Book Review: Dancer From The Dark

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran is the story of gay life in New York in the late 70s, from the tenements of the Lower East Side to the beaches of Fire Island, from the bars and the baths to the avenues and the parks, all the places where gay men cruised for cock and love. It is a story about too often having to sacrifice substance for style, and how, once in a while, you do the opposite. It is a story of decadence and despair, of lust, love, and the lies we all tell, of coming out and the end of innocence. It is the story of Malone, beautiful, romantic, idealistic, and Sutherland, queeny, campy, and jaded. It is the story of how they met, became friends, and how their friendship intersected and impacted the lives of the people around them.

The story begins with two friends exchanging letters. One still lives in New York, and his letters are filled with the streets, with the cold concrete and the stench of the city; the other has fled south, and his letters are idyllic, ripped from the pages of Gone with the Wind in their descriptions of the beauties of the deep south. They talk of old times, of the sex, drugs, and disco of their youth in New York, and how they, like everyone, loved Malone, charming, handsome, and searching for love.

Andrew Holleran’s prose is beautiful, breath-taking. Even the most graphic or ugly matters end up painted with that nostalgia that makes every memory brighter and bigger than it was. Men come out. They fuck. They love, if only for a night. They repeat the next night, at a different disco, on a different street, with a different man. But it is the same disco, the same street, the same man. Except for Malone, who stands apart, above, and Sutherland, whose age, whose camp, whose small dick and whose use of speed, has set him apart in a different way.

The New York scene is captured elegantly, a snapshot of a time, just post-Stonewall, when they gay ghetto was just forming. It is a country away from San Francisco, where old gay men go to die. It is a city of Angel Dust and Quaaludes, of red hankies and Pink Parties. Gay men gather, they gossip, they judge, they dance. They dance to feel, they dance to escape, they dance because not to dance is to die. In a dancefloor filled with bodies, shirtless, sweating, swirling, they lose themselves, and find themselves.

This isn’t a light and fluffy read, but it is a glorious one. The plot is one that could be lived in any city, any bar, any Saturday night. The characters blur together, because they’re all the same, except, of course, for Malone, on his pedestal, and for Sutherland, on her throne. I can see why this novel has been described as one of the most important works of gay literature. Its themes of loneliness, of superficial yet enduring friendship, of the quest for love, are as real today as they were then, and its characters could be recognized on the dancefloor of any local club.

The passion for music, for movement stands out. When dancing, it is both a communal experience, and an alientating one. While the dancefloor can be seen as a metaphor for the gay community, how when dancing, you can be a part of something bigger yet still be apart from it, it is also, simply, a place to dance.

This isn’t a novel you read; it is a feeling you experience.

Submitted By: Rob B.

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  • HarryR

    This is a special gay story for me, one I read more than once before I moved to NYC in ’81. It tells of a world that the dark plague of AIDS began overwhelming just single digit years after it’s stories. More than one friend of that era would move to NYC with wide eyes, disappearing after a couple of weeks, only to reappear months later much the worse for wear as they discovered Halloran’s world, plunging into the world of bars & clubs & dance floors & laughing seductive eyes till they filled whatever cravings they had until they needed a break. One friend never made it to various job interviews for weeks as he always met some hot guy on the way, getting distracted & diverted until the interview time had long passed. AIDS ate away at that world until it was a mere shadow of itself by the late 80’s, most clubs gone, with ghosts dancing amidst the much diminished crowds on the few dance floors that remained. Dancer from the Dance is a great read.