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Reeling from the recent death of his invalid mother, an exhausted, lonely professor comes to our nation's capital to escape his previous life. What he finds there--in his handsome, solitary landlord; in the city's somber mood and sepulchral architecture; and in the strange and impassioned journals of Mary Todd Lincoln--shows him unexpected truths about America and loss....
Reeling from the recent death of his invalid mother, an exhausted, lonely professor comes to our nation's capital to escape his previous life. What he finds there--in his handsome, solitary landlord; in the city's somber mood and sepulchral architecture; and in the strange and impassioned journals of Mary Todd Lincoln--shows him unexpected truths about America and loss.
The weekend I arrived, however, my landlord wasn't home; he was at another house he owned, in the mountains, threehours west of the city, where he had a small shop that sold a mix of antiques, theatrical props, and novelties. It was the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The airports were so empty it felt like I was passing through Limbo-from one life to the next. In fact I was leaving behind a life: the non-life, rather, that people who take care of someone face after the invalid dies; in this case, after a long period of helplessness spent mostly in a nursing home-a place that my mother had always asked me to keep her out of, no matter what happened; till what happened made it necessary. The idea of moving to a city seemed like a good idea, so when an old friend asked me if I'd teach a course-someone was going on sabbatical-I accepted.
But sitting in the airport on a Saturday I had only felt lost. Like someone cleaning a room who opens a drawer and finds something he did not want to find, I realized I had chosen to travel on the one day when I felt worst; since Saturday was the day when I had for the past twelve years driven to the nursing home to remove my mother for the weekend-a day of such happiness for both of us (eliminating the nursing home), that the only thing that spoiled it was the gauntlet of people who were being left behind when I wheeled her chair down the hallway, a prisoner being freed while the others watched. Or perhaps, I thought now, that was an element of the pleasure; so confused was I still about what all that had meant. What was clear was that I'd become used to going there on Saturdays; something I was not doing among the strangers sitting around me in the vacant sunny lounge of the airport in Atlanta-that womb, that amniotic fluid, in which the traveler floats, detached from all his elements of identity. To get to Heaven, the joke goes, you change planes in Atlanta. The day my mother had fallen I'd flown north as if going to the afterlife, traveling toward what I thought was her death as in a dream, too much in shock to even feel anything but strange; the silence of the cabin, the clouds outside, the quiet passengers, all ignorant of my awful news. Now, after her death, years later, I was flying north again with the same bizarre feeling. You never know, I thought, watching the other passengers settle into the plastic chairs around me, who is flying on a bereavement discount. There's no way to tell-though most of the families I could see, peering over the newspaper I was reading at their exchanges, seemed to still have one another.
I was the solitary traveler this time; on a day whose future identity had been my own selfish worry when my mother died: What would I do with each Saturday? How would I get up that morning knowing there was no need to get in the car to drive into the nursing home to take her out? It was only now that the dimensions of the routine we had established were becoming clear. "It's the families who keep the patient alive," a nurse had said to me one day in the nursing home. "They're the ones who won't let go." Nurses are the supreme realists, I thought as I sat in the vacant anonymity of an airport on a weekend when very few people seemed to be traveling. It's in airports that we feel most lost; in airports that we grieve. So when I got to Washington I went outside to get the Metro with a feeling that I was breathing for the first time in hours.
The weather the day I showed up was neither warm nor cold. The keys had been mailed a week earlier; a note welcoming me was on the table in the entrance hall-and for the next two days I had the place to myself.
Not only the house, but the neighborhood itself, was empty. Happy to be starting over, however, I began to walk. Years earlier a friend who'd lived in Washington had said when asked why he'd left: "I refused to go to one more dinner party where people talked about their town houses as if they were children." But I could see, only hours after arriving there that January afternoon, on my first exploration of the neighborhood, how this could happen. Everywhere I looked I saw row houses. Unlike those in Manhattan, they exhibited a great variation in design. There was something Germanic about them: little castles. Turrets and towers marked the corners in every direction, conical roofs of black slate, with dormer windows that looked like half-opened eyes gazing out between the chimneys and balconies. Though smaller than Manhattan brownstones, and composed of different colored stone, they presented the onlooker with the same reassuring sense of comfort and solidity, as if you were walking through a novel by William Dean Howells or Henry James.
