Lost And Found

Andrew Sean Greer continues his comic epic of gay love and commitment in ‘Less Is Lost’

Pulitzer-Prize winning Andrew Sean Greer has written an engrossing must-read sequel to his Pulitzer-Prize winning work ‘Less’. He calls it, appropriately, ‘Less is Lost.’   The story picks up several years after we left Arthur Less and his lover Freddy Pelu on the brink of reuniting after a tumultuous separation. Greer shows chutzpah in writing about a gay love affair as if it were meant to last forever. Despite societal gains, it’s still a relatively new thing.

‘Less’ told us about how Arthur Less, then in his mid-thirties, was still reeling from his first ex-lover’s exodus years ago.  Less had given the first 15 years of his young adult life to the famous imperial poet, Robert Brownburn, whom he had met accidentally on a San Francisco beach. He moved in with Brownburn shortly afterwards when his wife left.

Less had adored Brownburn, a very difficult man who expected Less to run their household smoothly so Brownburn could give his full attention to his writing.  Smitten, Less did as he was told, but not without resentment. When Brownburn eventually left a decade and a half later, after both of them had gotten sloppy, Less was convinced the possibility of having a long-term love relationship ever again had passed him by. He had his chance, and he had blown it.  But soon enough Less was in love again, almost by accident; this time with the much younger Freddy Pelu, whom he had been with now for nine years.  It had been a blissful time, until Freddy blindsided him with the news that he was leaving to marry another man.

Less Is Lost
‘Less is Lost,’ by Andrew Sean Greer.

Less, Sean Greer’s alter ego, felt he had to get out of town. He arranged a business trip related to his work as an author, so he would not have to be present when his lover Freddy married another man. The humiliation and public shame of it was unthinkable. Much of  Greer’s first book deals with the adventures of Arthur Less as he travels the world attending literary panels, and making speeches, while really thinking about what will happen to him now that Freddy has left him. He knows he is no spring chicken. But what he doesn’t know is that Freddy’s marriage lasted barely a day because he was still hopelessly in love with Arthur Less.

The book “Less” startled the literary world not only by winning the Pulitzer and selling more thann a million copies, but by taking us into the mindset of contemporary gay men and their feelings for one another now that the enticing but terrifying possibility of ‘forever’ exists for them.  Critics marveled at the way a certain joyousness sprinkled over it’s pages; muting the melancholy Andrew Sean Greer felt had been the mainstay of highbrow gay fiction. Greer wanted to believe there could be stories about gay men like himself who depression and loneliness didn’t completely engulf. ‘Less’ ends on a hopeful note; where the possibility of happiness between the two men remains resilient.

 Greer has one of his main characters, Freddy, narrate the story for us. He becomes Greer’s masterpiece. Freddy’s ability to beautifully express his undying love for Arthur Less, without fear of censure, coupled with his ability to see clearly his lovers foibles and missteps remain sandblasted in the reader’s imagination.

Andrew Greer had already started a sequel, but his first book’s extraordinary success must have intimidated him. He seems a lot like his alter-ego Arthur Less. He grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C.,  both his parents worked as chemists, he started writing stories at 10, and became a creative writing major at Brown University, where he came out to his parents only to find out they already knew. His mother took it as the perfect time to announce she was a lesbian. Greer now lives with a romantic partner of many years.

Greer believes many gay men like himself have been able to find their own long-time loves that speaks to being happily ever after. He dwells inside a social circle where this had once been possible. He seems by nature upbeat and decided in a epiphany one morning that he would give his book a comic slant and his manuscript suddenly started to almost piece itself together.

In this charming and more penetrating sequel, ‘Less is Lost,’ Less and Freddy are still together, but unspoken cracks between them need mending. A crisis has emerged. Robert Brownburn, Less’s ex-lover, owns the house they’ve been living in. When Brownburn departed, he let Arthur remain there for free. But Brownburn has just died and his wife wants the house and rent for the years they have stayed there. Once again, Arthur hits the road to make enough money so they can remain where they are.

