In the manner that Cunningham channeled Virginia Woolf and extrapolated on “Mrs. Dalloway,” Holleran employs the tragic widowhood of Mary Todd Lincoln unraveling from inconsolable grief as his own background canvas. The novella is set in today’s Washington, D.C., a city of glaring paradoxes, of “grandeur and shabbiness,” where the nation’s past still resonates in every historical locale; largely occupied by prominent transients or has-beens, with high rents alongside a high crime rate and homelessness, and Log Cabin Republicans and politicians banning gay marriage.
As one character puts it, “In New York you can wear what you want. In Washington, the dress code is stricter—you either look like a homeless drunk or the secretary of state.”
Holleran’s stand-in is an aging, world-weary, closeted gay man who arrives from Florida after nursing his dying mother to take a temporary teaching job and hopefully find a reprieve from and sort out his quilt-ridden past. While living in a rented room in an historic row house, he casually discovers and reads a book of Mary Lincoln’s letters and begins to relate more and more to her predicament as she gradually succumbs to the bleak future of widowhood and loses her grip on reality. As time passes, the narrator begins to examine his aloof gay landlord’s domestic routine and serial dating habits. Holleran takes sly aim at the dating rituals of aging gay men after the AIDS crisis.
“He met respondents to his ads in the hotel on Nineteenth Street I would see him some nights on my way home from school—listening with a judicial air to a man in the chair across from him present his case, like two businessmen negotiating an oil-and-gas deal.” As for casual sex and romance, the narrator wryly observes, “I suspect casual sex is beyond him now, because there’s nothing casual about sex to a man who’s looking at the problem of long-term nursing home insurance.”
The narrator’s acid-tongued close friend, Frank explains to him, “It’s obvious what his problem is He’s still looking for the hot number—but the hot number is thirty-five But like all of us, he’s aging. The nictitating membrane is starting to descend! And you know what that brings—complete occlusion! Oblivion and night!”
If this exquisite novella deals with somber existential matters, i.e. reality, it is leavened with Holleran’s signature gay humor, and fleshed out with memorable characters including a colorful canine named Biscuit, who proves best in show whenever she steals a scene; and there’s the poignant shade of Mrs. Lincoln, who materializes now and then as a leitmotif.
Don’t expect a formulaic plot and neatly tied-up ending because you’re dealing with a sensibility and intelligence that is too canny for such cheap hat tricks. Life is ambiguous, and “Grief” reflects it studiously.
How do you persevere when you lose the person you love? Is love really eternal, after you lose it? Is grief salutary or ruinous? Is real estate the only real bet in life? No bromides or truisms to be found here. This smart little book asks tough questions. As the ever-pragmatic Frank sums up life—“It’s like a boxing match—you go out into the ring, and dance around, and then you get hit, and then again, and then again, and by the time the round is over, I imagine most people are ready to quit. But that’s why we have an obligation to make it as pleasant as possible—despite everything! We have an obligation to live in the present—to be happy now!”
Holleran discussed “Grief” recently during a beak in his hectic publicity tour.
MICHAEL EHRHARDT: Is “Grief” essentially or partly autobiographical? About your own experiences?
ANDREW HOLLERAN: I kind of always start out autobiographical; but when you do one draft after another, the thing begins to take on a life of it’s own. And in this case, I had a real struggle, in trying to pare it down to just a few elements, and get them in the right sequence. And by that time it was more of a problem of form. I knew when I read the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln that I wanted to do a book with her as a character. She’s such a tragic character; I don’t know why no one has written an opera about her. Initially, I didn’t know what I would do, or exactly how I would do it, but that was always foremost in my mind. And then, I imagined the ending, pretty much from the beginning. But a man at a recent reading of mine in Philadelphia said he had grown impatient with the narrator. He said, “This book isn’t about grief. It’s really about untreated depression.” It provoked a good discussion. I explained that, indeed, the book isn’t just about grief, it’s about everything else that it entails.
ME: Including survivor’s guilt The guilt of the narrator over things left undone, and Mary Lincoln’s grief and guilt over her ambition and losing her husband.
AH: Guilt as well. She lost her sons, Willie and Tad, as well.
ME: Did the idea to use Mary Lincoln come to you as serendipitously as she does to narrator in the book.
AH: Actually, she did; it was pure accident. You know, if you’re lucky in life, you find just the book you need. When of my favorite things to do is to go to someone’s house at the beach, and walk into a room and see the books they have available to read.. And I love to read what is available. It’s like it’s fated.
ME: And hopefully, it’s not just “Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock.”
AH: [Laughing] I can’t believe you actually know that title. I’ve read them all!
ME: In your book, you depict Washington D.C., warts and all. Do you know it very well?
AH: I’ve been living in Washington, on and off, since 2000. I was there for 9/11. One of the temptations writing the book was my feeling the great depression that was taking place in the city, and I consider using that as another theme, beside the other examples of grief. After all, Mary Lincoln’s personal grief was also part of the national grief that took place after the war and the assassination. I decided not to include that, after all, since it was so big a subject in it’s own right; and that would overload the book with another issue.
ME: Of course AIDS was a 9/11 for gays. In fact, your book of essays about the devastation after AIDS struck, written back in 1988, is titled “Ground Zero.” How prescient is that!
AH: Yes; that was really weird. Since Ground Zero took on the other horrible connotation. Of course, it wasn’t as spectacular occurrence as 9/11.
ME: AIDS was a 9/11 in slow motion. And Reagan was as slow to re-act as our current Little Caligula was as eager to go to war in Iraq.
AH: And AIDS wasn’t as photogenic.
ME: Or conducive to patriotic flag-waving. What’s the mood in Washington today?
AH: One of the things I’ve realized while living there was how Balkanized and age-segregated the gay community is there. I have a lot of wonderful friends my own age  there; but we don’t go out to the clubs or the other gay social venues. So I can’t really speak for the 30- and 40- and even 50-somethings there.
ME: You refer to the Washington political scene only slantingly in your novel.
AH: Yes. I didn’t really want to do that kind of book. I didn’t want to open up another can of worms. But what’s fun about Washington is that when it comes to talk about politics, say, during dinner conversation, you get a level of political discussion that is very down-to-earth. Down there, they speak in terms of what’s practical and feasible, who will vote for what, etc. It’s kind of interesting hearing it that way, as opposed to the ideological, ethical way we talk about things in other parts.
ME: It’s seems odd that a trend among long time writers seems to be mortality and grief; there’s Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and Roth’s “Everyman” Your character is, after all, a gay Everyman.
AH: Yes! Isn’t that strange? At my book signing, a man happened to have a copy of “Everyman” on him. Perhaps it has something to do with terrorism, and the Iraq war. Poor Joan Didion had a double whammy! She had something on the level of Mary Todd Lincoln.
ME: She converted her grief into art; so did you.
AH: Like the friend in the book says, “You can’t sit Shiva forever.”
ME: Didion’s book is being made into a play, with Vanessa Redgrave. I think “Grief” could make a great film.
AH: From your lips to God’s ears.