The Great American Political Novel, from Henry Adam’s Democracy, to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, to Ward Just’s Echo House, tangles with the notion of America as an idea, an idea, moreover, enforced by a principle, equality before the law, and if that idea is not always portrayed in these novels as the exceptional idea the politicians like to insist it is, and whether devotion to this principle is depicted as honored and maintained, or gone bad, given only lip service, and abandoned, this idea and this principle are encountered on a vast continent where individual fortunes are hazarded in the context of membership, sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling, forced, in representative groups that meet either acclamation or brute opposition, but rarely something in between. Ward Just, one of the most powerfully imaginative, but at the same time, highly realistic, chroniclers of our nation’s capital’s political truths, has written, in The Eastern Shore, a novel about journalism, and the politics of journalism, in a town whose flagship newspaper adopted the mantra “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead in February, 2017, less than a month after Donald Trump was inaugurated, announcing itself as the latest—in order, presumably, not to be last—defender of this idea and this principle, while at the same time, perhaps, making the new President’s argument about the hubris of our unelected experts.
Just is too good a writer, too deep a thinker, not to allow ambiguity into any political scenario, and so does not engage in the kind of history-by-hindsight, or foresight, that allows lesser thinkers to decry everyone else but themselves. When the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had to counsel President Trump that there are no Obama Judges, no Trump judges, a quote recounted over and over again, it might have helped to have remembered that journalists rarely, if ever, name a federal judge without prefacing his or her name with the President to whom they owe their appointment, and, therefore, to whom allegiance is supposedly owed, often affixing even more adjectives—activist and/or liberal, if Democrat, right wing and/or ultra-conservative, if Republican, thus creating the Rashomon that the President was merely amplifying. The authors of recursive formulations like these do get their points across, but such formulations do not take seriously the privilege and responsibility of assigning meaning, are not worthy of a purportedly vigilant and watchdog press, and are one reason why there is no single shared conversation in this country. When questions of meaning are posed, that meaning is already assigned, embedded inside the question itself: “What does it mean that…?,” our journalists “ask.” And since journalism is now principally a matter of assigning this kind of meaning, it might also help to remember that it is the kind of meaning intended to consume our attention by releasing the venom in our bile ducts.
Just as the Academy deserves its share of the blame—threats from Facebook, Russian hackers, and disagreeable Presidents notwithstanding, the de-valuing of humanistic and civics education is the principal reason for the barbarism of our post-truth age—the news media must accept its share as well. News consumers remember little because there is little to recall. To news organizations, the past is now merely an archive of images offered to satiate our appetite for titillation and texture, a visual display of an eternal present that suggests the totalitarian impulse to obliterate it, obliterate it so that a substitute may be inserted. This is most effective when the past is presented as a time of misery (historicism), as it is in the Academy, as or as a golden age (make America great again), as it is by President Trump. In either case, it allows its purveyor to be seen as the liberator, the truth-teller, while offering the snake oil that sets the limits of thinking, the snake oil that offers a beheading.
Pity those journalists who still feel responsible for representing each side, both sides, even opposite sides of the story in a serious way. There is no place left for them. To find such a thing, we have to turn to endangered species like Just, or the extinct, like Virgil, who, even as he wrote his patron, Augustus, into Aeneas, also wrote of Augustus’ bitter enemy, Mark Antony. Great writers depict the undertow of truth in between the easy catastrophes of fact.
Catastrophic fact: The Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue, eleven blocks from the White House, dedicated to educating the public on the Constitutional role a free press plays in society, is closing at the end of the year. But if facts alone matter, facts alone do not prove. Journalism itself is a form of storytelling, and since storytelling is a form of tyranny—we can never allow into our story anything irrelevant to the narrative—it is also a form of seduction. Today people want their stories to fit into their own larger narratives, with nothing sprinkled in that challenges the contingency of their beliefs and values, the kind of verisimilitude Narcissus achieved, and now easy to accomplish, just click “Like.” Our feeds (a term meant to express a particular form of nourishment) have changed broadcast journalism as well. “Speaking out” is now the signaling preface of about-to-be transmitted significance, and when joined with “for the first time,” the broadcast journalist—“out front,” “keeping them honest,” as one outlet puts it—is absolved of having to do anything beyond repeating the network’s name and looking into the camera with a nod to the obvious, never-to-be questioned, don’t-dare-you question, manifest significance of it all.
