By Justin Shen
Dancer from the Dance, a tragic novel, depicts the lives of “doomed queen[s]” in the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era of the 1970s (Holleran 17). These characters are doomed, argues Linda M. Hess, because they long for eternal youth while physically aging, but are excluded from being considered “grown ups” for refusing to conform to heteronormative time (103). Although she is right to focus on notions of time and aging, her analysis overlooks a crucial aspect of the novel: its obsession with speed. Throughout the novel, characters accelerate and decelerate, pursue and are pursued, and regulate the mobility of others. Their speeds are informed by sexuality, age, class, culture, and location. Speed is essential to Malone’s condition as a doomed queen. Indeed, he is a tragic figure because of his entrapment in a double bind. To exit the circuit of queer hedonism, slow down one’s life, and “grow up” in the novel, circuit queens must stay connected to straight, bourgeois culture while participating in the circuit. Malone is unable to do this because it forces him to live in two worlds, at two different speeds, which he finds irreconcilable. Moreover, total immersion in the circuit often traps its subjects in a speedy period of “youth,” which exhausts them to death. Malone’s sense of entrapment in the circuit, his disillusionment with its charms, and his exhaustion push him to drown himself. This reading dispels the ambiguity of his disappearance into the bay, and proves that the circuit queens who memorialize his ostensible escape from their world in gossip are misinformed.
Holleran links speed and acceleration to queer desire, the circuit of queer hedonism, and youth in the novel. When Malone confronts his homosexuality after a period of anguish and self-loathing in a stationary position, he goes for a nighttime drive. He heads to “Dupont Circle” in a daze, where he “me[ets] a man and … [goes] into the park and bl[ows] him” (Holleran 73). In New York City, he locks eyes for the first time with Frankie, his first love, and follows him onto a “subway … [which takes] him hurtling away” (81). The next time he sees him, the “man g[ets] in a taxi and dr[ives] off” before he can approach him (81). The circuit of queer hedonism is defined by speed as well. Participants are “desired … [then] pursued” or are “chasing dick” themselves, sleeping with different partners every night, dancing to ecstatic, upbeat disco music, abusing drugs regularly, circulating from discotheque to bathhouse to Fire Island by taxi, subway, or ferry (Holleran 43; 47). Two of the drugs most often referenced are “speed” and “popper[s];” the former can induce “talkativeness, faster breathing, a rapid heart rate,” and the latter “increased blood flow” and a brief “head-rush” (46; Drugs.com; FRANK). Unsurprisingly, speed is connected to youth. The queer subculture of the novel is youth-oriented, as Linda M. Hess observes. It prizes “handsome face[s] … and well-defined athletic bod[ies],” which are traits more often found in the young than the old (104). Most of the men who participate in this “economy of the body” are fairly young (Hess 105). Those rare, older men in the culture watch those for whom they lust from a distance. Some, like “Spare Parts” are given “indicative nicknames” which play on their oldness, undesirability, and minority status, and others like Sutherland, sometimes receive no erotic attention from young men (46; Hess 104). The relationship between speed and youth in the novel is also supported by the commonsensical notions that young men, unlike their elders, tend to have the physicality to participate in the taxing activities which characterize the circuit, and are associated with its reckless hedonism.
Slowness and deceleration are linked to straight middle-class time, heteronormative dreams of domesticity, and the aged. Straight middle-class time in the novel upholds the “values of progress, particularly as translated into a life project of slow, prudential, measured, accumulation” (Tomlinson 64). Its linear timeline moves from childhood to college to adulthood, which includes marriage and parenthood. Holleran hints at straight time and life early on in the novel, when a “load of pleasure-seekers [on their way to Fire Island] were driving right through Happiness … [,] a quieter brand of existence that flourished under these green elms” (Holleran 25). The post-marriage phases of straight time are associated with quiet suburbs that exist in the midst of natural beauty, spaces purportedly ideal for child-rearing. Existence in these spaces is quiet because everything in the suburbs moves at a slower pace than the overwhelmingly speedy phenomena of city life. When Malone leaves the city for Ohio to visit his family for Thanksgiving – a straight holiday, in a sense, given its association with the image of an unfragmented nuclear family coming together for dinner – he takes “the slowest way” home, as if his deceleration facilitates his transition into a suburban life of slower rhythm (102). In Ohio, his niece asks him questions which unintentionally serve to pressure him into conforming to straight time. She is curious about when he is “going to get married” and why he does not “have a car” like other men his age, all of whom are married (102). Malone and Frankie later confess that they aspire to heteronormative domesticity, desires which are linked to slowness and deceleration..After becoming disillusioned with the city, Malone admits that he wants to leave the circuit, find a job, and settle down “in a big white house … [where he can] sit on … [his] porch … and see … [his] children playing on the lawn” (142). Frankie, too, longs for a life informed by the ideals of straight time: all he wants is “a home … and a family” (119). Unlike the circuit queens, he is satisfied with a monogamous relationship, and for this reason, is associated with slowness and stillness. “Making love to Frankie,” Malone admits, “has always been like making love to someone underwater … [who suffers from] lethargy of spirit,” even though their relationship began with two instances of acceleration (90). Put differently, their relationship is characterized by slowness after its passionate, idealistic beginning. Deceleration and slowness are therefore signs of aging. Like straight men who settle down by decelerating and moving into the suburbs, circuit queens leave the city for quieter, slower, stabler lives. As the author of Wild Swans, the novel within the novel, admits: “[t]hey have to take jobs eventually as telephone operators, bartenders, partners in a lamp shop in some little town in the San Fernando Mountains” (239).
