First published in 1978, Dancer From The Dance is Andrew Holleran’s highly acclaimed first novel. The title is taken from the last few lines of W.B. Yeats’s Among School Children:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Widely considered a gay classic and must-read, it’s been reissued yet again, this time in eBook format. A couple of years ago we did a massive purge of physical books at our house, and this novel was one of the ones that got accidentally tossed. So, with the reissue finally in eBook format, I felt the time was right to re-add it to my collection.
This is the third time in my life I’d read this book. After a re-read, I now remember the mixed feelings I had about it: the novel is extremely intelligent and beautifully written but also depressing and self-loathing (mostly the latter). To over-simplify the plot, the story follows the life of Malone, a physically beautiful man from an upper-class background. Initially Malone does not realize he’s gay but has an awakening and eventually comes to terms with his new life. After coming out, he falls in love with a possessive and jealous married Italian man but their relationship sours and they become enemies. Malone then becomes extremely promiscuous, having sex with men of every physical description, and forms a curious friendship with a man called Sutherland (a Queen with a capital Q, if ever there was).
The story is set in New York City and Fire Island in the early-to-mid 1970s, post-Stonewall, long before AIDS became the devastating force that forever changed our world. There is very little plot other than Malone’s tortured seeking of love and Sutherland’s excessive drug consumption, indulgent lifestyle and solipsism.
It’s not an uplifting tale and not a book I’d recommend to a young gay man looking for a positive literary experience. Dancer From The Dance is quite pessimistic and without hope. The lives of the two main characters, especially, lack any spiritual depth; the “dance” of the novel’s title becomes a metaphor for the life they lead. The portrayal of gay people is rather stereotypical and for this reason I am lukewarm on this novel; I am very content with being gay and have no remorse or self-pity about it. It may be possible to identify with our hero Malone and his hopes for romance but his gay world differs so massively from mine. The idolatry of youth and beauty leave little option for the novel’s characters: they either become the old guy at the club, leave New York City, or go out in a blaze of glory – the characters of this book do all three.
Many of the characters are racist and antisemitic but this is the early 70s after all, well before our current PC status quo. The book is written from the viewpoint of an unnamed narrator.
I never really connected with any of the characters and I think the book’s unusual narrative style is one of the reasons. Dancer From The Dance is quite similar in tone, content and era to Larry Kramer’s Faggots, and I sometimes get the plot lines of these two novels slightly mixed up because of this.
Dancer From The Dance has been released numerous times over the last 40 years, each reissue having a different cover:
A few years ago it was announced that gay Hollywood directer Alan Poul would direct the film version of the novel. As far as I can tell this film project never came to pass; I can find very little about it on the Internet except that production was slated for the summer of 2016.
I’ll close with a few quotes from the novel:
Now of all the bonds between homosexual friends, none was greater than that between friends who danced together. The friend you danced with, when you had no lover, was the most important person in your life; and for people who went without lovers for years, that was all they had.
Try not to be self-conscious or so critical. Don’t mope around looking for someone else to make you happy, and remember that the vast majority of homosexuals are looking for a superman to love and find it very difficult to love anyone merely human, which we unfortunately happen to be.
You are doomed to a life that will repeat itself again and again, as do all lives—for lives are static things, readings of already written papers—but whereas some men are fortunate to repeat a good pattern, others have the opposite luck—and you can surely see by now that your life is doomed to this same humiliation, endlessly repeated.
Dancer From The Dance (1978)
Andrew Holleran’s other novels are: Nights in Aruba (1983), Ground Zero (essays) (1988), The Beauty of Men (1996), In September, The Light Changes (stories) (1999), Grief: a Novel (2006), Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath (2008)