Fiction of Desire

Fiction of Desire

In the years following Stonewall, a group of writers that included Edmund White, Felice Picano, and Andrew Holleran began to meet informally in New York City. Galvanized by the charged atmosphere of the times, they forged a new consciousness of gay identity and a new way of expressing it. Now these lions of gay literature are tackling the final closet: aging.

Picano calls it the dirty little secret of gay life, albeit one that he and his peers are ready to expose. I think its absolutely necessary, he says. The more we start addressing it, the better off well all be.

If anyone is prepared to examine a topic thats been ignored or unpopular, its the writers who revolutionized the way the world perceives gay men. Many of us saw ourselves reflected in (and sometimes reconstructed ourselves to conform to) the heroes of A Boys Own Story, Dancer From the Dance, and Tales of the City. So its only fitting these same authors, who have chronicled their lives in autobiographical fiction and memoirs, should continue to do so as they grow old. Aging may end up being as groundbreaking a subject as gay liberation -- or AIDS, the other epochal event in these mens lives. Our community hasnt had public images of getting older, says Charles Flowers, who heads the Lambda Literary Foundation, which promotes LGBT writers and editors. Its still very much a youth culture.

The fact is, this generation, having experienced the worst of the AIDS epidemic, had never, as Flowers says, imagined itself getting older. After these writers lost most of their friends to AIDS, the last things they anticipated worrying -- or writing -- about were issues like long-term care, retirement, or needing (as opposed to being) a caregiver.

Just as they did when they were younger, however, these writers are using their craft to describe their experiences. Whether in work, dating, or sex, they are insisting on remaining visible -- and desirable. Each of them brings a unique perspective on these key issues, ranging from Picanos sunny reminiscences to Hollerans moody elegies.

At age 67 the dean of these literary lions in winter, Edmund White has just released a novella that revolves around the difficulty of growing old gracefully. Its easier to age as a straight man, he said. Women worship money and power. Look at all the cute young women living with Hugh Hefner. You dont see Gore Vidal surrounded by young men.

Indeed, the overarching theme of Chaos is old age in the face of what White calls the Peter Pan complex: always wanting to be the youngest in the room. But White, who has made a career of intertwining the twin erotic urges of sex and artistic creativity, gleefully admits to maintaining a healthy sexual appetite well into his 60s. Although he makes fun of S/M as the last effort of the old to look sexy in his memoir My Lives, the guy who made the term cornholing part of the cultural landscape in his first book openly discusses his predilection for water sports in his late-in-life memoir. And he can joke about being put on a pedestal as a gay leader when he sees himself as only one more shallow hedonist, one more unhappy old queen, still scheming to get laid with cute boys.

Maybe Whites self-deprecation comes to him so easily because he sees the writers role diminished in a world where letters compete with iPods and YouTube videos. Gay writers were once the only visible spokesmen for the gay community, he says. Now there are gay politicians. We used to be asked about AIDS; now theres a huge army of AIDS experts.

Holleran also ruefully observes literatures decline as a primary cultural touchstone. Earlier this year, accepting an award at the annual gathering of the Publishing Triangle, an association of LGBT writers and editors, he spoke of sitting on a plane next to a gay couple watching a movie on their laptop: Years ago, they would have been reading. Then again, in his 30s, Holleran was already looking at the world nostalgically. White jokingly tells me, Andrews a Catholic. Even at the height of the disco era, he was saying goodbye to it all.

For many of us, his first novel, the acclaimed Dancer From the Dance, published in 1978, defined the Golden Age of Promiscuity (as Brad Gooch titled his own 1996 fictional homage to the 70s). Even then, the beautiful and doomed heros fruitless search for true love amidst rambling couplings in the canyons of Manhattan and the dunes of Fire Island sounded an elegy to the disco era. Its a theme Holleran would return to again and again; in 1983s Nights in Aruba, the middle-aged narrator, a ghost, a vampire, floats into the memory world of his childhood while tending to elderly parents. The title story of Hollerans collection In September, the Light Changes (assembled and released in 1999) pretty much sums up his autumnal worldview: In the early-fall chill on Fire Island, no one wants to warm up an older man. Its not just the light thats changed.

Not all writers share Hollerans pessimistic outlook. In his Tales of the City cycle, Armistead Maupin reveled in San Francisco as a sexual playground, and his stand-in in Michael Tolliver Lives might be older, plumper, and HIV-positive, but the sex is still great. A friend of the title character cheerfully models for an elder-gay Web site and does daddy porn, while Michael is pursued by a man an entire adult younger than he is.

