The author’s perfectionism counted for everything – in the thoroughness of the novel’s design, the confidence in its structural devices and above all in the lavishness of its rhetorical displays. A summary of the book does not quite capture his constant vigilance, his insistent attention to the smallest detail of a scene. Additionally, Ellison manages to have the reader wear the mask of the Invisible Man, peering through the eye holes it provides. Sinister forces want the people of Harlem to be guilty of their own deaths. In the end, the invisible man fell into a manhole, where he settled to wait for the end of the chaos, to learn to live with his head in the lion’s mouth.
“Dancer of the Dance” by Andrew Holleran, 1978: Set largely in New York in the early 1970s, “Dancer From the Dance” is a hymn to gay liberation in the city, and to masculine beauty. Cruising is an honorable quest, no matter how sleazy the baths or how open the subway station. Magic can work – see the grave young man with dark eyes who could stay beyond the morning. The handsome and enigmatic Malone has such a face; he is a Midwesterner who has made, or is trying to make, his peace with homosexuality, his “compulsion”. It’s hard for him to be loyal to one man or cling to what he says he wants, and when he meets Sutherland, a veteran of every conceivable height who challenges Malone to be real, not to deceive, he has already lost a true love.
We watch Malone on his door-to-door travels, and New York’s gay nightlife is rendered in shimmering prose. The novel is saturated with homoeroticism, too hypnotized by the cohorts of the brave to be sorry. Holleran was part of a new wave of American literature that said the gay character no longer had to die by the end of the book. Bringing up the topic of same-sex love no longer meant that some dreamy hunk had to pay for the vision by getting himself murdered. Nobody knew at the time of its publication that Holleran was to be the portrait of a vanished world, of a vanished city: “We only lived to dance. The best fiction turns into a work of history over time.
“White Nights” by Elizabeth Hardwick, 1979: New York is the best place for Elizabeth, the first-person narrator of Hardwick’s “Sleepless nights” (1979), as she concludes at the beginning of the book. We know that she is a reader of deep intensity, and that she is alone but was once part of a we. Hardwick’s husband, the poet Robert Lowell, had dealt extensively with their marriage and divorce in his work. “Sleepless nights” has telling omissions. The novel is a meditation on a life, and has the feel of lyric poetry in that the “I” is perhaps meant to represent the overall meaning of the solitary self.
Hardwick’s “I” is female, and the experiences of others she is led to question tend to be those of women. Her social spectrum is wide: a rich girl is a Stalinist with a boyfriend who won’t make it; here is the sad arithmetic of an endless love triangle, and here are the housekeepers she saw going about their business. Hardwick remembers her youth of single women in their rooming houses. Or she meets old women in the street at the mercy of their decline. Joan Didion noted that Hardwick’s method resembled that of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his hunt for telltale detail. But Hardwick’s freedom to speculate about who she meets comes from her ability to achieve parity with who she thinks or talks to. She never speaks low; she is never fooled. It’s a great historical reenactment that includes New Yorkers, those who live in this place where people come to escape from elsewhere. In Hardwick’s work, the city is a drama of those who belong nowhere else, a cast of souls calling out for a memorial.
“Latin Moon in Manhattan” by Jaime Manrique, 1992: A funny picaresque like no other. Manrique’s fabulous cast of characters includes entertainers, hustlers and a live chat la vida loca in the Times Square of the 90s.