Book review / No pecs, no sex but plenty of wrecks

The Beauty of Men by Andrew Holleran, Picador, pounds 15.99 by Margaret Wertheim, Fourth Estate, pounds 9.99

In recent years, those who consider HIV a harmless retrovirus have proposed many alternative causes for Aids. One is that it is a choice: gay men, whose culture is based on the desirability of youth, are so terrified by ageing that they opt instead for a glamorous death - Violetta, or Maria Callas, coughing on a couch rather than Aschenbach, or Dirk Bogarde, collapsing on the Lido.

Such a theory may seem far-fetched, but after reading Andrew Holleran's deeply depressing new novel, one begins to see its attractions. His central figure, Lark (the ultimate misnomer), has moved to Florida, both to be close to his paralysed mother and to escape a Manhattan where gay life has become an epitaph. His world is dominated by different kinds of ageing: his sick friends; his mother's companions in the nursing home, and his own decreasing sexual potency.

Lark is a problematic protagonist. His intelligence is clear yet he seems to have no inner life. He has no friends, no job, no activities besides visiting his mother and obsessing about sex. (He is a voyeur with a penchant for cyclists and runners.)

Holleran does not create sympathy for his hero so much as guilt - it is hard to quarrel with someone who has fled from a world where, in Paul Rudnick's phrase, "Aids is your filofax". And yet his friends' suffering only makes his preoccupation with his lost looks more trivial. It comes as a shock to work out that he is 48, a venerable age to a medieval peasant but less so in the era of Joan Collins.

The sole exception to this "no pecs, no sex" saga is Becker, a man with whom Lark has a one-night stand and a year-long obsession. Becker is the perfect fantasy-figure for a self- hating gay man - a rugged construction worker with a daughter. Lark is doomed to failure with him. But so is the author: allow Becker to respond to Lark and he risks reducing the novel to wish-fulfilment; keep them apart and he deprives it of plot. Lark's only escape from his sexual morass comes in visits to his mother's nursing home - episodes that contain the novel's most powerful writing. The irony of Lark's dependence on his mother and the description of her death are superbly realised.

The Beauty of Men is a novel of incidental insights but abiding disappointment. Depression hangs heavier than the clammy Florida air. The emphasis on corrupted flesh is so insistent that, at times, the book descends into grand guignol.

In The Burning Library, Edmund White laments that "some of our best imaginative writers like Larry Kramer and Andrew Holleran have turned away from fiction to essays as though only direct address is adequate to the crisis". Like White, Holleran has emphasised the importance of autobiography in his fiction as a means of validating gay experience. His first novel, Dancer From the Dance, has claims to be the novel of metropolitan gay life, capturing the excitement and excess in lush cadences. But such exuberance no longer seems appropriate. Instead, he writes with a cold precision that makes Lark's life even less engaging. The enormity of the crisis appears to have overwhelmed him and prevented his finding a fictional correlative for his pain.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future