It’s a dreary day in a small, highly regressive Christian town in Northern Florida. Our protagonist, an unnamed narrator, is trying to break up the monotony of the same old routine. Rather than stay home and watch porn by himself, his usual preference, he’s venturing out to a “video store” to find something, or, rather, someone to bide his time with. And with that, the scene is set for Andrew Holleran’s first novel in 16 years, The Kingdom of Sand.
Over 40 years ago, in 1978, Holleran published Dancer from the Dance — a novel widely regarded as a classic work of gay literature about a young man in his twenties exploring New York’s gay scene. While the plots are vastly different in tone and pace, it’s evident that Holleran offers another necessary piece of literature about a gay man exploring his life. This time, however, instead of his twenties, the protagonist is in his sixties, and rather than navigating a provocative scene of life just beginning, it offers a meditation on life that’s nearing an end.
There isn’t a heightened plot anywhere in The Kingdom of Sand, rather, a consistent meandering of life and longing. The narrator’s contemplation is an introspection of sorts, and the story feels like a long walk taken with a friend — some parts are more exciting and others can be exhaustive and redundant, but you know you’re filtering information through a trusted source – someone who has lived life and seen death and has something to say about it – and it’s important to listen to their story. It’s evident in these scenes that Holleran has a rare ability to capture each detail and each characterization is bursting with just the right amount of mortality and empathy.
Although the unnamed narrator has already watched both his parents die — one a swift, unexpected death and the other a slow, drawn-out one — the longest segment of the book unfolds as he’s watching the decline of his friend Earl, also a gay man, twenty years his senior. Broken into five chapters, the fourth chapter, “Hurricane Weather,” easily takes up half the book. In this section, we begin the long, agonizing trek towards death as the narrator watches his best friend fall ill. It is watching Earl fade away into the periphery of old age that the narrator truly sees what is in store for his remaining days. The narrator notes, “It is a fact seldom observed that after a certain age a single man is a creature no one has any place for.” The last chapter of the novel, titled “Two Loves Have I at Walgreens,” comes after Earl’s passing. In these pages, he focuses on his trips to Walgreens and goes into great detail about which pharmacist is his favorite. That is what he has to look forward to now: his annual flu shot from his favorite pharmacist at Walgreens. In essence, he is alone, but still has his small pleasures to subsist on.
It is within that loneliness that the reader can find the universality that Holleran and his narrator are trying to represent. At the heart of life there is the constant fear of being alone, dying alone, or dying, in general. We are all vulnerable to our fates, and Andrew Holleran puts those fears on vibrant and unapologetic display in this book. At one point our narrator says, “…I took pains to usher outdoors the lizards and frogs that had become trapped inside the house — so they could go on living, especially the lizards, so beautiful and graceful when alive, so rigid and desiccated when dead.” Even amongst the reptiles, the narrator finds empathy and respect for their lives, and the thought of leaving them there to die, alone and undignified, is something he cannot bear.
From start to finish, we are taken on a walk through life and death and loneliness and everything in between. Sentences are riddled with mundane details, only to be broken up by an uncanny humor. At one point, the narrator says about his life of old age versus his father’s: “The only difference between us was that he had played solitaire and I was watching people have sex: a generational decline, I suppose.” But between each word and sentence and varying chapter lengths is a story everyone can relate to. It is a story of humanity and the depths we go to preserve that at all costs, especially towards the end. This is a novel not everyone — especially those who are in more of their Dancer from the Dance stage of life — will understand. But, at some point, we all will need this camaraderie, this exposed examination of life near death, and that’s precisely the point Holleran makes.
The Kingdom of Sand
By Andrew Holleran
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Published June 7, 2022