Andrew Holleran’s ‘The Kingdom of Sand’ and Jack Parlett’s ‘Fire Island’ are portraits of GLBTQ+ worlds in stark relief.
Fire Island by Jack Parlett | Hanover Square Press http://www.hanoverSqPress.com
British poet & scholar Jack Parlett was on a fellowship from Oxford in 2019 to research cruising rituals of gay men. and his study brought him to the beaches of Cherry Grove and The Pines. Parlett covers that waterfront and much more in his book ‘Fire Island’ a social history of America’s fabled gay utopia
The queer lore of Fire Island reaches back to the 19th century with tales of visits by Wilde and Whitman. Even without electricity, in the 1920s, it was an idyllic getaway for Broadway performers, and soon a haven for artists and for countless others it was an escape from systemic oppression and rabid homophobia. Parlett chronicles the arc of the history and symbolic importance of what Fire Island represented for gay Americans over the course of a century.
‘Fire Island’ chronicles the tales of famous visitors including Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, Janet Flanner, James Baldwin, Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, Jared French, Patricia Highsmith, et, al.
And from there weaves his own his own experiences of self-discovery, exploring the clubs, the social strata and navigating the boytoy beach culture and sexual freedom including forays into the sexual playground of the dunes (immortalized by former dancer Wakefield Poole’s gayporn classic ‘Boys in the Sand’) and the notorious Meatrack.
But before that Parlett had his own symbolic ritual, the first thing he did was etch the name of poet Frank O’Hara in the sand on the exact spot where the poet died in a sand trawler accident in the 1950s.
One of the most stirring chapters in ‘Fire Island’ titled ‘The Plague’ chronicles the harrowing years of the AIDS epidemic is a stirring commentary on the history of loss, community, and activism. It opens with Parlett was part of New York’s 2019 Queer Liberation March organized Reclaim Pride Coalition, a group seeking to return the GLBTQ Pride month celebration away from being commercialized and depoliticized.
Larry Kramer gave his last speech at that march, before his death in 2020. Kramer was shunned on Fire Island after his novel ‘Faggots’ a satire on 70s hedonism in New York, when he became the fearless voice of AIDS awareness and activism. And as Parlett recounts, Kramer was challenging a new generation of gay Americans, intoning “What does Pride mean to you?” in front of 45,000 people in Central Park, as he called for more community solidarity and activism.
Parlett evokes all of the real and symbolic promise of Fire Island as a GLBTQ+ mecca as a vital chapter of American history. And a reminder that we must always be ready to fight for our place in the sun. Cue music!
Jack Parlett also pays tribute to the Violet Quill era of writers of the 70s including Fire Island denizens Edmund White, Vito Russo, Felice Picano and specifically Andrew Holleran whose defining 1978 novel “ Dancer From the Dance’ he cites as the “eulogy for the era’s dance floor and for many the ‘Great Pines novel.” Holleran’s latest work ‘The Kingdom of Sand’ is both fascinating and challenging.
Andrew Holleran’s 1978 gay literary classic ‘Dancer from the Dance’ captured the spirits and momentum of the gay sexual liberation in New York and Fire Island. His subsequent novels- Nights in Aruba, The Beauty of Men, In September, the Light Changes– have autobiographical threads, His last was ‘Grief” was published in 2005, and ‘The Kingdom of Sand’ picks up the story of its unnamed narrator, a gay man in his 60s, who has returned to Florida to take care of his dying parents and doesn’t leave and sets up a new one, in a barren and hostile environment.
Urged by friends to sell the home and resume his life, but he drifts into inertia, set in his ways, no healthy relationships outside of his friend Earl, a closeted neighbor in his 80s in failing health.
Holleran’s portraits of elderly gay men living dystopian lives in the retirement near Gainesville, Florida. Clinging in desperation to any sign of gay connection, resorting to haunting an old-timey porn arcade for anonymous sex or spending afternoon at a remote dock to pay hustlers to suck them off. Then recoiling into their isolation, trying to live with some dignity, in retirement in otherwise hostile hetero-dominant communities.
For both men, their only direct gay sexuality is to go to the video porn arcade (yes there is still that in this narrative), or a remote beach dock and hookup spot, which now is subject to police shakedowns circa 1955. For the narrator he relates watching porn on the laptop in the spot where his father would play solitaire. He spends many evenings with Earl watching old DVDs. and keeps an eye on a handyman who runs errands and fixes up the house for an increasingly infirm Earl.
Holleran is as obsessive as his main characters, listing, for instance, a laundry list of Hollywood gay cult classics that Earl watches, when a couple of flicks would make the point.
The prose imagery is bleak, some of it this side of Proustian. But he lingers on indulgences, itemizing things for instance, describing two men consumed with passing their evenings watching classic movies, in one section he lists a dozen of them, when one or two would make the point.
Even though the narrator casually mentions that he has a regular sex buddy for 20 years, it is mentioned in passing as he obsesses about the objects in Earl’s home. Forensic bleakness is struck over and over. It is more than a bit heavy going.
Holleran’s subject is death, and the fact that elderly single GLBTQ people face unique challenges. But that worthy subject gets buried in stream of consciousness, elegiac rambles. Doubly frustrating when Holleran’s imagery and symbolism about the natural environment and the flora and fauna is as elegant as ever . Meanwhile, there are long passages the narrator’s stream of consciousness rambles on about detoured roads and boarded up businesses, which after a while are redundant filler.
That said, the dynamics of the unnamed narrator and his friend Earl, in his 80s, are poignant and dimensional. You get glimpses for instance, of Earl and the narrator’s younger lives, oblique references to their past lives and relationships, flashbacks of their more fulfilling experience as a gay man, before the forensic bleakness drags on hitting the same motifs, and it is fascinating that if you hang in, you end up caring about the narrator and Earl.
But their stories are seem a bit out of balance. They are after all old enough to have survived eras of no legal civil-rights as queer men, and post-Stonewall liberation, then the , then community solidarity of the AIDS decades, and the codification of GLBTQ civil rights legislation. Somehow, it fascinates though in the arc of Holleran’s novels from Dancer.’ But only up to a point, as he abandons his characters in queer no man’s land.