If journalism has changed in the digital age, it is not for the reasons with which we like to credit ourselves. Thoughtful, well-written accounts have passed into constitutional senility, attempts at consensus passe, outlaw and ignominy safe harbors, not despite us, but because of us. And since we have happily given over our moral and spiritual framework to algorithms, what’s the point, our students ask, when we assign a reading. As readers, they are skimmers, sniffers, because their professors are, because everyone else is, because the President is, all of us snoozing happily in the moral wilderness they have created, all of us dummies on an algorithm’s lap. We can’t wait to get home to sit with Netflix: “Who’s Watching?” Albert!
Just as “all of Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” in Washington, D.C., before Trump’s election, the rest of the country mattered only in so far as it represented eyeballs, votes. It was an interim ethic, and now that government and all forms of media traffic in public relations, not public affairs, we have a President strangely in tune with this heightened sense of self, with its fueling up on surface outrage, and who, like everyone else, is a victim of Twitter: The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.
There is a perfect symbiosis between Trump and the media. Each claims universal validity, but both sides invoke “the American people” as their validator, while waiting for the world of democracy to end. And since the American people is the invocation, and the validation, upon which each argument rests, it might be helpful to ask, for the sake of the American people, just where the practice of journalism fit in this strange symbiosis before Trump was elected, when Les Moonves, before #MeToo brought him down, said that Trump might not be good for America, but was darn good for CBS, and everyone just made eyes at him.
And now that we are jettisoning the next stage of this living symbiosis, its rocket-fuel-booster Trump-Acosta iteration—on the one side, the goading, persecution-courting reporter, on the other, the vindictive and intolerant President—each side is able to claim moral victory over evil. The Puritans started this, so perhaps we can’t help it, but what’s different about our displays of outrage is that they exhibit, ominously, no outward show of charity. Each side is so convinced of its righteousness that each side now speaks of the mythical middle, and because of this, our private and public voices have become interchangeable. The only consensus is that consensus has been accepted, by both sides, to be an illusion. Perhaps it always was an illusion. Perhaps Nathanial Hawthorne wasn’t really writing about God, after all. But if God was out of the picture, he was still writing about Puritans. Maybe Young Goodman Brown was haunted by the realization that the whole thing had been a dream, not just the devil, who appeared in his dream, but God, too. Maybe there never were agreed-upon principles of journalism. If so, maybe whatever journalism is today can be found somewhere in the workings of the rise and fall of one of its own: Megan Kelly, for example, who, in the game of whack-o-mole we are now playing between zero tolerance and due process, was exalted for standing up to the bully, until she became the bully herself.
When the President bans a reporter from what he establishes as his property, we have, in situ, not only the sine qua non of our new media landscape, but the landscape of our own heads. In The Eastern Shore, Ward Just presents us with that rare phenomena in the narratives our journalists create, a crisis that comes, if barely understood, from within. We have always turned to Just because of his ability to get inside the thinking of public people, to read how these characters really feel about their public lives, and the line of separation, if there is one, between their public and private lives, their points of vision and their blind spots, as well as their thoughts about Washington. In Echo House, he described one such public person this way:
Justin had an idea that there was a specific gene that predisposed a man to public service, a life inside the government, a gene not unlike the one that determined musical talent. Otherwise, why did so many men of the same woof and warp opt for the judiciary, the foreign service, or the military, badly paid posts that were under the scrutiny of a venal Congress and the wretched newspapers, and the answer was the gene and the determination to participate in the political life of the nation.
