Less. Andrew Sean Greer.

Greer, Andrew Sean. Less. Little, Brown, New York, 2017. F;11/18.

Here we have the 2018 Pulitzer fiction winner, and I think it’s very good. The character is really likable, and we understand that Greer changed the tone of the story after it was written to turn it into comedy, which without reading the original draft I’m guessing added a layer of irony that kept a serious story light but also gave it an intriguing depth.

Autobiography here is laughing at itself a bit. Arthur Less is gay and so (we presume) is Mr. Greer. But Less is also a writer having trouble finishing a novel who hits on a strategy of turning the story on its head using humour. Someone criticizing the original story idea says, “A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?” “Jesus, I guess so.” “Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.” “Even gay?” “Even gay.”

Arthur has fallen in love with a younger man, the son of some sort of old rival, and the lover has dumped him and is about to get married. Our hero decides to get out of Dodge, taking advantage of a variety of shabby literary gigs and a contest for which he’s nominated, by going on a world tour. In so doing he’s being a bit desperately brave:

Name a date, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book.… Strange, though, because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum.

… a haywire silver lining to one of the worst things in the world.

The plot encompasses his adventures in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, and India. And it’s a credible travelogue in the Bill Bryson style: accurate flavour of the cultures with a healthy splash of absurdity, of the places and of the silly guy who makes the mistakes of being there.

Similarly to City of Bohane we have a covert and mysterious narrator who pops up from time to time leaving us to wonder if we’ll find out who he or she is. And Less’ ending (not a plot alert if you haven’t read my critique of Bohane) has some consonance with the ending of the short story that got me interested in Kevin Barry.

There is more than enough sophisticated writing and honest emotion here to overcome my usual suspicion of prize-winners potentially relying on an over-valued idea (gayness in this case):

This evening is unexpected. This man is unexpected. Les thinks of when he bought a wallet in a thrift shop and in it found $100.

(In Morocco)… the bus guffaws to life. Good to know there is always a later camel. The rest is a Dramamine nightmare.

But (be still my dear friends on the left) I can’t help wondering if this story would have been as fresh in its impact had Less been straight. I’m not talking about prize juries being afraid not to give awards to fiction relying on over-valued ideas because this novel deserves applause independent. But love and sex as it’s described in this gay idiom is fresh, still in 2018 just a bit of a surprise. Mature straight love and sex need another level or two of intrigue or something else to deliver that same youthful surprise, to make the relationship seem realistically adolescent even though it isn’t. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is another gay story with the same freshness that never needs to apologize for or really even take notice that the love is homosexual. It takes a Lawrence or maybe Ferrante to bring straight love in for as smooth a landing.

This is a great read, light and heavy at the same time. 9.1/9.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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