Life, Decline, and Death: The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran (Book Review)

I was fascinated by the idea of a new, contemporary Andrew Holleran novel. Dancer From the Dance, his classic gay tale of emptiness and community in the 1970s gay underground of New York City (full review here), is a defining piece of LGBTQ literature. It is inherently tied to its time and place, which may make it difficult for younger readers to access. What, I wondered, would Holleran bring to a more contemporary landscape?

In many ways, The Kingdom of Sand feels like a companion to Dancer From the Dance. Its protagonist could easily be one of the background players in Holleran’s former novel (indeed, he mentions partying in New York City in the 1970s). Unlike Dancer From the Dance, though, this book isn’t training its eye on what it is to be gay at this point in time. Instead, Holleran is focusing almost exclusively on aging and death. His narrator is obsessed with the knowledge that he is nearing old age, decline, and death. The Kingdom of Sand is, essentially, his musings on this subject.

While Holleran leads the reader through heavy thought on life and death and has many well-considered ideas to get across, the book ultimately felt hollow to me. It doesn’t have a form or plot. Novels don’t necessarily need to have those, of course, but The Kingdom of Sand feels more like listening to a close friend of yours tirelessly pick at the same scab every time you run into them. Eventually, your patience begins to wear thin.

Part of my frustration is probably because I really wanted Holleran to think more about what it is to be an elderly gay man today. What is it like to have been alive and out before AIDS, to have miraculously survived when so many didn’t, and to find yourself in a new age of Grindr and marriage equality when you are no longer (strictly speaking, of course) young enough to enjoy them? The Kingdom of Sand only glances at these topics. It never has anything coherent or intelligent to say about them.

I confess I lost interest roughly 60% of the way into this novel, but I told myself to hang in until the end because I was willing to believe that Holleran would tie everything together in a meaningful, impactful way. I believed these musings on life, death, and the indignities of declining health would come to a crucial point. Unfortunately, they don’t. Turns out, the point is more that there aren’t answers: it is what it is. While that sentiment is true, it doesn’t feel revelatory. So while there are occasionally some staggering lines (“Love and kindness have a lineage their recipients know nothing about”), The KIngdom of Sand, for me, ultimately feels like an interesting journey that doesn’t lead anywhere.

The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran book review

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