The awkward and lovable hero of Andrew Sean Greer's bestselling and prize-winning novel Less returns in this unforgettable road trip across America.
'Wildly, painfully funny' David Sedaris
'Unforgettable' Elizabeth Day
'The joyfulness of this book is a balm' Madeline Miller
'What a joy' Katie Kitamura
For Arthur Less, life is going surprisingly well: he is a moderately accomplished novelist in a steady relationship with his partner, Freddy Pelu. But nothing lasts: the death of an old lover and a sudden financial crisis has Less running away from his problems yet again as he accepts a series of literary gigs that send him on a zigzagging adventure across the US.
Less roves across the 'Mild Mild West', through the South and to his mid-Atlantic birthplace, with an ever-changing posse of writerly characters and his trusty duo - a human-like black pug, Dolly, and a rusty camper van nicknamed Rosina. He grows a handlebar mustache, ditches his signature gray suit, and disguises himself in the bolero-and-cowboy-hat costume of a true 'Unitedstatesian'... with varying levels of success, as he continues to be mistaken for either a Dutchman, the wrong writer, or, worst of all, a 'bad gay'.
We cannot, however, escape ourselves - even across deserts, bayous, and coastlines. From his estranged father and strained relationship with Freddy, to the reckoning he experiences in confronting his privilege, Arthur Less must eventually face his personal demons. With all of the irrepressible wit and musicality that made Less a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning, must-read breakout book, Less Is Lost is a profound and joyous novel about the enigma of life, the riddle of love, and the stories we tell along the way.
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 272
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Less Is Lost
Andrew Sean Greer
Less should have known, at the clinic a few weeks before, that his relationship was in some trouble. It was an ordinary blood draw for an ordinary medical checkup, the kind a man over fifty must submit to once a year in America. The bell jingled as he opened the clinic door, then jingled again as he failed to close it, then jingled again. And again. “Sorry!” he shouted to the empty waiting room, its only inhabitants a clipboard, a watercooler, and a fan of gossip magazines in absurd hues. But look at Less: A sweatshirt as bright as a highlighter, a little Marseillais fisherman’s hat. Let’s not anyone here call anyone else absurd.
In the exam room, the phlebotomist (bald, Taiwanese, heavily tattooed, suffering a fresh heartbreak that has no bearing on our story) arrived with a clipboard, which he handed to Arthur Less.
“Please write your full name at the top,” the phlebotomist said, preparing an intriguing tray of vials.
The patient wrote the name Arthur Less.
“Please write down the name of your emergency contact,” the phlebotomist said, preparing the inflatable cuff.
The patient wrote the name Freddy Pelu.
“Please write down the nature of your relationship,” the phlebotomist said.
The patient looked up with surprise. Our lovelorn phlebotomist glanced at the questionnaire and replaced the blood pressure cuff, with its kelp-like tubing and bulb, on the tray beside him (such a device is called, by the way, a manometer).
“The nature of your relationship, Mr. Less,” he said brusquely.
“It’s a tough question,” said the patient. Pausing for a moment, misunderstanding the universe, he finally wrote:
This clumsiness of the heart also became apparent on a certain California road trip: Less was equipped only with his lover, an old Saab, and some hastily purchased camping equipment consisting of two intra-zipping sleeping bags and a large nylon disk. This disk, of Swiss manufacture, unfolded into a tent whose vast interior defied belief; Less was fascinated by its pockets, air vents, rain flies; its stitching, netting, and circular Guggenheim ceiling. But, like the Swiss, it was neutral; it did not love him back. Sure of his infallibility, he unzipped the insect mesh and let in a rowdy bachelorette party of mosquitoes that raided the human open bar; he even zipped the sleeping bags to the ceiling. And on the final day, when a wild downpour arrived at lunchtime, it was decided that, while the tent could be trusted, Less himself could not. A hotel must be booked. The nearest was something called the Hotel d’Amour. This turned out to be a cream-colored cake in a rain-drenched forest, decorated inside with white roses and gilt furniture, and the desk clerk greeted them with surprise and delight; there were no guests at the hotel due to the last-minute cancellation of a wedding. “We’ve got a rose altar, and a priest, and a wedding dinner and cake and champagne and a DJ and everything!” She sighed, and her fellow staff members looked upon their new guests expectantly. Doves within a cage cooed romantically. The stout priest, her vestments dark with rain, smiled hopefully. A string quartet was playing “Anything Goes.” Outside, the storm shut the door and blocked the escape. It seemed there was no dodging destiny.