This feeling only deepened that first afternoon when I unlocked the door at the top of the stairs and found myself looking through a window into the study of the house next door, a nook filled with bookcases, African violets, and an elderly couple on a small sofa engaged in what looked like a perpetual conversation. On the landing outside were a few clay pots still holding the remains of summer-dried stalks of basil and rosemary. The iron gate I had to unlatch, before opening the old wooden door, implied there was crime about, but once I opened it, and the inner door in the entrance hall, I felt quite safe-plunged into the silvery, aqueous gloom of the house itself: a gray light provided by two glass doors in the back, which gave onto a wooden deck whose stairs led down to a narrow brick-walled garden lined with tall fir trees. The firs made the garden look Nordic. The décor inside the house was strictly American, however-banquettes, spot lighting, and gray walls-the furniture eclectic: a fine chair upholstered in striped gold and silver, next to a plastic table with a lava lamp, a big rococo mirror that leaned against one wall, and, against the wall opposite, one of those dead-white sculptures nineteenth-century America considered masterpieces but this century regards as kitsch-in this case, according to the thick letters raised on its pediment, Boy with a Thorn.
The youth removing a thorn from his foot was illumined by a spotlight in the ceiling I tried to turn off by flicking the switches on a panel beside it; but touching the switches only turned every light on in various sections of the ground floor, which made me think: Lighting is what the seventies were all about. It was all like a house someone had designed in 1978-a more hedonistic era poured into the walls of this deep, narrow, sober old building, where, that first evening, I found myself sitting in the dark looking down into the twilight where two men in jeans and plaid shirts were washing a car. I could not decide if the fact that I was able to wander at will that first weekend was welcoming or cold; especially when, while looking for clues to my landlord's life, I found none. Go ahead, look, the house seemed to say-you won't find a thing about me here.
But this seemed appropriate. As I walked through the house I felt like a ghost myself, or like someone turning the pages in a back issue of Architectural Digest-to which, despite its do-it-yourself homeliness, the house seemed to aspire. In the dining room hung a large painting that looked as if someone had copied Caravaggio, not very well; this knockoff was not much more effective than the handle of the washer and dryer in the alcove off the kitchen that came off in my hand. There were drawers that didn't open, lights that didn't work. In the cabinet above the stove were only a rusted can of paprika and one small jar of peanut butter. It was as if no one had ever eaten there. The house was a sort of tomb that first weekend. The more I looked the emptier it seemed, and when I caught my reflection accidentally in the enormous mirror leaning against the wall of the living room it brought me to a halt-the pale silvery figure staring back at me looked so tentative and sad.
When I finally climbed the stairs to my bedroom on the third floor, I lay down on the big low bed and stared at the single strand of ivy that had climbed to the top of a brick wall behind the house, and, beyond it, more rooftops and a building under construction. I was glad to be alone and at the same time apprehensive. When I turned on the lamp beside the bed the room looked like a hotel room in a strange city.
On the table by the bed were three books standing upright between two glass clowns that served as bookends-a murder mystery by Ruth Rendell, a book about Elizabeth Nietzsche's Aryan colony in Paraguay, and Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, by Justin and Linda Levitt Turner.
I opened the middle book and looked at the pictures of Nietzsche's sister, and the handsome men with big moustaches who had followed her to Paraguay, standing next to a cart on a dirt road in the jungle. Then rain started pattering on the skylight above the landing and I fell asleep.
WHEN I AWOKE I picked up the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln-which proved to be so engrossing that as I lay there reading that first night in Washington it took me a few seconds to make sure I'd heard the doorbell before going down to investigate.
When I got to the front door a slender black man in a soiled windbreaker was tapping on the front window as he leaned sideways from the landing. I opened the doors and said hello. He said he knew my landlord, lived a few doors down the street, had just been in an accident in Dupont Circle, his wife was in George Washington University Hospital, and he needed ninety dollars to get his car, which had been towed away. I decided it would be racist to doubt his word-so I gave him what money I had and closed the door. Moments later the doorbell rang again. This time it was a white man who introduced himself as the downstairs tenant and asked if the man who had just come to the door had asked for money because he'd been in a car accident.
"Yes," I said, "he said he's a neighbor and knows our landlord."
The man emitted a short laugh.
"He lives on a bench in Dupont Circle and there was no car accident. How much did you give him?"
"Twenty bucks," I said.
"Well, you didn't know," he said, turning to walk down the stairs. "And it is Martin Luther King's birthday. I guess you could call it-reparations!" Then he laughed, and disappeared beneath the stairs to his apartment.
Outside another stranger-a weathered, handsome man in blue jeans and a plaid coat-was bent over at the waist, picking leaves off the sidewalk in the lamplight one by one and putting them in his pocket. When I put on my coat and went out, he neither spoke nor looked at me. After living alone in a small town I had lost the knowledge of how to pass people on the street: whether to look at them-and for how long-whether or not to nod or say hello.
