Less by Andrew Sean Greer is the story of a struggling but once successful writer nearing 50, stuck with a manuscript for a book that is not picking up much traction in the publishing world, and recently abandoned by his long-term lover Freddy for a more serious relationship.
“No one could rival Arthur Less for his ability to exit a room while remaining inside of it”, and eccentric as he may be, our lovable protagonist is hard done by his luck and desperate to avoid his former flame’s wedding. Less strings together a tour of the world using piecemeal invites to paltry conferences and obscure writing assignments. Each destination in Less’s ‘ramshackle itinerary’ introduces a host of characters that bring to the fore more and more of Less’s past and present.
The grand tour opens in New York City (NYC). Less must interview a highly acclaimed science fiction writer in NYC, accepted for free by our world traveller after the offer was undoubtedly rebuked by more accomplished writers. It is here we encounter Less’s own estimation of himself, “an author too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered, one who never sits next to anyone on a plane who has heard of his books”.
Dotted with clever references to literature and film, the novel has many laugh-out-loud moments: on the over-crowded and haphazard Moroccan airport: “Is there an invasion he has not heard of? Is this the last plane out of France? If so, where is Ingrid Bergman?”; and in his New York hotel room, he describes his bathroom as “Lilliputian” and bathtub as “Brobdingnagian” (tiny and humongous, as coined in Gulliver’s Travels to describe the two types of characters in the tale).
In every destination Less travels to, we find our protagonist awash in a new light: “Less the gentleman, Less the author, Less the tourist… Where is the real Less? Less the young man terrified of Love”. Enchanting descriptions and lists bring to life each of the destinations Less travels to; and tongue in cheek observations about the banal, daily life of the locals add flesh and bone.
For instance, in India our protagonist observes the “spiritual battle of the bands” — various religions calling their devotees to pray with competing fervour: “pop sounding hymns” of the local Christians, “over-amplified” “cheerful” and “kazoo” like refrains from the Hindu temple, and “lullaby” voiced Muslim morning calls to prayer.
During his sojourn to Mexico, we learn more of Less’s checkered romantic past: chiefly in his relationships with Freddy and Robert. The latter, a famed and much older poet, was Less’s first real gay romance and a scandal as Robert was married to a woman when he fell for young Less. We see Less as a young, uncertain lad, enamoured by his lover. “What was it like to live with genius?” “Like living alone with a tiger.
In so many ways, Less is a novel about ageing, Less often feeling like “the first homosexual ever to grow old”. As our protagonist drifts from city to city, we jump back and forth between “sad young Arthur Less” and “sad old Arthur Less”. It is this preoccupation, this growing older and a 25 year age difference, that ultimately overwhelms Robert and Less’s relationship, a cycle that repeats itself later when Less finds himself the older one in his entanglement with Freddy. “I want to make sure… that I’m not preventing you from meeting anyone,” he warns Freddy, mirroring what Robert once said to him.
But far from being depressing, Greer injects the travels with unexpected hilarity and poignancy. In Turin, where he is dubiously up for an award for a book of his that found surprising success in its Italian translation, we learn belatedly that the jury comprises of high school students.
In Germany, Less travels for a teaching stint at a local university offering a course entitled, “Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein”. Overestimating his command over the German tongue, Less announces to his startled students on the first day, “I am sorry, I must kill most of you”.
In India, chasing after a stray dog that has run off with a beloved suit, Less sustains an injury and must be nursed back to health in Freddy’s wealthy father’s care, one of the very people he was attempting to evade with this grand world tour.
When Less shares the plot of his next novel Swift to a lesbian friend in Morocco she exclaims, “A white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows”? “It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.” But our protagonist, whilst being exactly that, comes to occupy a special place in the reader’s heart for all his insecurities, oddities, and misadventures.
Unlike Arthur Less’s failing manuscript for Swift, a wistful, poignant novel of a broke and middle-aged gay man’s walks around San Francisco, Andrew Sean Greer’s novel Less is a roaring success, snagging a well-deserved but surprising Pulitzer (pronounced “Pull-it-sir,” Less’s Pulitzer-winning lover Robert learns when he wins one, “not Pew-lit-sir.”).
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Publisher: Lee Boudreaux Books, 2017
Price: US$10.87 (Paperback)