In Andrew Holleran's haunting and elegantly written Grief, an unnamed middle-aged English professor arrives in Washington, D.C., ostensibly on sabbatical, feeling burdened and guilty, almost exhausted from taking care of his elderly mother who lived in a Florida nursing home until her death.
Assigned to teach a class on the connection between literature and AIDS, he rents a room in a salubrious Georgian house right on the edge of Dupont
Circle. Feeling somewhat at loose ends, as though he's "passing through limbo," he forms a connection with his landlord who turns out to be another middle-aged, reasonably well-off gay man who works for the federal government and is on the cusp of retirement.
The two men become friends, often engaging in surprisingly intimate conversation as they pass in the living room, the kitchen and the stairs. Their affection for each other is tempered by the fact that they are kindred spirits, drawn together by their solitary status, and the fact that they have survived something so many of their friends have not.
Our narrator feels like a ghost, "like someone turning to the pages in a back issue of Architectural Digest."
And in his spare time he walks the streets of Washington, calling on his best
friend, Frank, visiting the art galleries and museums, sitting contemplatively
in Logan Square, and strolling up Pennsylvania Avenue to gaze respectfully at
the White House.
At home he picks up a book about Mary Todd Lincoln, her life and letters, and it is through these letters that Holleran presents his major themes. After her husband's assassination, Mary Todd was crushed by misery, surrounded by artifacts of grief, the souvenirs of misfortune. Any attempt to be happy was beside the point, since she was waiting to be reunited with her husband and children in the afterlife.
Holleran handles a sensitive topic with nuance and care, peppering his narrative with discriminating observations about sex, love, life, death - and grief. Whether your husband is assassinated beside you as you sit watching a third-rate play or whether you are infected in a moment of sexual passion by a fatal virus, life has way of suddenly flipping so that you can end up dying internally, even spiritually, while still being physically alive.
Our narrator and his landlord are trapped in this type of spiritual purgatory, along with a type
of designer fustiness, an accumulated set of habits, representing an older America that has never changed its values of thrift and cleanliness: "We are both used to living alone. We have our habits, our little ruts."
The landlord, in particular, inhabits a sort of "homosexual emeritus, where sex has left him in its wake," and like many gay men of a certain age, he has become celibate – perhaps because of AIDS, or an inability to attract the partners he wants, or simply diminishing interest. For his part, our narrator remains deeply closeted, the one great regret being that he didn't come out to his mother before she died, because he didn't want her to have "that power."
It is these irrevocable moments of misjudgment that make this novel so human and also so bold. Some people can never get over losing the person they loved.
You almost become homeless because your home was once with them, and like Mary Todd Lincoln, you still carry this grief with you long after the person has gone, left behind with "the torture of unsatisfied desire."