I could no longer deny what I was: an old man who liked to pee in his flower bed.” So says an unnamed sixtysomething living alone in an unnamed North Florida town. It’s a place of few residents, but 27 churches. The lake has gone dry, becoming prairie land. The man has stayed on in his dead parents’ house with their ashes and, like a pharaoh’s tomb, their stuff: his mother’s perfumes, a pack of Pall Malls his father left in the fridge, a crystal Virgin Mary. Andrew Holleran’s first novel in 16 years, The Kingdom of Sand is about death and taxes, literally, plus solitaire, car repairs and five-hour-long porn searches in the late Obama era. Out of this obstinate ennui, Holleran renders an elegiac and very funny contemplation of not just ageing but an age.
The opening chapters are listless and list-like, outlining dietary habits and lifts to the airport. Holleran is a perspicacious writer of place, and of mundanity; the first pages detail how the construction of two freeways and an overpass have made a cruisey video store on Highway 301 inconvenient. The result: no more passing trade, just desperate regulars, “egg-shaped men in loose T-shirts”, arthritic and/or pacemaker-dependent. “Too many cock-suckers,” as a friend puts it at lunch, “and not enough cock.” That friend doesn’t offer a goodbye hug, and on the way home the video store is as lugubrious as ever; the narrator remains untouched.
On the rare occasions the narrator is social, generally with other mature gay men, talk is of sweat stains inside a hat or kodokushi, the phenomenon of dying in solitude at home without anyone to notice. To the narrator, death is “an appalling insult”, but old age already has “a sort of posthumous quality”. (A friend’s advice on how to effectively clean house: “Pretend you’re dead.”) Holleran’s phenomenal 1978 first novel Dancer from the Dance, a shimmering glimpse into the ecstatic gay disco scene, was already laced with melancholy and spiked with gallows humour: “Someone was always dying at one of these parties, trying to sniff a popper at the bottom of a swimming pool … ” In The Kingdom of Sand , a retired acquaintance has perished on a new $800 toilet: “He must have thought he needed to take a shit, when in fact it was heart congestion.”
The longest chapter, Hurricane Weather, focuses on the narrator’s restrained friendship with his neighbour Earl, a Republican gay man 20 years older and in rapid decline. The pair are not allegorical figures crossing the political divide; their companionship depends on maintaining a respectful distance. Something like a plot nearly coalesces as the narrator becomes convinced that Earl is being exploited by his handyman. But the storm never quite arrives, just as the characters dwell in the part of the state that gets hurricane weather, not hurricanes.
The protagonist’s solitude isn’t hermetic; he spends time in Washington DC, where he teaches, visits museums, does nude yoga. He visits a sex buddy (“the Regular”) on occasion. But he always goes home alone. After furtively watching a fireworks display, standing apart from other onlookers, he “lingered behind the hedge to listen to the sound of their voices receding as they returned to their vehicles”. Holleran – or is it his narrator? – is erudite yet often repetitive; the uncontested colonisation of Earl’s spare bathroom by dying cockroaches is one topic brought up incessantly. But eternal recurrence doesn’t dim Holleran’s incandescence. The rambling is tonal.
The narrator also rambles, as in walks; this yields an achingly funny take on inflatable Christmas decorations. Evening strolls culminate at the late-opening drugstore. The final chapter’s title, Two Loves Have I at Walgreens, refers to the skinny boy with Bette Davis eyes working the till and the pharmacist, who is “handsome in a riverboat gambler way”, and who administers shingles vaccinations. In this preternatural terrain of candy bars, sunglasses and diabetes socks, the narrator conjures the frisson of his long-ago life in lower Manhattan after-hours clubs.
The Kingdom of Sand is a small-scale study of America at twilight. Prosperous neighbours use front lawns to park the cars their garages weren’t built to accommodate. Local kids bicycle through clouds of insecticide for fun. The announcer on the high school football field stubbornly mispronounces Hispanic names. On his night-time wanderings, the narrator has the streets to himself because everyone else is indoors, transfixed by screens. American life is faded, all landscape and scant hope, having entered its own posthumous phase. The nameless narrator is fearful yet content, having found a position from which he can truly take in the view: insignificance.