The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran; Fire Island by Jack Parlett – review

The author of gay cult classic Dancer from the Dance moves on from disco-fuelled revels to ‘death’s antechamber’ in his august portrait of a man for whom duty calls in Florida, while a literary critic revisits the glory days of Fire Island

Pausing briefly during his round of almost motorised erotic delights in New York, the hero of Andrew Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, proclaims the glory of gay liberation and foresees its doom. “We’re completely free,” he says, “and that’s the horror.” This was in 1978; three years later, Aids curtailed the disco-fuelled revels and Holleran began to write essays about a city that had turned into an ashen graveyard. His subsequent novels, published at intervals of a decade or more, have tracked a long withdrawal – from New York to Florida, where Holleran moved to care for his aged parents, and from hedonism to the metaphysical gloom or “morose delectation” that he absorbed from his Jesuit education.

Now, in The Kingdom of Sand, a nameless narrator, deputising for the near-octogenarian Holleran, soberly contemplates what Christian eschatology calls the last things. The arid corner of Florida in which he is beached might be a parody of Fire Island, the sandbar off Long Island where the characters of Dancer from the Dance alternately sun themselves on the shore and couple, triple or quadruple in the dunes. The sand that spreads through the drought-stricken setting of the new novel is a morbid symptom, warning that the planet, trashed by our “manufacturing mania”, may soon be uninhabitable. Sex for the narrator consists of occasional blowjobs administered to unattractive strangers, in sessions that amount to what the Catholic church defines as corporeal acts of mercy. Otherwise, he spends his days viewing porn, which he likens to the miserable games of solitaire played by his dying father. But the coital bouts on the screen only worsen his boredom, as the performers take so long to reach orgasm that “watching them is like waiting for a bus”.

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