One of the odd aspects of caring for someone for a long time is that you grow accustomed to a certain intimacy-but as I walked down the dark, tree-lined block, past house after house just like my landlord's, with lamps burning within, and pots of dead flowers on the stoops, I realized I belonged to no one now, and no one belonged to me. I was like a crab that has shed one shell but not found another; and when I returned from the grocery store, I did what a crustacean must do when it finds a new carapace to occupy: resume its old habits-unpacked the groceries, searched for the classical radio station, and sat down to read the newspaper while they played an oboe concerto by Mozart. Outside the front door lay not the small town in which I'd been living but a city with bars, restaurants, and concert halls, but they made no difference; I had merely changed the room in which I sat and the newspaper I was reading.
I was reading a story on the front page about the recent brouhaha in the municipal government in which the new African-American mayor had fired a white man who had used the word "niggardly" during a budget meeting. A black aide had stormed out of the meeting claiming he had been insulted. The homosexual community was calling on the mayor to rehire the white aide, who was gay, because the word "niggardly" was an old English term that had nothing to do with race. One columnist was arguing that a white person should have known that whatever its meaning this word could give offense. A letter to the editor argued that white people should not have to bow to the lexical deficiencies of blacks. A second article claimed the black aide's outrage was bogus and had been staged by a cabal of civil servants who felt threatened by the new regime; a permanent bureaucracy that was against all reform because it felt any change would simply allow whites to take over the city.
I was reading still another installment in this ongoing story at the dining room table on Monday when my landlord came through the door. "Hi!" he said, as he put down his duffel bag, and a small brown and white dog walked toward me, its toenails clicking on the floor. "Biscuit! Come here!" he called. The dog stopped in its tracks, looking at me with bright eyes. Then he said: "Welcome to Washington! Nice to see you!"
I stood up, shook his hand, and apologized for having been so absorbed in the story in the Post about the mayor that I'd not heard him come in. He returned to a table on which I'd put the mail. "Oh, please," he said, picking up the envelopes. "I don't know if you've been out and around yet, but if you have, you may have noticed a lot of subtle, and not so subtle, racial hostility in this town. People like me, the ones who marched in all the civil rights marches in the sixties, have become very discouraged. Very discouraged," he said, as he began opening the envelopes. "Most of us who were behind civil rights from the beginning have just about given up on the whole thing. I won't even try to sit down next to a black person on the Metro because I know if I do that person will not move an inch to make space for me-not even half an inch! You'll see. There's a subtext to life in this city, an unspoken comment that accompanies almost every exchange, which is: 'You stupid white man.' But here I am on my soapbox already-and all I wanted to say was welcome to Washington! Come here, Biscuit!" he said to the little dog sniffing at my ankles.
I was looking at a man my age in green corduroy pants, a blue buttoned-down shirt, and a navy blue parka. He had thick salt and pepper hair cut short, and-curious anachronism-a neat moustache. His eyes were small and deep set. Two creases formed parentheses around a thin mouth. It was the sort of face that had been used in the seventies to advertise cigarettes. He was probably better-looking now than he had been in his youth, though the expression on his face implied that his looks had not brought him peace of mind-there was a certain discontent, an unease, visible in the way he moved two fingers back and forth nervously across his neat moustache while reading the envelope in his left hand. He looked a little like John Brown, the Abolitionist, it occurred to me. Then he glanced up. "Is your room all right?" he said.
"Very nice," I said.