In The Eastern Shore, Ned Ayers does not—like the commercials one cannot avoid on the cable news networks these days (“This is who we are. This is why you watch,” one outlet tells us) make a heroic claim about his own contributions to society, the kind asserted with every methodical and formulaic deployment of the phrase “for the welfare of the American people,” a purported justification, and a purported welfare, because always invoked almost to the precise degree that it is impossible that the invoker’s interests could align with anybody’s but its own. Duckspeak: Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is a form of praise. But whoever said it, and wherever it happened, rest assured, as one network likes to put it, it happened in an American mall, on an American highway, to an American family.
When the American people are invoked, the only criterion, painfully circled, again and again, is the requirement that nothing new, no new way of approaching the issue is to be broached, as the business model that created the formulation depends on it. The inevitable postscript, whatever the issue—“it’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out,” always finalizes a “discourse” that begins with versions of the “question,” “Talk to me about…,” thus transmitting to the assembled news “analysts” what to say in advance.
Our democracy is said to rely on a well-informed citizenry and, because of this, we are said to be on the cusp of a new dark age because of the profusion of misinformation, but the problem is not misinformation, because even the correct information would be received with the same skepticism, because for the last few decades, information of whatever kind has been prefaced by politician, professor, pundit, and analyst alike with, “I believe,” “I am confident,” “There is no doubt,”—a style of communication, now not only encouraged, but advocated in our colleges, where a single communications class meets the entire humanities requirement. That the osmotic influence of information manipulation now begins in the Academy, where it suggests to the student that the idea of citizenship itself is already passe, is, with regard to the degradation of our country’s dialogue, a crime and cause as bad as any other, because instead of instilling respect for consensus, we are instilling the arts of manipulation. George Orwell’s, 1984, is, before anything else, a warning about the wages of the manipulation of language.
And now that the disaster has already occurred, Syme’s dream, that is, that the whole literature of the past will have been destroyed so that eventually there will be no thought, having been achieved, serious literature must portray our addiction to information as being as empty as any other addiction. Worse, because it is meme-structured, this addiction has no need of culture. Writers like Just must settle for offering reports only to the future, because while our addiction has no need of culture, human beings, in the end will require it. Know thyself, Socrates said, and self-knowledge was the only kind of heroism that a democracy required, because the ability that comes with it, empathy for others, creates consensus-building.
When emotions are linked to an incapacity for civil discourse, when private and public lives collapse, incurable division is not contrived by some other force, like the Russians, it is the inevitable result. Now each one of us is a version Washington Irving’s headless horseman, but without the nightly quest to re-attach, re-member the community—we just want to scare.
“This is How we Break News”
Whether the journalists in Just’s novel will actually demonstrate the capacity to transcend that self-interest is the moral subject of his book. When Ned Ayers, its protagonist, talks about journalism, it can feel like Ishmael talking about the whiteness of the whale:
We call it a “piece.” It’s a double meaning. It’s factual enough and sometimes it causes great harm. That is not its intent. But it’s the result. This comes as a surprise. No one expected harm. My God, you think, what have I done? In all innocence. But innocence is not the excuse. Innocence is the cause. And we are appalled, those of us who are in charge. The others turn the page.
Ayers once played an important role in his small Midwestern newspaper’s decision to publish a story about a local businessman’s past. The piece made him a journalism star, but caused William Grant, the local businessman, to kill himself. Decades later, comfortably in charge of a major paper in Washington, Ayers will find his conscious struggling with his part in the long-ago affair.
Early in the novel, the decision to publish is recounted. The businessman had reinvented himself as a stalwart of the community: “Seems to me Mr. Grant has played by the rules. He made a mistake and did what you’re supposed to do. Paid his debt to society, went straight, went to college, graduated, made a new life for himself in Herman. He’s a fine citizen, father of two boys.”
