Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Less is a rarity for that honor: a comic novel. Generally award committees gravitate to heavy fare: violence, misery, catastrophe. So it’s refreshing to discover that a tale both funny and very well written has sneaked into the select company of that short list, going so far as to win.

Not to give away too much: our hero, Arthur Less, is a gay writer on the brink of turning 50. His younger boyfriend of nine years has just left him. Less and his older longtime paramour, a noted poet, still love each other, but after twenty years together stopped sharing living quarters. And now Freddy is gone – ready to marry someone else. Knowing he will be invited to the wedding, and not wanting to provoke anyone by either refusing to attend or attending, Less accepts every speaking or teaching engagement that’s recently been offered to him. He doesn’t have to worry about the heartbreaking event, because he’ll be in New York, Mexico, then Italy, Germany, Paris, Rome, Morocco, India, Tokyo – by the time he gets back to San Francisco he’ll be fifty and Freddy will be married.

Less has published a few midlist novels, but was stung in a review as a “magniloquent spoony.” Meeting with his agent on the New York leg of his jaunt, he learns that his publisher is dropping him. He’s not PC enough. “I’m a bad gay?” he asks, incredulous. Apparently they are after less traditional endings than the one he supplied, so he is Out. He hopes to undertake a rewrite of the rejected novel on this hejira – a month in India at the retreat should do it. But this news is a tough start to his trip.

Arthur Less is a naif, even at his age, and people love him for this quality of startled sincerity. His share of misunderstandings, struggles with modern travel – airports, hotels, language barriers, luggage – are all dealt humorously: nothing catastrophic, but he’s forever making embarrassing mistakes. In short, he is Everyman, losing his dignity and bumping into people he’d rather forget. Interwoven with his awkward moments are memories – of his life with the Great Poet, the unexpected nine years with Freddy, the impression he makes on those around him. Here’s a taste:

“Name a day, name an hour, in which Arthur Less was not afraid. Of ordering a cocktail, taking a taxi, teaching a class, writing a book. Afraid of these and almost everything else in the world. 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. The daily dose of courage.”

Not only is this book delightfully witty, it is also a good story, with poignancy and a satisfying ending. The Pulitzer Committee was right – it’s a winner, and you should read it!

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