Excerpted from GRIEF by Andrew Holleran Copyright © 2006 by Andrew Holleran. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 29, 2006
Andrew Holleran may not be the most prolific writer on the scene ('The Beauty of Men', 'In September, the Light Changes', 'Dancer from the Dance', 'Nights in Aruba') but he most assuredly one of our finest. His extraordinarily well-crafted novels, novellas, and short stories can be appreciated on many levels - interest of theme (Holleran is one of the few writers who find writing about gay life as natural a topic for creating universal themes as any other), quality of prose (liquid, rich in imagery and atmosphere, and creatively eloquent), and pertinence of philosophy. In a brief 150 pages Holleran relates via an unnamed narrator the experiences of life in its brevity and death in its finality. Having moved from Florida where he had been the caretaker of his ill mother with whom he never discussed his life as a gay man and suffers from her loss as well as his own regret that he never allowed his mother to know him, our narrator accepts a university job in Washington, DC teaching a seminar on AIDS and its impact on literature. He rents a room from a middle-aged gay man whose home on Dupont Circle has seen a failed relationship and whose presence is absence: these two men avoid communication that might uncover secrets painfully buried in each man's private grief. Aside from his teaching and occasional walking (Washington has rarely been so beautifully described in words of a novel) and talking with an old friend, his only activity is reading the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln written after the death of the President, pages that mirror the life and times of the men who populate this story. There is no true beginning or end in this treatise on the sanctity of life, yet it allows Holleran to interject some of the more slowly meaningful passages he has yet written. In referring to his landlord 'the problem was that we were both too polite. Manners are counterproductive when they make you wonder about a person's true feelings'. In describing the nation's capital as a living space '...Washington, I thought, where life was so comfortable because it was so artificial, as if living under a glass roof, or in some parlor where a boy was laid amidst the lilies'. And 'At every concert...there was a piece - sometimes only a passage - that made you feel someone else (the composer) has understood, had known, your grief, that life was worth living because of music. At the same time, this music...also made it clear that you had been fooling yourself in attempting to go on with your life...'. And yet Holleran has not written a book about terminal depression. In the end he quotes the mother of one of his friends who'd died from AIDS: ('How do you make amends when the person you wronged is dead?') 'I suppose by doing something good to those who are still alive. I think often of a line from Sophocles - we have all eternity to please the dead, but only a little while to love the living.' And the sweet brevity of life glows in Holleran's words. This is not only a fine work of literature: this is also incandescent writing about living. And it is one of the finer books of the year. Grady Harp
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Posted June 9, 2009
This is a beautiful book. Maybe it has some special poignancy for male gay readers, but I'm a woman, and not gay, and I think all of us (grievers) can be enriched by its reading. If for nothing more than to smell the spring flowers, experience Washington at dawn, run with a dog.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2009
This a rather odd book which details the relationship between a roomer and his landlord after the roomer's mother has passed away. Touching on grief in it's many facets, particularly involving AIDS, Holleran has much to say, and he does it in short order. Nonetheless it is odd to eavesdrop on the landlord as he goes about his life, and one wonders why this particular relationship was chosen.
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Posted February 8, 2009
The narrator in Andrew Holleran's sparse novella, goes to Washington, D. C. at the suggestion of a old friend, Frank. He will to teach literature for a semester in an unnamed school and rents a room in a row house from an unnamed landlord¿although we do know that his dog is named Biscuit. The narrator had been in Gainesville, Florida for the last twelve years, taking care of a mother in a nursing home. She recently died; and he is dealing with her death. He is also addition a lonely survivor of the AIDS epidemic that swept the U. S. in the early 80's.<BR/><BR/>I have read practically everything Mr. Holleran ever wrote, Along with Felice Picano, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, and George Whitmore, he founded The Violet Quill¿considered to be the path breaking gay male literary nucleus of the 20th Century. <BR/><BR/>Holleran writes beautiful, descriptive prose and gives a myriad of details about his three main characters as well as the City of Washington that the narrator doesn't like very much. Holleran makes the landlord come alive: "He had his house, he had his friends, his WILL & GRACE¿and that was it. At fifty-five things had stopped happening to him, I suspected. Nothing happened to him anymore. Or rather: Everything that did had already happened before¿many, many times. . . He reminded me of an older America that had never changed its values of thrift, cleanliness, and order; the only difference was that he was homosexual. . . The homosexual part, however, was now inactive. He was now a sort of homosexual emeritus." <BR/><BR/>We also learn that the landlord was more attractive now than when he was younger, although his face indicates that "his looks had not brought him peace of mind." He also cooks a lot of chicken parts at one time and throws them in the refrigerator to eat on an unchanging nightly schedule. The narrator fares every worse. He discovers a book in his room of the Life and Letters of Mary Todd Lincoln and spends a great amount of his free time reading her letters. He gets immersed in her book and absorbs her grief, that followed Lincoln¿s death.<BR/><BR/>Holleran, through the narrator, speaks eloquently and often on the subject of grief. ¿The only cure for grief is time, but some people need more time than others and some people never get over a loss; if they stop grieving, they no longer have that loved one.¿ The dead live in our hearts¿often the living feel guilty for surviving. The narrator also carries the burden of knowing that he did not honor his mother's request to be taken home from the nursing home to die, in her own bedroom, surrounding by her own furniture, and that he never told her he was homosexual, even when she asked. <BR/><BR/>Those of us who lived through the horrors of the early years of the AIDS epidemic certainly can see glimpses of our friends and ourselves in these characters. In Grief, Holleran summons voices from the past as he handles grief masterfully..Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 27, 2008
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