Soon, the line between fact and truth is introduced. Or truth and larger truth, in the person of the ne’er-do-well who offers the tip:
They gathered around the publisher’s desk, the publisher, the managing editor, Gus Harding, and Ned Ayres. Gus Harding did volunteer the information that Fred whatever-his-name-was did not inspire confidence. An awful son of a bitch, Gus said. Not trustworthy? the publisher asked. The material checks out, Gus said. Every i dotted, every t crossed. Airtight, he added. The publisher, Carl Kaminski, turned to Ned Ayres, silent these many minutes. He was the junior man by twenty years. Carl said, Do you have an opinion on these matters? For a moment Ned did not speak.
This same scenario is seen afoot in the land of American fiction. Thomas McGuane, in his collection of short stories, Gallatin Canyon, writes of a different sort of bastard, but who also turns on an otherwise respectable local citizen in a similar way, and with similar results: “When the newspaper published his name as a patron of whores, Neville Senior lost his job at the bank.” One fall begets others, and Neville Senior, too, takes his own life.
In the permanent present of today’s media landscape, where up-voting determines newsworthiness, and richness and subtlety are eschewed for impatience and hyperactivity, the post-modern consciousness presents itself. Having swallowed the past, viewers are swallowed up in the present, where nothing sticks. Technology shapes the way this permanent present is accessed, but it “plays out” in the way contemporaneous stories are accepted as fact, excuses made for blowing through every stop sign, and post-mortems left to the sneering, snickering, smirking, and throwing of temper tantrums that stands in for discourse these days.
Just demonstrates where it all began. Ayers has doubts about the newsworthiness of the story, but keeps them quiet, thinking to himself that if William Grant had been a bus driver, there would be no story: “Ned said finally, Gus has done a fine job. A professional job. No mysteries here. It’s dispassionate. I say print.”
Now the newspaper’s home, Herman, Indiana, “would be on the map as something other than a Joke Town.” National reporters would hopefully appear, the same kind of reporters who in more recent times missed the Trump voters, who always deliver the same dish, cooked up from the same template, in whatever small town they’re in. Careers would be made: “Ned knew they traveled in packs and had no sympathy for small, isolated American towns of the sort described by Sinclair Lewis. Theodore Drieser. Still, Ned imagined that for a short period of time William Grant Haberdashery would be as familiar to the world as Marshall Field & Co. He couldn’t wait.”
William Grant, when told, asks that the piece not be printed. The national press corps predictably descends, and Ned Ayers winds up in Washington, D.C. and, for his triumph eventually becomes editor of its major newspaper. Ayers, in varying degrees of self-awareness, will be haunted and hunted by what happened in Indiana for the rest of the book. At the end of his life, in retirement on the Eastern Shore, he will try to sort it all out and write his memoir.
That Washington is a town for people who have remade themselves, and who are themselves often escaping shady pasts, frames the fate of William Grant, who, thanks to Ayers, does not get his chance. In a city “that made even Los Angeles seem self-effacing,” Ned has met his share:
…And you, Ned. Met many re-inventions?
More than I can count, Ned said.
Actually, Ned said, there’s not much room for re-invention in the newspaper business. The task is to discover other people’s reinventions.
If literary fiction is conceded to be a kind of invention, journalism exalted as responsible to fact, both aspire to truth. Just did not turn to fiction until his mid-thirties. That The Eastern Shore is his nineteenth novel suggests that this highly decorated reporter—one of the best, if not the best, on-the-ground reporter during the Vietnam War—felt confined, as a journalist, in his search for truth. Creative Nonfiction is now taught in graduate writing programs, and creative nonpoetry and undocumentary writing have been suggested as ways to capture the archive desire of those left out of official archives. If one digs very deeply into Just’s oeuvre, one can find a play, Lowell Limpett, whose pseudonymous character is an aging newspaperman, like Ned Ayers, but who admits to artistic ambition while facing unwelcome change:
LIMPETT glares at the audience as he hears a voice filled with false bonhomie. It’s a mid-Atlantic voice that perhaps owes more to Cape Cod than the Home Counties…LIMPETT has been listening with an attitude of sullen boredom. He turns away a moment and when he speaks next his voice is laconic.
Write tight. Write clean.
(Bitterly) And find yourself de-accessioned at fifty-nine.
