved except to voice surprisingly right-wing politics. The increasing presence of a home improvement raises suspicions. The titles of her classic film choices become somberly suggestive: “Quo Vadis”, “Psycho”, “I Want to Live!”
The tension in the two men’s “shared solitude” has little to do with the plot – it’s clear from the start that they’re all going in one direction, underground. Rather, the suspense lies in how – and if – the narrator will face his and Earl’s mortality. The narrator has lost both of his parents and left behind most of his close friends in New York; He clings to Earl for fear of intimacy, which he only half acknowledges. “That’s how it seemed to me [Earl] buried himself alive like the man in the Edgar Allan Poe story,” he writes, unaware of the shovel in his own hands.
“The Kingdom of Sand” isn’t consistently biting, but its humor is inevitably darkly funny. “You have to let people into your life. Someone I have to pick you up after your colonoscopy!” pleads a lunch friend. “When life is behind you, you can eat whatever you want because you’re on your way out,” notes the narrator. He flips the beginning of “Pride and Prejudice” and turns it into a sharp joke: “It is a seldom observed fact that a single man after a certain age is a creature for which no one has room.”
It’s rare to find fiction that takes this form of dying by light as a theme that doesn’t make its heroes feel pathetic or brushed up with a glimmer of false dignity. Philip Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman — with its classic statement, “Age isn’t a struggle, it’s a massacre” — comes closest to the mood Holleran is trying to capture.
Aging, frailty and death are universal themes. But Holleran also sees them as specific to a culture that has been trained (as the title of his 1995 novel suggests) in male beauty. “The cliché that homosexuals are such aesthetes that they tend to be afraid of images of old age is not entirely wrong,” the narrator states. “How else do we explain age segregation in gay bars?” Toward the end of the novel, the narrator cruises atop a Walgreens with relentless, eager eyes—what other place in a town like this holds nightclub hours for a man like him?
Is it poignant or pathetic to be in this predicament? Is he being denied options by society – particularly a declining Florida city – or has the narrator cut off the options all by himself? Like his narrator, Holleran is less concerned with causes than with feelings – impending death as a sensual experience. Once he finds an exquisite metaphor for it in fireworks. The losses, like the first explosions of the spectacle, come slowly at first, then relentlessly, culminating “in a kind of orgasm – and then, when the individual flames have spiraled down to earth and only wisps of smoke rise into the air, the darkness that man only got in a small town in the country would return.” This sad, beautiful book captures the sentiments that Holleran’s characters chase—as well as the darkness that inevitably descends on them and us.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-07/review-andrew-holleran-should-be-a-giant-of-queer-literature-his-new-novel-on-aging-proves-it Review: Andrew Holleran’s new novel ‘The Kingdom of Sand’