Dancer from the Dance suggests that circuit queens are able to exit their world, decelerate, and “grow up” only if they remain connected to the heteronormative bourgeois world of production and practicality while they engage with the circuit. Many circuit queens do not immerse themselves in their world as deeply as Malone does. As the interlocutor of Wild Swans’ author confirms, “Malone was possibly more committed [to queer hedonist life] … than any of us” (Holleran 241). These men are able to spend “their days in banks and offices” as closeted homosexuals, and nights in the circuit, with knowledge that the latter is their “true li[fe]” (42). Even after being seduced into the circuit, Frankie does not immerse in it to the extent that Malone and Sutherland do. Malone mentions that his ex-lover “[b]ought a house in Freehold, New Jersey … [and is] making twenty thousand a year now, and [will soon] have a pension, too” (230). Frankie is able to comfortably live in two worlds at once: the speedy, dangerous, and mainly nocturnal world of queer hedonism, and the slow-paced suburban life. His financial stability and connection with the latter world keeps open the possibility of exiting the circuit and “growing up.” Although Malone is clearly gossiping about Frankie, and the novel does not substantiate his claims, readers should believe his gossip. Frankie’s success is, after all, a natural extension of his initial ambition for domesticity and stability, and Holleran establishes that some queer men can navigate seemingly incompatible worlds and speeds.
Malone is a tragic figure because he finds the two worlds and speeds irreconcilable. After he is disillusioned with the heteronormative, bourgeois world in which he was brought up, he severs himself from it, accelerates in pursuit of a man he meets during his first cruising session, and later, accelerates twice in pursuit of Frankie. Not long afterwards, Sutherland takes him in, introduces him to the circuit, and he becomes an obsessive participant, accelerating even faster. In the middle of the novel, Malone begins to find the circuit stagnant and spiritually empty. His many lovers become indistinguishable to him, as he engages with them one by one and later reminisces about them. He tells Sutherland he wants to leave the city and get a job in a quiet, slow, and “sleepy tropic town” (Holleran 146). Sutherland informs him that such a move is impossible, since “for the past ten years … [,] everyone else has been composing a resume” while Malone has been pursuing love single-mindedly in the circuit (143). During a job interview, Malone will be required to justify the ten year gap. Telling the truth is out of the question, as the circuit is socially unacceptable. Lying convincingly is also impossible, as Sutherland tells him: “[t]he only thing you could do at this point … would be to say you’ve been a prisoner of war in Red China” (142). Moreover, if miraculously hired, he would be forced to return to the closet. Malone is trapped in the circuit because of his refusal to conform to straight, bourgeois norms. No longer does he eagerly accelerate in the circuit; “Malone … [,] being rather lost himself, let Sutherland carry on” with his plan of pimping him out to a “parade of prosperous men” to make a living for both of them (162; 177). As this enforced acceleration occurs, Malone decelerates because he physically ages and reacts with indifference and disgust to the charms of the circuit. Throughout the last fifty pages, Holleran uses words like peace and stillness in descriptions of Malone’s state of mind to signal that he is decelerating. He has a conversation with the narrator of Wild Swans about queer vulnerability while facing a park that is “almost peaceful” (200). They lie on a beach together as he “surrender[s] to stillness” (211). They watch the “air turn milky blue” on Fire Island, as “a great peace descend[s] on” them (219). In a rare, elegiac moment, Malone wanders the streets of New York at a walking pace like “someone who is saying goodbye” (213). For the first time in the novel, Malone is operating at two speeds at once. Just as he could not bear life in the heteronormative, bourgeois world in the day while cavorting nightly in the world of queer hedonism, he cannot stand working as an escort while decelerating and longing for a slower world beyond the spiritually empty circuit. He finds the tension between the two different yet simultaneous speeds agonizing. It comes as no surprise that he drowns himself at the end of Wild Swans.