I never wanted to be Van Gogh. Or Cezanne. I never claimed Rembrandt or Vermeer. At my very best. On the very best day I ever had. I would claim myself something of—Edward Hopper.
In The Eastern Shore, as Ayers gets older, he is left more and more only with his thoughts:
…Ned deemed himself to have had a hard heart. He thought that the news business forced that, the discovering of secrets with little attention paid to the consequences. Ned Ayers remembered also the old adage. The first version was always wrong, if only slightly.
The business was truly a kind of cult, and difficult to read your own motives because your work was the full disclosure of the motives of others….
The younger reporters took liberties that the older ones did not, as if the typewriters keys were little magic wands that conferred reliability, the machine a kind of god.
Every two weeks he dines with Milo Passarel, his publisher, at a downtown club, one with a “glancing view” of the White House:
Without preamble Milo Passarel began to speak of an old friend, dead of a stroke two days earlier. His obituary was in the paper that morning, an account that featured a scandal of years past, a minor scandal as Washington scandals went, but a scandal nonetheless. Placed high up in the obituary, third paragraph actually. Was that necessary, Ned? He was a good man. The obit roughed him up.
Yes, Ned said. We call it the sweet and sour balance.
Not only the news budget, but the paper itself, its very existence, is about to enter the conversation:
Younger readers were bewitched by the Internet, altogether more convenient and lively, a refuge the publisher, in a rare display of humor, likened to an Irish bar, loud-mouths filled up with whiskey and half-baked opinions, sarcasm the coin of the realm. A deluge of cant, the publisher said, a fact-free zone supervised by bullies, showoffs, and nutcases. They are ascendant. And they will drive us out of business….
Milo did have an almost mystical faith in his Harvard spreadsheets, but that was all he had, no seat-of-the-pants understanding of the nature of the business and its importance to the civic life of the nation…The paper was a species of seismology, where things were safe and where they weren’t safe, never omitting the trivial: the National League standings or the saga of the senator and the page boy. Of course all that could be gathered at the touch of a fingernail on a cell phone. Perhaps not the seismology. Seismology required a paragraph or better….
The paper is fundamentally sound, Ned said, and Milo smiled because that was Hoover’s phrase to describe the American economy during the Great Depression. Our bottom lines are still relatively strong, Ned went on. We can’t walk away or sell it to some thug on Wall Street. It’s—cowardly….
It’s still a wasting asset, Milo said.
No sir, Ned said in a kind of growl. It’s a beautiful paper. It’s an essential paper in this city. Ned cleared his throat and went on to describe articles published in the past few months, groundbreaking work, admired in the trade. We set the agenda, he said, and began to speak of Washington in the most intimate terms, as if he were describing the smallest town in the world—Herman, Indiana, with monuments.
The paper closes.
What did it mean?
Ned Ayres retires to the Eastern Shore to write his memoirs. He lives in a house he had visited over the years, a house described as:
…on a thick tongue of land that poked into Chesapeake Bay, not far from Casserly’s Island on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a border state with an intemperate climate, gloomy in winter and a furnace in summer, motionless days when even the air seemed exhausted. Nothing moved in the heat, including the heavy branches of the great oaks.
Ayers, who spends most of his time not writing, is described as helpless before the edifice of his own life:
He saw the memoirs as his life’s work, occupying his time as—had things turned out differently—grandchildren might. Or his golf game. Or taking an annual cruise, the Caribbean or Baltic. Shuffleboard in the afternoon and too much whiskey at night. Not likely. He had intended all along to work at a deliberate pace but now he was inert.
Ayers cannot bring life into his writing. Is it the burden of shame and anguish? Has some unpleasant process of pollution worked through his triumphs, contaminating them, making the telling itself out of reach? Just doesn’t say. Ayers visits with the locals:
Gets lonely, doesn’t it? the mayor said.
I have my work, Ned said.
That’s what you said when you came here, how many years ago now? “I have my work.”
