The author’s perfectionism counted for everything — in the meticulousness of the novel’s conception, the confidence of its structural devices and especially in the lavishness of its rhetorical displays. A summary of the book does not really give a sense of its constant alertness, its insistent attention to the smallest detail in a scene. Moreover, Ellison succeeds in getting the reader to wear the invisible man’s mask, to look through the eyeholes he provides. Sinister forces want people in Harlem to be guilty of their own deaths. In the end, the invisible man has fallen into a manhole, where he takes up residence to wait out the chaos, to learn to live with his head in the lion’s mouth.
“Dancer From 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 male beauty. Cruising is an honorable quest, no matter how sordid the baths or open the subway station. Magic can happen — see the dark-eyed, grave young man who might stay beyond morning. Beautiful, enigmatic Malone has such a face; he’s a Midwesterner who has made, or is trying to make, his peace with being gay, his “constraint.” It is hard for him to be faithful to one man or to hang on to what he says he wants, and when he meets Sutherland, a veteran of every conceivable high who challenges Malone to be real, not to fool himself, he has already lost one true love.
We watch Malone in his travels from door to door to door, and New York City gay nightlife is rendered in shimmering prose. The novel is saturated with the homoerotic, too mesmerized by the cohorts of the brave to be sorry. Holleran was part of a new wave in American literature that said the gay character didn’t have to die at the end of the book anymore. To bring up the subject of same-sex love no longer meant that a dream hunk had to pay for the vision by getting murdered. No one knew when it was published that Holleran’s was to be a portrait of a gone world, a vanished city: “We lived only to dance.” The best fiction turns into a work of history as time goes by.
“Sleepless Nights” by Elizabeth Hardwick, 1979: New York City is the best place for Elizabeth, the first-person narrator of Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights,” as she concludes early on in the book. We know that she is a reader of profound intensity, and that she is alone but was once part of a we. Hardwick’s husband, the poet Robert Lowell, had treated their marriage and divorce at length 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 stand for the general significance of the solitary self.
Hardwick’s “I” is a woman, and the experiences of others that she is drawn to wonder about tend to be those of women. Her social range is broad: a rich girl is a Stalinist with a boyfriend who won’t shape up; here is the sad arithmetic of a drawn-out love triangle, and here are the cleaning women she has watched go about their work. Hardwick remembers from her youth the women alone in their rooming houses. Or she encounters on the street older women at the mercy of their decay. Joan Didion noted that Hardwick’s method was like that of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in her hunt for the revealing detail. But Hardwick’s freedom of speculation about the people she meets comes from her ability to achieve parity with whomever she is thinking about or talking to. She never talks down; she’s never bamboozled. It is a great historical pageant that New Yorkers are a part of, they who live in this place where people come to get away from somewhere else. In Hardwick’s work, the city is a drama of those who don’t fit elsewhere, a cast of souls calling out for memorial.
“Latin Moon In Manhattan” by Jaime Manrique, 1992: A droll picaresque like no other. Manrique’s fabulous cast of characters includes artists, hustlers and a cat — living la vida loca in the lowdown Times Square of the ’90s.