I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now because I keep turning it over and over in my head, and to be brutally honest, I’m trying to decide how much I actually like this book.
Published in 1978, Dancer From the Dance is a perfect encapsulation of the gay subculture that thrived in New York City in the late 1960s into the 1970s—significantly, it captures this lifestyle in full swing just before the advent of the AIDS epidemic, which would obviously change the culture permanently. I’m personally fascinated with this post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS period for at least two reasons. First, it marks the beginning of the sort of “coming out” process that homosexuality had to experience in the wake of Stonewall. It was a time of excess and indulgence. It’s like you’ve grown up with your parents setting boundaries on your life and then you get to college and suddenly you can make your own decisions and do what you want, so you go a little crazy, join a frat, act irresponsibly, make some poor tattoo decisions, maybe binge drink a little, and then eventually have to readjust to the strictures of the real world. I didn’t have a traditional college experience—is that how it goes? Anyway, in gay history, this is that period. This sort of unapologetic “I’m not going to be stopped from living my life” attitude was essential in moving the gay rights movement forward and just getting awareness.
The second reason I find this period fascinating is that at the same time, gay life was still almost completely hidden away. If you were gay, it was not something you spoke about at work or with your family or among your neighbors, it was something you snuck around to do in odd hours. The closet was really the only safe place to be. The result is that if you were gay, you were either forever closeted and forced to live a lie your whole life, or you were out and proud and honest but unemployable and living on the margins for the rest of your life. Even if you try to live between the two extremes, you never get a complete life. No one ever really knows you and you never really belong anywhere or to anyone. Basically, it’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
Andrew Holleran does a great job capturing all of this. Dancer From the Dance is a sort of novel-within-a-novel structure, which honestly I don’t think worked all that well. It begins and ends with two friends writing letters. One of them has decided to write a novel about their community and one person in particular that they both knew: a man named Malone. That leads into the novel itself, which tells Malone’s story. Because we’re looking at Malone through the lens of an omniscient narrator we don’t know, it’s impossible to really get to know him—which I think is part of the point. He’s a cipher. It doesn’t necessarily leave me satisfied, but I understand what it’s doing and why. Malone is always kept at a remove from us. We can only really guess at what’s going on inside of him. And I think that really speaks to the problem of gay life in this time—the very problem that plagues Malone: there is no intimacy. When you are denied a life of substance, the superficial becomes everything.
Malone is a lawyer from the midwest who doesn’t feel like he has a place in the gay world and he clearly doesn’t belong in the straight world. He tries to live as a straight man but can’t make it work and increasingly finds himself having furtive dalliances with men—all the while longing for something more substantial and meaningful. Ironically (not really ironically, but in the way we all misuse the word “ironically”), he actually finds it and screws it up by cheating on his boyfriend. Repeatedly. So while the jacket itself describes Malone as someone seeking “meaningful companionship,” he is ultimately one of his own barriers to success, which I think it interesting.
However, the main thing keeping Malone from what he wants is that he lives in a world where everything he wants can’t actually belong to him. He can’t get married, he can’t have kids, he can’t really have a future with another man. Here’s where I start getting to my complaints. Now, obviously there are gay men and lesbians who DID manage to be together with partners longterm during this time period—not officially or legally, not with any benefits or recognition of their couple status, but together nonetheless. I don’t think Malone actually knows what he wants—that’s his real problem. I’m reminded of a former boss of mine from my publishing days. At a Christmas party, he was telling me that I was lucky to have a serious boyfriend (who later became my husband), and he was complaining to me BITTERLY about how no gay man in New York City cares about anything but sex and there’s no real connection. Guys, he was literally on Grindr scrolling through profiles almost the entire time he was delivering this monologue to me. I wanted to snatch his phone from him and say “this is your first problem right here,” but he was my boss so I just said “yeah, that sucks, dude.” That guy is Malone. 100%. And you know what? That guy is still single.
So on the one hand, I don’t blame Malone for being unhappy and getting lost in the superficiality and excess of a world that didn’t want him to have anything more meaningful. But I do blame him for having what he wanted, blowing it up, and then ruining the rest of his life in some Grand Guignol display of performative unhappiness.
I looked at some old reviews of this book and the original Kirkus review says “without a single character capable of growth, this fiction debut can’t succeed as a novel.” And while I kind of agree with that, I also think that’s exactly the point, and I don’t know if that reviewer didn’t understand that or if they just weren’t forgiving on the point. Think about this passage on page 97 in my version (at this point in the novel Malone is heartbroken and has been taken in by the flamboyant Sutherland, who will lead Malone into the subculture and toward his eventual ruin):
“What, we may well ask, is there left to live for? Why get out of bed? For this dreary round of amusing insincerity? This filthy bourgeois society that the Aristotelians have foisted upon us? No, we may still choose to live like gods, like poets. Which brings us down to dancing. Yes,” he said, turning to Malone, “that is all that’s left when love has gone. Dancing,” he said, indicating with a wave of his hand the stacks of tapes and records in another corner of the room. “There is no love in this city,” he said, looking down at Malone with a cool expression, “only discotheques–and they too are going fast, under the relentless pressure of capitalist exploitation.”
This is an unnatural way to live for Malone, as described a few pages later:
“He danced till seven that morning, and he danced for three winters after that. He was a terrible dancer at first: stiff and unhappy. I used to see him standing on the floor with a detached look of composure on his face while Sutherland danced brilliantly around him.”
Just a few pages later, he’s progressed to this:
“So we traveled in parallel careers, and Malone eventually became a very good dancer, and it was wonderful to dance beside him, on Fire Island, in Jersey City, in those hot, hot rooms, or at the beach, his shirt off, his chest silver with sweat, his face as serious as ours, enveloped in the same music.”
So you can see, this is not a life Malone was built to live–it’s something he learns to accept and adapts to.
So this book is actually showing the OPPOSITE of growth, which is what that Kirkus reviewer was looking for. To me, this book is about devolution—giving up on the life you want and embracing the superficial one you have been offered. In that regard, it’s very much a tragedy. Dancing (read: partying) is the only way these people have to connect with each other. There is no growth to be had, so they might as well just enjoy themselves.
Where I partially agree with the Kirkus reviewer is that you can’t get close to any of these characters. And without that, I struggle. I’ve been calling this book “the gay Great Gatsby” in my head ever since I read it, and I think this shows ways in which Dancer from the Dance both succeeds and fails. They’re actually only superficially similar: both are kind of prickly classics that depict a period of wild excess before a great fall, both are narrated by someone outside the main action, and both deal (albeit in their own ways) with the American dream and ways in which it fails to deliver on its promises or ways in which its protagonist dooms himself by trying to game the system.
I think Gatsby is ultimately a superior novel for two reasons: one, its narrator feels like more of a presence, which inserts us more directly into the narrative. Two, the ending feels more meaningful and more dramatic because it’s more clear and definitive. I think if I had those two things from Dancer from the Dance, I could unequivocally say that I loved it. As it is, I feel like I can only say that I admire it from a remove.
And I still don’t know if I’m being unfair or not. I would love to hear what you think if you have read this book. Did you love it? Did you hate it? Do you feel meh about it?