This work consists now of going over the past, trying to find a spark. He thinks of the disabled uncle he loved as a child:
He would have a beer and a ham sandwich while he figured out where Uncle Ralph fit into the scheme of things. Uncle Ralph slipped into his mind unbidden and now his presence was palpable, his fact-free zone….Uncle Ralph had created his own private war in which there were no casualties, always excluding himself.
One of the ways the book is an elegy on the news business is that Ned Ayres can’t find his own place in it: “Naturally there were no examples of his own work, the cutting and fitting, the word changes. Editing was as invisible as the work of a careful tailor. No one outside the newsroom could say, Nice edit, because readers never saw the edit.”
Ayer’s decision to expose a small-time crook who had re-invented himself as a contributing member of society was also an editing decision. Facts can themselves be contraband, and testimony that is buried, and that stays buried, can only undermine attempts at blessing, especially the blessing of peace that can come through sorting things out, writing a memoir.
Editing carries a new resonance in our shoot from the hip age, as it is less a fashioning, and more just another way to carry forward the subtle masquerade of our emphasis on communications, which, as a stand-in for real thinking, also cuts off the capacity for self-awareness, much less the kind of personal journey that could result in meaningful memoiristic reflection. Ignorance and despotism are made for each other: In the end, Ayers thinks of deleting everything, wiping the computer clean: “But at the last minute he could not bring himself to push the buttons, fate’s temptation. Ned knew in his heart that was a kind of suicide, not so different from that wretch—what was his name? Grant. Born Kelly.”
Ayer’s encounter with memoir is really a displaced encounter with Grant, an encounter he obviously does not, or cannot, work through. He cannot detect his own truth, and because the book is also an elegy on the news business as it was once constructed, it suggests that today’s problems about differences in the nature of truth are not to be foisted only on the usual suspects. Just, who, in The Eastern Shore, captures the nature of people who minutely record the misdeeds of others, who are good at making narratives out of others’ lives because they are indifferent to the human costs, also captures how these same people are helpless, the apparatus of their power no longer available, to summon narratological expression of their own lives. Their linear storylines find a labyrinth, a fateful encounter with ambiguity and ambivalence that they have managed to avoid, but a rite of passage they now find themselves too old to accept, men and women of great energy who, somehow uniquely, become actively rendered passive. For Ayers, the threatening part of the self is cut out of reflection and projected onto William Grant, once his victim, now his double:
Ned Ayers preserved as the years accumulated. The manor house continued its slow, strained desuetude. The fields went to seed. The Adirondack chair, bleached white, was rarely occupied. Ned was slow afoot and rarely ventured beyond his house. The memoir became an avocation, like stamp collecting or billiards. His one certainty was that he would never complete it, and in time people stopped asking.
Washington’s Literary Monuments
To write about the buildings of official Washington,D.C., as Ward Just does, is also to write, as Andrew Holleran does, about their oppressive emptiness. While the assistant and deputy assistant secretaries of this or that are cycling through, the rooms in these buildings can seem impressive, but when these personages are gone, anonymity is what these rooms give off, and you can find, if you’re not careful, your own anonymity inside of them.
If Just has described the city’s political realities, Andrew Holleran, a post-Stonewall writer, has described its streets, its architecture—its physical structures—by depicting their curious lack of sheltering qualities. Holleran, a pseudonym, is known best for his novel, Dancer from the Dance. Written in 1978, it takes place in New York City. In 2007, he wrote a novel that stands with the work of other great novelists of Washington who carry shards of the city into their narrator’s lives.
Grief is chiefly about the narrator’s response to the death of his mother, but it also contains meditations about the grief of other Washingtonians, some of them famous, and the way that grief was carried, and sometimes shared, in a manner of speaking, with the city itself.
After reading the book a decade ago, I was struck by not only its descriptions of Washington’s landmarks, but also by the descriptions of the way those landmarks inscribed themselves on the people of Just’s Washington as places that not only held their grief, but somehow manifested it. I had worked at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the White House and realized, while reading, that I had sensed the phenomenon all along, but here it was articulated.