The novel claims that total immersion in the circuit of queer hedonism often traps its subjects in a speedy, short-lived period of “youth,” which exhausts them to death. In reference to the circuit queens, the friend of Wild Swans’ author remarks: “[w]hat is so incredible about homosexuals is that, if they live as homosexuals … (beings whose lives consists chiefly of Being Attractive to others), they die much sooner than heterosexual men” (Holleran 248). The novel suggests that one reason many circuit queens die early is exhaustion. They accelerate to the point that their lives speed up and shorten, and die from overusing their bodies or overdosing on drugs. Although older than his fellow circuit queens, Sutherland is one such example. Like Malone, he severs himself from the heteronormative world and refuses to get a job in the city. He sleeps from early in the morning to midafternoon, only to wake up to prepare for upcoming parties, hookups, and drug deals. An unnamed circuit queen notes, early in the novel, that Sutherland is a “speed freak” who “hasn’t long to live” (46). Indeed, at the end of Wild Swans, he overdoses on a mixture of drugs and dies in what may have been a suicide. Sutherland’s life accelerates into his premature death. His age, although never revealed, can be inferred. Malone enters the circuit at age 28, stays for ten years, and disappears at age 38. When Sutherland takes in Malone, he finds that the latter looks like “himself ten, even fifteen years ago,” when he first discovered the circuit (Holleran 95). This suggests that he was likely 38-43 years old on introducing Malone to the circuit. Since he overdoses on the day Malone disappears, his age of death is between 48-53 years old. Of course, appearances can be deceiving when it comes to age. Holleran, nonetheless, confirms that such calculations are on the right track by drawing a parallel between Sutherland’s relationship to Malone, and Malone’s relationship to his mentee, John. On the day of his disappearance, Malone, age 38, gives John a campy introduction to the circuit, just as Sutherland gave him one when he was 28 years old. This parallel establishes that Sutherland was age 38 when he gave his introduction and age 48 when he died. Since he died in 1977, the year of the Everard Baths fire, his birth year would be 1929. The average life expectancy of an American male born that year is 55.8 years old (Noymer). Sutherland’s death should therefore be considered premature. His fervent participation in the circuit and lack of biological children further confirm his “youthful” death, as they preclude him from being considered a “grown up” from the standpoint of straight time.
Malone’s sense of stasis in the circuit, disenchantment from its charms, and exhaustion drive him to suicide. In the last two chapters of Wild Swans, Malone decelerates because he is exhausted from extreme acceleration. Holleran stops using verbs such as “rush,” “swept,” and “vanish” in descriptions of Malone’s movement (82; 152; 118). A moment before he leaps into the bay, Holleran notes that he is “exhausted” (232). He mentions to John that he is “thirty eight” and “a jaded queen,” traits which inform his distaste for the circuit and desire to leave (227). Malone’s awareness of his physical and spiritual exhaustion leads him to commit suicide. He understands that even if he was not trapped in the circuit, he would not have the energy to realize his future. The imagery of his deceleration and exhaustion confirms that he does not have the physicality, at least in the moment before his leap, to swim across the Great South Bay. In so doing, they establish that the memorializing rumors about Malone’s escape “to the Far East” or to “Singapore” or about his death in the “flames of the Everard Baths” are pure fantasy (242). Malone’s leap into the bay and subsequent disappearance should therefore be read as a successful attempt at drowning himself.
Dancer from the Dance is a tragic novel, in part because of Malone’s condition as a doomed queen. He is unable to exit the circuit, slow down, and “grow up” because he finds it irreconcilable to live in the heteronormative world of production and stability, and the world of queer hedonism, at two different speeds. His sense of entrapment and exhaustion in the circuit, which he finds spiritually empty, drives him to death. Linda M. Hess notes, however, that the novel ends on a positive note. A queer man who has escaped the city and settled down in the Deep South writes some of the closing letters, which suggests that “alternative possibilities of queer aging exist” even though they do not find detailed representation in the novel (Hess 117). While this is true, she fails to notice that he is less immersed in the circuit than Malone, and could presumably live in two worlds at once, at two different speeds. If it were otherwise, he would be unable to leave the circuit. This insight uncovers a bleaker reading: heteronormativity in the novel is so influential it negatively affects those who immerse themselves completely in a purely queer world–to seek refuge from the straight world–to a greater degree than those who do not.
Hess, Linda. Queer Aging in North American Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Holleran, Andrew. Dancer from the Dance. Harper Perennial, 1978.
Noymer, Andrew. “Life expectancy in the USA, 1900-98.” Berkeley Demography, https://u.demog.berkeley.edu/~andrew/1918/figure2.html. Accessed 14 December 2022.
“Poppers.” FRANK, 14 Dec. 2022, https://www.talktofrank.com/drug/poppers.
Tomlinson, John. The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy. Sage Publications, 2017.
“Speed (methamphetamine).” Drugs.com, https://www.drugs.com/illicit/speed.html. Accessed 14 December 2022.
About the Author: Justin Shen is a U3 Honours English Literature student minoring in Philosophy. He is currently struggling to write his thesis on (classical) music and temporality in Orfeo and The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. Some of his favorite writers include W.G. Sebald, Elena Ferrante, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Annie Dillard, and Phoebe Waller Bridge.