Andrew Holleran’s Grief is a beautifully written book that fulfills what one liner note promises, perhaps delivering the fictional version of what Joan Didion before him did in her non-fiction Year of Magical Thinking. I not only harkened back to Didion, but given my own relatively recent loss it was easy to parallel my experience of grief with Holleran’s narrative – and to conclude that what he wrote was absolutely authentic in every detail. I also doubted how much of this was fiction.
Authenticity and texture are particular talents for Holleran. He is steadfast about rendering every block and building he travels in Washington D.C. He provides the right and left turns from corner to corner, the nuances of light at various times of the day, the visages of homelessness and the steam flying up from sewers in the twilight. I remember all those details of D.C. – they are real, verifiable in memory, and they go a long way to letting the reader know that we are on this journey in the hands of a skillful writer.
The physical details of the city quickly blend with the sense of history. Everywhere he goes, something monumental happened and is sealed into the essence of a building as surely as its own cornerstones. The most notable of course are the Ford Theater where Lincoln was assassinated, and the building across the street where he was laid diagonally across an overly small bed rather than risk the trip across town on cobblestones. But there’s also the Rock Creek Cemetery where Eleanor Roosevelt went after learning of FDR’s mistress; the Japanese embassy where officials burned correspondence after the Pearl Harbor attack; the National Museum of Modern Art where Lincoln had his inaugural ball and Whitman cared for soldiers; the Jefferson Hotel where Dick Morris sucked on prostitutes’ toes; the National Gallery modeled on the Pantheon which is described as “really like a tomb;” etc. The buildings are imbued with what took place within; they are monuments to lives on the grand scale of history that went before this time. Washington D.C. as a cemetery is a city of white transients and black residents (one can’t help but think underworld), a one-company town, a capitol to which Americans feel unattached.
Like a cemetery, Washington D.C. holds a collection of stories about people, humanity, history – all gone, finished, lingering in stone and on the pages of books like the ones in the landlord’s study. The narrator is nameless throughout, although the narrator has a friend named Frank. The pets are named Sammy and Biscuit. The narrator walks endlessly through the city in a pastime that I recognize as both the act of finding one’s way in a new city (new life) and the restlessness in one’s own skin following death. He says, “That’s why I took the long walks – in part to avoid my landlord and in part to leave behind the feeling of being trapped in the house [SKIN] I’d lived in before coming here.”
The landlord is also nameless throughout the book, and that works in part because the book is short. He is urbane, gay like the narrator, and distressingly unattached. This raises the next narrative level – less visible in mainstream literature, the incredible grief for the many lives lost to HIV/AIDS, and the solitary lives led by gay people who are middle-aged and uncoupled. This story is delicately told, with explicit sexual references largely withheld, except for the moment a man who the narrator met at a sex club appears at the front door disclosing a sore on his penis, which may have exposed the narrator to syphilis.
The book chooses elegantly to take the question of living as a single gay man into the larger arena posed by the Mary Todd Lincoln story, which is backstory throughout. Mary Todd Lincoln was ambitious, probably pushed her husband to run for president, and engineered the trip to the Ford Theater. She is a tragic figure who may have had psychotic tendencies before the assassination, but lived life thereafter as a woman in black obsessed with fashion, convinced of her own destitution, sleeping on only one side of her bed, and ultimately declared insane in court action brought by her son.
At a late point in the story, the narrator sups with deceased friend Nick’s mother musing over their disparate beliefs about life after death. The narrator leans to the afterlife perspective of Mary Todd Lincoln. Nick’s mother is the pragmatist, the scientific view that says if the brain disintegrates, the person is simply gone. Here’s where Holleran leaves Didion in the dust. He engages in the debate. At first I cringed thinking it would be staged, and it was. In the end, I applauded him. He is a hopeful soul (I hope), but also endlessly sad, with an ending that pulled it off. Imagine a fifty-something year old man returning to his parents’ home and blessing God for a safe return, and his mother and father.
Holleran’s vulnerability is stunning and very wise from the strategic perspective of a writer, though I’m certain he is big-hearted and never wrote licking his chops saying, “Good strategy Andrew.” He nevertheless “worked” the story like a zoom lens ever refining its focus, drawing closer to the simultaneous texture of the personal against the D.C. cemetery, leaving the reader invested in the hope that this narrator will find a partner.