Holleran and Just write about the same buildings. It is the same Supreme Court, for example, and if for Just it is a place where a Justice must kowtow over the phone for hours to someone who holds his secret, for Holleran, who has written about same-sex relationships for forty years, it is the building that made same-sex marriage, in 2015, a nationwide right. It is also Holleran’s descriptions of the buildings in which Just’s characters live their professional lives that set him apart. Having walked the city myself—sometimes obsessively, like Holleran’s narrator—I was dumbstruck by his spot-on descriptions of its interiors and also by how closely he captured their strange spell:
It was hard to decide which museum resembled a morgue most—the Sackler, which is underground, like a cave in which a Mongol raiding party had hidden its treasure, or the Freer, which felt like the villa of a rich man who has gone abroad and died. The National Archives had the same cold light as the Tomb of Napoleon, and the National Gallery made you feel, when you entered the echoing rotunda, and walked between its dark marble pillars, you were entering the palace of Pluto. They all removed you from the world, though they ejected you back into it at five o’clock…
Holleran’s narrator is in grief, so he can find darkness even in his daylight perambulations, but his grief also concentrates his attention, so while it bestows an undercurrent of hard Sophoclean light, at the same time, he might be giving the city its best-ever walking tour:
Everywhere I looked I saw row houses. Unlike those in Manhattan, they exhibited a great variation in design. There was something Germanic about them: little castles. Turrets and towers marked the corners in every direction, conical roofs of black slate, with dormer windows that looked like half-opened eyes gazing out between the chimneys and balconies. Though smaller than Manhattan brownstones, and composed of different colored stone, they presented the onlooker with the same reassuring sense of comfort and solidity, as if you were walking through a novel by William Dean Howells or Henry James.
Like the famous, but grief-stricken Washingtonians he recalls, Holleran’s narrator, because he is a teacher, has a public and a private life:
Here I am, I frequently thought, sitting in a seminar in Washington, D.C., twenty years later, discussing as a historical event the thing that killed my friends. The students looked at me across the table, I presumed, because I was older, had been out in the world, knew something they did not—but often, in the middle of the winter afternoon, I would watch their lips moving with such a surreal feeling inside as they discussed these texts by authors no longer on earth, that I found myself thinking: I wonder when they will look up across the table and discover that their teacher is also dead.
The association between eroticism and virtue, and the urge to tell a story out of this connection, began in Plato’s, Symposium, and is present today, for example, in Garth Greenwell’s, What Belongs to You, where an expat teacher “realize[s] I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.” This association, and its connection with so-called transgressive behavior, as well as the shame produced by its exposure—almost always attended by a grim fate, punishment, presumably, for organizing all the world’s unrelated displays around the central, focusing obsession of homosexual sex—might be one reason so-called gay fiction has been helpless to find a foothold in the so-called mainstream.
Tellingly, however, the association has a history that goes back to the very beginning of mainstream literature, and though its ostensible purpose was the offering of a cautionary tale, it has lent texture to otherwise commonplace narratives. Thomas Mann, in Death in Venice, might have borrowed Gustav Mahler’s characteristics for his aging writer, Aschenbach, who has given over his life to the highest forms of self-discipline, only to fail at the end of it, and “fall,” but Mann borrowed the music of The Symposium, of the myth of Ganymede and Hyacinthus, and of the “mistake” that in the beginning Eros was the Word, to give the book its beauty.
James Baldwin, an American, self-exiled in France, will put his thoughts about such judgments in the mouth of a French character: “‘…all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything,’ he added grimly, ‘I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe.’” Holleran’s narrator had a friend who died of AIDS, whose mother still lives in the city, and of whom he observes, “She had the Washingtonian’s rational faith that one could study a problem and solve it.” Holleran’s narrator lives in the very crucible of that place, where its laws are made, but by walking its streets and its neighborhoods at night, will find a measure of comfort from that place, reflecting on the grief of other Washingtonians memorialized in the nightscapes he traverses:
Eventually I crossed Lafayette Square so many times I ceased to think of Adams or the fact that Seward lived on the east side of the park when he was nearly killed the night Lincoln was shot. What continued to soothe me was the emptiness of the city after dark. It was the perfect city for grief: like walking through a cemetery.
