Book review: The Kingdom of Sand


Andrew Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, was published in 1978. In addition, he is the author of two more novels: two books of essays, and a collection of short stories. In September comes, The Light Changes; and a novella, “Grief.”

The Kingdom of Sand, his latest novel or some call it a memoir, is an honest book about the loneliness of being human: both haunting and ultimately beautiful it is a meditation about aging, loneliness, and mortality. Sound daunting? At times it is, but Holleran overrides the sadness and harsh reality with carefully woven humor. This story is told by an unnamed, first-person, narrator who takes care of the reader as well as himself through the ugliest parts of the book with his wit. In one part, he depicts Christmas for the elderly and alone, their undecorated houses versus the younger families that over-decorate. He finds meaning in an adage about a blowup Santa that seems an allegory for aging losing the fight. As it gets older, the Santa is knocked down again and again and lays in the snow longer and longer.

Tender, and often funny, this novel is about the final years of two friends. Our narrator, in his sixties, met Earl, who is twenty years his senior while cruising at the local boat ramp. As they become friends, he learns that Earl is a conservative and can argue on Republicans’ behalf to no end. Our hero doesn’t care for politics, especially conservative politics, so for the next twenty years, he has been visiting Earl to watch classic films together and critique the neighbors’ behavior. The political boundaries enable the two friends to develop a close bond, one that is disturbed only by the ending of their lives on the horizon.

As the novel begins, the narrator is driving from the town where he grew up, where he moved to be with his parents who were dying, Gainsville, a town in North Central Florida, to New York where he spends a little time, but he doesn’t say what he does there. This story is about Florida. We are schooled about the few places where an older gay man can go to have anonymous sex. He begins with a video store and then adds the boat dock—Earl’s favorite place. He contemplates the difference between the success of young gay men and that of older gay men, as he pulls off the road at a video store, and parks behind a truck that he’s followed hopefully, but the driver disappears. He goes in alone and the store is empty. Considering cruising, now in his 60’s, the narrator knows his odds aren’t good.

With age comes compromise. As Earl gets older, he hires a handyman and gets things often unnecessarily fixed. The handyman starts driving Earl around, getting his medicine, cooking, and so on. Earl obviously is giving him extra money, but in the end, the narrator decides that if Earl needs this guy, then so be it. After Earl dies, his house is willed to the handyman, who sells it to someone who rents it out.

Holleran is outstanding with description whether it be a bathroom where layers of dead cockroaches cover the floor, or on the other hand, a Florida dry spell ends, and we watch beauty overtake the land as the lake fills and a small stream produces a little waterfall. The sun sets across the water with a brassy sheen. Spring comes with its pure beauty, spider webs, things that bloom, grass nodding in the breeze, buttercups, milkweed, and berries in holly trees. He lives alone in his dead parent’s house. At length, while searching for some Christmas ornaments, he finds a box in a closet he seldom opens. It contains photographs of his father, his grandfather, and his mother. They were beautiful when young, but he never looks at them again.

He and Earl’s houses are full of all kinds of the usual junk that people leave after they die. He sees this sort of heap every time he looks in on Earl: “glass cut bowls, teddy bears, paintings, TV tables, chairs, rugs, suitcases, and more.” The narrator admits he has his own stuff to deal with. He lives in a house that appears to shelter, a Pack Rat. It’s full of lamps, figurines, hats, radios, televisions, fishing poles, humidifiers, silverware, glasses, vases, fans, and an old typewriter.” Earl, tries to manage this phenomenon by giving away one item to each of his visitors. Unfortunately, there aren’t many. The narrator tells us that the best way to clean out our stuff is to pretend we’re dead. Pretend your nephew is charged with cleaning your house out, and when he walks into your bedroom a week after you die, he looks around at books and papers and heaps of sweaters, and then he goes to the closet and finds the cardboard boxes full of letters from friends, and old magazines.

This book has gotten mixed reviews. It is difficult to follow a timeline. Some do not care for the long descriptive passages or the repetition of certain thoughts and images. One can make a case for any of that criticism. It’s true. The repetition does slow the story down. But Holleran is a master of composition and exquisite prose. I trust there is a reason for these seeming flaws beyond a lazy editor. I can forgive the author one too many frogs and a thousand too many dead cockroaches. What the reader must understand is the propensity of the elderly to repeat themselves when telling a story.

The heart of the novel is the story of his friendship with Earl and his own observations about aging. Earl is the only person in town with whom he can truly be himself. Now that Earl’s health is failing, our increasingly misanthropic narrator must contend with the fact that once Earl dies, he will be completely alone. As a Baby Boomer, like Holleran, I often found glimpses of my life in these passages. I found beauty and joy in the smallest things, things my younger self would not have noticed or cared about. As we get older, there exists the sadness of loss and the fear of being alone that a younger person might not believe. Yet we are forever facing forward, apprehensively putting one foot in front of the other, as we take what comes as it comes. That’s what Holleran captures so well in this book.

The Kingdom of Sand, Andrew Holleran: ‎ Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 7, 2022). 274 pages.   ISBN ‏ : ‎ 0374600961