It’s hard to believe that it’s taken me this long to get around to reading Andrew Holleran’s landmark gay novel, Dancer from the Dance, more than 40 years after it was originally published. It’s only because I saw someone reading it outside a coffee shop in the West Village and I was shocked that it was still in print, and even more shocked that the person reading it was at least 30 years younger than me. When I first moved to New York City 40 years ago, the world that Holleran writes about—the world of gay “clones” who went to gay discos like The Saint—was already starting to disappear.
At that time, there were two distinct gay subcultures: the aforementioned clones, who generally were in their 30s or older and lived in the West Village, and new wavers/punks (like I was shortly after this book was published), who were generally in their 20s and lived in the East Village. (Gay artist Keith Haring even used to spray paint walls and sidewalks in the East Village with the phrase “Clones Go Home.”)
You may wonder, then, why I read a novel like Dancer and why I think it’s so important. It’s because many of the gay men from the generation that Holleran is writing about died of AIDS, so this is like a historical record.
I’m disappointed that Holleran didn’t use the names of real people and places more frequently, like Martin Belk did in his book about New York’s gay scene in the 1990s, Pretty Broken Punks (but that was more of a memoir). It’s only because of books like Tim Lawrence’s Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor: 1980–1983 that I’m familiar with early New York discos like Flamingo and 12 West. (Is Dancer’s “Twelfth Floor” disco based on 12 West?)
Normally, the previous generation of gay men would have passed this information on to the next generation (along with other important cultural information, like which movies you should see and which books you should read), but because of AIDS, many of these men died before they even reached middle age.
So thank God for novels like Dancer that preserve this history. The fact that one may not recognize the names of certain people and places may, in fact, make it even more universal. (Certainly, that was my hope when I changed the names of people and places in my gay coming-of-age novel, New York Trilogy. That and the fact that I thought that that was what you were supposed to do in a novel.)
Much like Larry Kramer’s Faggots (another important novel of this period), Dancer is about a gay man, Malone, looking for love in a gay subculture defined by promiscuity. What makes his search even more poignant is that he’s described as being impossibly beautiful, as well as a perfect gentleman. (Indeed, beauty may be the real subject of Dancer.)
However, as was common in many gay works of this era, the story is ultimately tragic. (If you’ve seen the excellent documentary, The Celluloid Closet, based on Vito Russo's book, I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers here.)
What makes the book worth reading, apart from its historical value, is that it’s beautifully written and its characters are unforgettable. The gay beauty, Malone, is a Gatsby-like figure, an unattainable object of desire. (The scene describing his clothing reminds me of a similar scene in The Great Gatsby describing Gatsby’s shirts.)
Equally memorable is his tour guide to the gay scene, Sutherland, a classic jaded queen. (Think Harold in The Boys in the Band or Richard E. Grant’s character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
In spite of all this, I found Dancer to be profoundly depressing because, ultimately, it’s about aging and death.
It is also, however, a masterpiece.