On the narrator’s first night in Washington he begins reading the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, and they stay by his bedside and are scattered like leaves through the book. Perhaps grief is part of every Washington story. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, imagines local greats grieving over their own premature deaths. People who come here from other places often come to grief here. Robert Lowell wrote of young people arriving “bright as dimes” in one of his poems, but tarnishing quickly.
Holleran’s narrator is nameless. In Washington, he has only one close friend:
“I mean the only cure for grief is time, but some people need more than others—some people in fact may never have enough time. Not everyone can move on,” I said.
“Why not?” he said in a cool voice.
“Because grief is what you have after someone you love dies. It’s the only thing left of that person. Your love for your missing, them. And as long as you have that, you’re not alone—you have them.”
“But they’re gone!” he said.
“Not if you grieve,” I said. Your grief is the substitute for their presence on earth. Your grief is their presence on earth.”
Perhaps some things changed for gay Americans when the Justices inside one of Washington’s most talked-about buildings made same-sex marriage a nationwide right on June 26, 2015, or a few years before when, in some states, a gay person could be acknowledged as next of kin, or inside Washington’s most recognized building, when Barack Obama, near the end of his presidency, designated the Stonewall Inn a national historic monument, but because such a relationship, when Holleran was writing, was not part of the official archives, a definition of grief that a gay couple had was learned from relationships in the shadows, with little extended family involvement, and a dominant culture’s distorted impression that, in the life of the tragic and the doomed, nothing much was at stake when procreation was not part of the equation.
Whether or not same-sex marriage is an abominable normalization, a sanitizing socialization that no longer challenges straight culture, and whether or not notions of beauty lie at the heart of homoerotic desire, in Holleran’s descriptions of the city, human beauty and the city’s beauty cohere. And as in other recent American fiction—A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, or going back few decades, Ironweed, by William Kennedy—in Holleran’s fiction, a cemetery can carry voices:
The buttercups were already blooming the day he drove me out to the Congressional Cemetery. “This is called the Gay Corner,” he said, stopping at the grave of Leonard Matlovich to read aloud the words on his gravestone (“They gave me a medal for killing two men, and a discharge for loving one”) and then point out, not far away, the graves of Clyde Tolson, the constant companion of J. Edgar Hoover (“They would lunch every day at the Mayflower Hotel”), and Hoover and his family.
This suggests masculinity itself was the tragedy, the necessity with which men were made to brandish it, like guns.
Then we walked up to the grave of Peter Doyle, Whitman’s bosom friend, and then to the graves of two people associated with the death of Lincoln….”And do you know what?” my landlord said. “Mary Todd Lincoln knew how the valet had loved Lincoln, and gave him the clothes Lincoln was wearing that day—not the ones in which he was killed, the ones he’d worn before they went to the play.”
In Holleran’s voice, the surroundings themselves carry with them, if not a sense of shelter, at least a sense of beauty. And in the end it is not human beauty, which can engender coiled desire, but the kind of beauty that does not aim at the fulfillment of any desire, that comforts in this book, and so its most beautiful character might be the city itself. Still, initial pleasures are often mistakes. Even with respect to the city’s beauty, the ambivalence between will and possession still inheres:
Looking down Massachusetts Avenue the general on the horse surrounded by blossoming cherry trees in the center of Scott Circle seemed to be fording a surf composed entirely of pink foam. The dogwood and redbud were still in bloom on the walk between the White House and the Treasury Building. Then the tall trees, about to come into leaf, around the monument to General Sherman….while the homeless men lying nearby on their piles of blankets argued over the relative merits of the city’s emergency rooms, like people rating four-star restaurants, one of them as young, blond, and handsome as Billy Budd. What had brought him there? What was his story? I didn’t ask. Instead I sat there thinking one of the figures coming toward me on the gravel walk might be the love of my life.