Arthur is no longer the bronzed young man he was when he lived there with Brownburn; middle-age has taken it’s toll on him.  He worries about his mortality, his reflection in the mirror, and whether Freddy still finds him attractive enough. But his literary career has skyrocketed and people in many places want him to come speak about his books. The trip, like the one he took years before, soon turns into a series of comic mishaps.

But beneath the hijincks that follow him wherever he goes, he feels a sadness about something going on between him and Freddy that is different from before. Greer is masterful at showing us how this sort of unknowing knowingness that something is amiss can sneak into a relationship and tear at it, perhaps even destroy it. We sense these men love one another.But Greer and Less seem to be wondering if that is enough.

Freddy’s narration is tender and heartbreaking at times.  Even though Freddy is home alone, Andrew Sean Greer grants him the power to see Less navigate a wider America that doesn’t always welcome him with open arms. Many sense Less is different, and ask him if he is from Scandinavia, but Less knows this is just their code for gay, and most of them find his otherness off-putting.  His father, who abandoned him as a child, is looking for him to tell him something important according ti Less’s sister, but she doesn’t know what he wants to tell her.

The road trip seems to enter into a manic phase where Less must succumb more gracefully to each day’s unexpected catastrophe. He tries to visit Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s homes in Mexico, but they aren’t situated where they are supposed to be. So much is out of place, it seems. Greer has found a masterful way to show us how we project our insecurities onto the world.  Less isn’t really concerned with each of the events he must attend; or even with all the things that keep going wrong.  He just wants to know why there is so much silence in his nightly calls with Freddy, and why sometimes Freddy doesn’t answer at all.

Readers don’t often give enough credit to finding the precise register in which to write, but Greer nails comedic pranks and silliness nestled amidst heartache with the aching precision of a surgeon. Greer’s rendering of Freddy is unforgettably moving. We get to hear Freddy recall his first days with Less. He recalls how he was only a kid at the time and Less came to one of his uncle’s beach parties. No one spoke to him because he was just a kid, but Less did, allowing Freddy to draw a portrait of him and taking the drawing  with an appreciative nod. It was a gesture Freddy would long remember.

Greer then allows Freddy to recount Less’s first gay sexual encounter. He tells us how afterwards Less began each day filled with “bouts of sobbing, sessions of terrible poetry writing, afternoons listening to Leonard Cohen, and private moments bringing Reilly’s light blue sweater to his face, trying to recapture some lost molecule, some leftover scent, which he himself, of course, had washed away.”  Other guys walked away from their first encounters feeling a sense of liberation.  Not Less. This initial wound stayed with him. Greer paints for us, in the intricate characterization of Freddy, a lover’s lover like no other.  We come to know him as someone who listens and cares intensely for Less. Someone willing to do anything for him.  Freddy didn’t only listen to what Less said; he listened carefully for things he had stopped saying.

Freddy knows he is more insecure than Less, but believes life without him would be unlivable.  He describes himself humbly as a “short and slight man approaching 40, the age at which the charming eccentricities of one’s twenties (sleeping in a silk bonnet to save my curls and wearing rabbit eared slippers ) becomes the zaniness of middle age.  My curls have patinaed like scallops on old silver; my red glasses magnify my myopia; I am winded after chasing the dog one time around the block.  But I am as yet unwrinkled: I am no Arthur Less.  Rather I am what I call an alloy (and my grandmother would call a pasticcio.)  Of Italian, Spanish, and Mexican heritage-mere nationalities, being themselves a mixture of Iberian, Indigenous, African, Arab, and Frankish migrations, breaking down further until we get to the elemental humans from whom we all descend.”

Freddy is trying  to keep optimistic, but as the weeks pass and Less isn’t with him, there are times he feels despair thinking “What other infidelities has Less hidden, forgotten, mislaid?  What future is there with such a man?”

Greer’s creation of both Less, who strikes us as a gay Everyman of today’s modern cosmopolitan world, and Freddy, who has the uncanny ability to see things Less can’t, work together to create for us a loving genuine relationship that is in the process of testing itself.  As readers, Greer has invested us in their future.  And we have come to believe in Freddy’s persistent gaze as a magical antidote to all that ails them. We believe Less will return to him. Greer’s second act is worthy of the first; he has done it again.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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