Like Michael, Maupin has a much younger partner. And so does White, whose boyfriend is 25 years younger. White lovingly describes Internet sites like that allow May-December hookups in a neutral space outside of a bar scene where older men are made to feel invisible. Michael Tolliver too had given up on younger men, who bore me silly with their tales of partying on crystal meth or their belief in the cultural importance of Paris Hiltons dog. But then he finds Ben, so different from the twinks who seemed to think they were doing me a favor.

Flowers contrasts these sexually active daddies with earlier characters like Christopher Brams dying queen in Gods and Monsters. The theme of lusting after an unattainable young sylph has long dominated the literature of gay aging, epitomized for many by Thomas Manns masterpiece Death in Venice.

These writers are challenging the image of gay men as pathetic narcissists, afraid of aging, of losing sexual attraction, of becoming invisible. We fought hard to live our lives, Flowers says, and were not going away.

Its a trend Flowers himself detailed in Golden Men: The Power of Gay Midlife, a guide he wrote with Harold Kooden. For Flowers, aging is a second coming-out, a theme especially apt for literature -- the first place, he says, where these images are showing up. Youre certainly not seeing it in magazines, on Here TV, or Logo. Popular culture is very much geared to youth.

Poet and editor David Groff, who cofounded the Publishing Triangle, sees writers like Maupin as harbingers of a larger trend among older gay men. Having gone through physical and mental decline and the depression of middle age, theyre moving into a new springtime and even a renewal of desire well into their 60s, says Groff, who believes they may have hit their crises sooner. He cites studies that show gay men as happier in their old age than either straight men or their younger gay brethren.

Their positive outlook is all the more remarkable considering how profoundly debilitating it was to have buried most of their friends and companions during the height of the AIDS crisis. No one has written more forcefully about the twin effects of aging and AIDS than Holleran, for whom AIDS represents the universality of loss, whether of a friend, lover, or parent.

Grief is his clearest statement about the equation of sex and death. Stopping in front of a sex club, a character observes, the last time I went here, I was downstairs in the basement standing in a puddle of goo, while some guy chewed on my nipple, and I heard a little voice say: After so many deaths, youre still doing this? But Holleran always lightens the gloom with mordant humor. The narrator of Grief is now teaching AIDS literature: Here I am, twenty years later, discussing as a historical event the thing that killed my friends. Homosexuality itself, once so shocking and mystifying, is now accepted in life and the curriculum, discussed in the same dispassionate, matter-of-fact way by bored straight students.

The HIV-positive Michael Tolliver also passed through depression, desperation, and panic into dry wit. Of an old sex buddy he sees across the street, he observes, His face had trenches like mine -- the usual wasting from the meds. A fellow cigar store Indian.

More than AIDS, however, its the awareness that they lived through the most exciting years in our history that informs these mens works. So much happened so fast! Felice Picano says. When I give talks to younger people, people are always amazed that gay culture and society was put together so rapidly.

No one has done a more thorough job of chronicling this age of wonders than Picano in a series of memoirs and his novel Like People in History. Picano himself was instrumental in helping establish the new gay literature as the founder of two seminal gay publishing houses. His newest memoir, Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: Gay Literary Life After Stonewall, looks back on those heady days when he and the gay liberation movement were young.

He believes that today, its all the more urgent to take stock of the past. Were just beginning to catch our breath and say, What happened here? he says. Im 63 years old. Most of the people around then died. Thats why Im forced to become a historian -- because Im the only one left who can write about it.

Silver Threads: A Reader

My Lives by Edmund White
With painful honesty White divides his unconventional memoir into sections based on family, friends, work, and lovers.

Grief by Andrew Holleran
A writer staying in Washington, D.C., tries to befriend his quirky landlord but can only relate to his dour dog and the diaries of Mary Todd Lincoln, who spent the postCivil War years as a deeply depressed shopaholic estranged from her family and nation.

Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin
Now 55, the narrator takes care of the aging Anna Madrigal and enjoys a quiet life working as a gardener with his young partner in his beloved San Francisco.

Nights in Aruba by Andrew Holleran
Amid a marginal existence commuting between life in Manhattans East Village and the Florida Panhandle, where his parents live, a man reminisces about his youth on a Caribbean island.

Chaos by Edmund White
A man deals with a faulty memory, a callous younger generation, money problems, advancing HIV, and a highly unsatisfying affair with a much younger man.

Like People in History by Felice Picano
In this gay Gone With the Wind, the frenemy of a suicide-seeking man with AIDS goes over the cross-coastal scenes where their lives intersected.