Arts : Good ‘grief’ 

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No one grieved quite like Mary Todd Lincoln. In the wake of her husband’s assassination, the first lady donned black garb and never again appeared in anything else. “She was not just any widow,” wrote Todd’s biographer, Jean H. Baker, “she was Abraham Lincoln’s survivor.”

In his devastating new novella, Andrew Holleran embroiders this history into the tale of a gay college professor who moves to Washington, D.C., from Florida in the wake of his mother’s death, takes up residence in a rooming house, and begins reading the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, wondering, like her, if it’s possible to ever start over.

Grief elegantly circles this question, using Washington and its spooky environs as an echo chamber for its themes. In Holleran’s hands, the most bureaucratic city in America takes on the melancholic shading of Thomas Mann’s Venice.

Among the city’s shadows are the ghosts of countless men struck down by AIDS. “You don’t know what D.C. was like during the ’80s,” says one of the narrator’s friends. “Funerals, funerals, funerals! I got my suntan one summer from just standing in Rock Creek Cemetery.”

By Andrew Holleran
$19.95, 150 pages

This experience has turned Holleran’s landlord into a “homosexual emeritus.” He is celibate and alone. “Sex had left him in its wake,” the narrator notes. “He was a man who’d been riding the rapids of a river, who finally finds a cove, a still pool, and pauses there to catch his breath — though after a while he realizes it’s not a pause, but rather the place he has ended up.”

With his mother gone, his ties to the past dissolving, Holleran’s narrator finds himself tacking toward that place as well, painfully aware that love has eluded him. “The very fact of returning with him to the house produced a feeling of intimacy,” the narrator says about returning to the rooming house with his landlord, “even if, once there, we went to our separate floors. Lying upstairs in that house, we were like spiders on the same web; I was aware of the slightest nuance of the stillness in the air between us.” The sad thing is, they are basically strangers.

- John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.



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