“What do you think?” I said to Arthur Less.
That’s me. I am Freddy Pelu. I am the emergency contact (who picked up Less at the blood-draw clinic shortly after he fainted). I am a short and slight man approaching forty, the age at which the charming eccentricities of one’s twenties (sleeping in a silk bonnet to save my curls and wearing rabbit-eared slippers) become the zaniness of middle age. My curls have patinaed like scallops on old silver; my red glasses magnify my myopia; I am winded after chasing my dog one time around the park. But I am as yet unwrinkled; I am no Arthur Less. Rather, I am what I would call an alloy (and my grandmother would call a pasticcio) of Italian, Spanish, and Mexican heritages—mere nationalities, being themselves mixtures of Iberian, Indigenous, African, Arab, and Frankish migrations, breaking down further until we get to the elemental humans from whom we all descend.
For the past nine months, I have lived with this troubled patient, this Arthur Less, novelist and traveler, in San Francisco in an almost-but-not-quite-waterproof one-bedroom bungalow on the Vulcan Steps that we tenderly call “the Shack,” a house belonging to his old lover Robert Brownburn that Less has called home for a decade without paying rent. Sharing in this good fortune is a bulldog named Tomboy, whom people assume is a boy, although, as Less takes pains to point out, tomboys are, by definition, girls. It is a chore and an honor and a comedy to live with them both. Nine months of unmarital bliss. But we have been linked for far longer.
We got together, quite casually, when I was twenty-seven and he forty-one, and “quite casually” is how I kept things for nine years. Staying with my grouchy uncle Carlos, unsettled in my adopted home (while living and breathing through the bulky apparatus of a second language), I found the Shack a cozy place to flop. Less never pressed for more than a kiss goodbye; I assumed he was caught up in his work or whatever engaged men of his age. Nine years of assuming these things—it feels cruel to admit, but those years are among my most treasured. The only time in my life when I was a prince. Walking in and out, chided and adored. At the time, I did not know what to call “love.”
I had to learn the hard way. I awoke one morning across the world from Arthur Less and saw nothing but the bright blue of his signature suit. I understood that happiness is within our grasp if we reach for it. And so I traveled the world to win him back…
But he did not marry me that day at the Hotel d’Amour. Even with the doves and caterers as witnesses, the skylights above us drumming from the pounding rain. On his face was written a single word: uncertain. “I have to think about it,” he said.
This is the story of a crisis in our lives. Not at the clinic or at the Hotel d’Amour (or on other ill-fated trips), but during a journey alone. It begins in San Francisco and it ends in San Francisco. In between: a donkey, a pug, a whale, and a moose. For now, let us pivot away from me, Freddy Pelu. For I do not appear in this story until much later.
(To be clear: At the clinic, he should have written partner.)
Look at Arthur Less today:
Standing on the deck of a San Francisco ferryboat, in a gray suit so precisely the same color as the fog that he seems (as in a not particularly scary movie) to be a ghostly floating head. Look at his thinning hair wind-whipped into the stiff peak of a blond meringue, his delicate lips, sharpened nose, and elongated chin recalling Viking invaders from the Bayeux Tapestry, as white as a white man can get, colored only by the pink tips of his nose and ears and the blown-glass blue of his eyes. Look at Arthur Less. Somewhere past fifty, indeed a ghost of his former self, but as the sky begins to darken, he fully materializes into a tall middle-aged man shivering in the cold. Here he stands, our hero, looking around like a man who has grown a mustache and is waiting for someone to notice.
He has, in fact, grown a mustache. He is, in fact, waiting for someone to notice.
On this foggy October morning, our Minor American Novelist is making his way to a small gold-rush town in the Sierra Nevadas to give a lecture in their Significant Speakers series. For anyone else, it would be a mere three-hour journey, but our Arthur Less has to do things the hard way; he has chosen to take a ferry and a train. This should land him in the townlet in about five hours, and along the way he expects to take in the view gold miners must have had climbing from bawdy San Francisco up to the barren mountain of their fortunes.
