Fiction of Desire


By Steve Weinstein

Holleran also ruefully observes literature's 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, 'Andrew's 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 hero's 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. It's a theme Holleran would return to again and again; in 1983's 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 Holleran's 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. It's not just the light that's changed.

Not all writers share Holleran's 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 Hilton's 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 Bram's 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 Mann's 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 we're not going away.'

It's 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. You're 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, they're 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.