Andrew Holleran, the author most notably of Dancer From the Dance, has a story in the latest issue of Granta, and while new work by a major gay writer is always a cause for celebration, “There’s a Small Hotel” is especially interesting, because it’s a link to the past.
“There’s a Small Hotel” is an odd, atmospheric story in which an unnamed narrator returns to New York and finds himself torn between the pull of nostalgia and a need to return to his “real” life elsewhere. He ponders the appeal of urban hotels, checks into one, and reconnoiters with Miles, a once-beautiful ex-lover, now destroyed by illness, addictions, and poverty. Although he is virtually destitute, Miles refuses to leave Manhattan. His last hope for affordable housing is the Riverview, a run-down hotel on the Hudson River, which the two men visit together. The place reminds the narrator of New York’s long-gone bathhouses, and he tells Miles he should flee to the outer boroughs—or even New Jersey—rather than stay there. Yet somehow, after bidding farewell to his old friend, the narrator is tempted back to the Riverview himself.
The story is an exercise in observation, so summarizing the plot might seem reductive or even cruel, but I do so because certain elements of it seem to be in direct dialogue with “Nostalgia for the Mud,” an article Holleran wrote for the gay literary magazine Christopher Street sometime between 1976 and 1983. (I came across “Nostalgia” in The Christopher Street Reader, an anthology that appeared in 1983, but the collection doesn’t indicate when the story first appeared in the magazine.)
In that thirtysomething-year-old magazine article, Holleran ponders—just as obliquely and inconclusively as he does in “There’s a Small Hotel”—some fundamental questions of gay life, including, “Why do gays love ruins?” “Why do we rush out to trick after talking to our mothers on the telephone? Why do we find graduate students from Princeton lying facedown in the Mineshaft? … Why our desire to grovel, to wallow in the slime?”
Those questions aren’t answered in the piece—at least not directly. Despite being cultured, witty, and gay, the men refuse, or are unable, to do so. They can’t articulate the draw of the mud, but nor can they deny it. At the end of the piece, they’re down among the rotted piers of the warehouse district, preparing to enter a dark, forbidding bar full of stone-faced men.
The narrator of the Granta story is clearly older than the cultured chaps of “Nostalgia for the Mud” (though it’s hard to tell exactly what time period the new story is set in—the narrator repeatedly refers to “a Negro,” and the now-shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital is still open), but in setting and theme, it marks a return to the seedy properties along the Hudson and the draw of the depraved.
It’s impossible to know if this narrator is one of the men who debated the attraction of slumming it so long ago, but he clearly feels that same pull. At the end of the story, he returns to the depressing Riverview, and the memories it stirs up, but on the threshold, he turns away and heads to the train station, relieved to have escaped. Unlike poor, destroyed Miles, who can’t say goodbye to Manhattan, he will outlive the city.
Of course, these echoes would be far less remarkable were it not for the tragic loss of so many great gay writers to AIDS. Although some of the men anthologized in The Christopher Street Reader are sill alive and writing, notably Edmund White and Martin Duberman, contributors like John Preston and Randy Shilts succumbed to AIDS, as did so many other writers of that generation—including Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Charles Ludlam, Essex Hemphill, and Paul Monette.
It’s wonderful that Andrew Holleran keeps returning to the ideas that fascinate him, to explore how they change as he—and his characters—age. What’s tragic is that so few gay writers of his generation are around to do so.