Oh, to have a manometer that truly measures the essence of man! What would it show of our protagonist, smiling gently on his city as it fades into the fog like a photograph too long exposed? Perhaps the restlessness of a heart swimming inside a fiftyish rib cage. But also, I think: the seeping pleasure of recognition, which, though writers claim to desire only for their ink to dry before they leave the planet, must be what warms this sole occupant of the upper decks on this cold, foggy Sunday. For is he not a Significant Speaker? Traveling even now to be applauded by gold miners, much like Oscar Wilde on his tour of the Wild West (such are his delusions that Less imagines miners and not marijuana farmers)? And more: Arthur Less has received more invitations in recent days than in all the past year put together. A major Prize has asked him to be on its jury; a theater company has requested permission to perform one of his stories. Could there be some silent audience eagerly awaiting his new novel? Some hidden force unrecognized by the publishing and critical world of New York City, which, like an orbiting space station, looks upon the rest of America without ever interacting with it?
Ignore all that, the poet Robert Brownburn says to him in memory. The point of writing is the page. The famous poet Robert Brownburn; easy for him to say, Turn away from love.
The poet Robert Brownburn—my predecessor. They were together fifteen years and lived in the Shack for most of those. They met when Less was only twenty-one, on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Less had struck up a conversation with a woman in sunglasses smoking a cigarette who said her name was Marian, advised him to use his youth well, to waste it, and then asked him a favor: Could he accompany her husband into the dangerous surf? He did; the man turned out to be Robert Brownburn. He left Marian to live with Less; he brought Less to the Pulitzer ceremony when he won the prize; he brought him to Paris and Berlin and Italy. When they parted, Arthur Less was in his mid-thirties. You could say Robert Brownburn was his youth. I have been his middle age. Is there yet another, unmet, to be Arthur Less’s dotage? It is possible that he would have married Robert Brownburn if he could have. But times were different, laws were different. And I have never asked.
Back to the chill of San Francisco as Less, aboard the ferry, receives the first of three calls this morning:
Less listens as Céline Dion performs the entirety of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” followed by an interlude of silence, followed by the voice of Peter Hunt, his literary agent: “Arthur, let me get right to it.” He delivers news, good or bad, in a jolting way, like the electric shock used to prod cattle.
“You’re on the jury for this Prize,” Peter says in a terse voice; one can picture him swinging his stallion’s tail of white hair behind him. “I wish you hadn’t agreed to it, because I thought you had a chance this year—”
“Peter, don’t be ridiculous—”
“My advice is not to bother reading anything. The winner will come to you, like a divination. Your time is better spent on other things.”
“Thank you, Peter, but my duty—”
“Speaking of other things,” Peter barges through, “good news! I’ve got you an exclusive profile of H. H. H. Mandern, a big ten-page profile, glossy with photos and everything. And he asked specifically for you.”
“No, I mean who asked?”
“Mandern asked. He was confused; I cleared things up. He’s heading out on tour for his latest book.”
“I’m not up for a road trip.”
“No road, no trip. You go to Palm Springs and Santa Fe. Interview him onstage. Talk with him after. Put together a profile for the magazine. Only catch is you fly out in two days.”
“Then it’s a no,” Less says firmly. “I’m going to Maine.”
“Working on something?”
“Peter, I just finished a book!”
“So Palm Springs—”
“Peter, it’s a no.”
“Starts Tuesday, think about it, enjoy the Prize Committee, welcome home—” And the line goes dead.
From the waters of the San Francisco Bay, a face appears: a seal, staring fixedly at Arthur Less, who stands alone in the chill wind of the ferry’s deck. Less stares back. Who knows of what it is trying to warn him? The seal (or selkie?) vanishes into the water and Less is left alone.
Welcome home indeed, for this Minor American Novelist has been gone a long time from his native land. So long that he now thinks of it, as the salmon must think of the streamlet of her parents when returning to it, as yet another foreign country. After a zigzagging itinerary around the world—six thousand miles as the albatross flies (and a story for another time)—he landed home in San Francisco…only to launch himself up again for three more America-free months finishing his novel. Our thrifty author booked himself a hut on a beach in Oaxaca, a solar-powered one that forced him to rise at dawn and work until the power failed at sunset. He was a wreck when he returned to me, but I could see he had never been more content in his life.
What is it like to return to your country after so long? Less assumed it would be like picking up a novel you had put aside some time ago; perhaps you’ll need to reread a little, remind yourself of who Janie is, and Butch, and Jack, and why everyone in Newtown-on-Tippet is so upset about the castle. But no, no, no. It is far stranger. More like picking up a novel only to discover the novel has been writing itself while you were away. No Janie, no Butch, no Jack. No Newtown. No castle. For some reason, you are in outer space, orbiting Saturn. Worse, the previous pages have been torn out; there is no rereading. You have to start from where you are—where your country is—and simply plod ahead. You may think: What’s happened? Good God, are they kidding?
But it is a rule of life, alas, that nobody is kidding.
The second call is from me, Freddy Pelu.
“Ladder down!” (a private joke).
“Freddy, good news!”
“You sound happy!”
“Peter just called and apparently H. H. H. Mandern asked for me to do a profile.”
I ask, “Who?”
“H. H. H. Mandern!” says Less. “One of the most famous writers of our time. It’s money. And I said no!”
“That’s the good news?”
Less is jubilant: “I said no! Because tomorrow I’ll be with you in Maine! I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know why I’m on this Prize Committee, I don’t know why I’m speaking today, I don’t know why Mandern asked for me, but Freddy, it’s just nice! It’s nice to be wanted! But really, who wants a middle-aged gay white novelist nobody’s ever heard of?”
“Me,” I say. “I do.”
I am not in the chill of San Francisco; I am in the chill of the Northeast. I am in a small Maine college town for the three months of my sabbatical, taking a course in narrative form.
“Well, you’re in luck,” he says. “My flight is tomorrow at noon.”
“You really turned it down?”
“Of course I did! I’m joining you in Maine, that’s our plan. I don’t want to be apart for months.”
“You do love to travel.”
“I don’t love to travel, I love to travel to you,” Less says as a foghorn sounds. “I’m going to a mining town and then I’m coming to see you in Maine.”
“You know what I like in a middle-aged gay white novelist nobody’s ever heard of? A little confidence. Maybe you’re getting these invitations because you really are a great writer.”
“You know what?” Less says. “Today I feel like maybe I am!”
“Of course you are!” I say.
“Sorry, Freddy, I’m getting another call. I love you!”
“Take it! Maybe it’s the Nobel Committee!”
“Maybe it is!” he says. I tell him I love him. The seals or selkies seem to wave to Less from the water, a final warning; he waves back and merrily answers his ringing phone for the third call this morning. Things are going so well today that it feels not impossible it is the Nobel Committee.
But, friends, it is not the Nobel Committee. It is a rule of life, alas, that it is never the Nobel Committee.
A somber voice comes on the line: “Arthur, it’s Marian…”
Be strong, Arthur Less. Do you remember we made a deal? Not long after I moved into the Shack? It was a Sunday, and I had spent the entire day in that white bed (below the trumpet-vine window) correcting student papers; I had not moved since breakfast, and it had been dark a long time. You came in with a pizza and a bottle of red wine. You, too, had spent the day in your bathrobe. You sat down on the bed and poured me a glass of wine and said, “Freddy, now that we’re living together, I have a proposal.” Your hair was a blondish mess, your cheeks in “high color,” as they say in English novels; perhaps you had already gone through the remains of another bottle. “Neither of us is strong. We can’t put up a shelf or fix the sink and neither of us can catch a mouse.” You put your hand on my arm. “But somebody has to catch the mouse. So here’s my proposal. You be the strong one Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And I’ll be the strong one Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.”
I paused, suspicious. “What about Sundays?”
You patted me on the arm with reassurance. “On Sundays, Freddy, nobody’s the strong one.”
I receive a voice mail in Maine: “Freddy. Robert’s ex-wife, Marian, called.” And then a pause. “Robert died a few hours ago. Multi-organ failure. I canceled my event. I have to head back. Marian says she’s already on her way here from Sonoma, she’s staying the night at the Shack, we have to plan the funeral, which is tomorrow, so don’t try to fly home. It will be something small, just a few people. I’ll figure it out and let you know. I’ll call you later. I love you.”
Today is Sunday.
The first person not to notice his mustache is the ex-wife of Robert Brownburn.
“I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t be smoking in here,” says Marian. He has found her already waiting for him in the bedroom of the Shack. From the other room comes the hurricane of a vacuum cleaner; our hippie cleaning lady, Lydia, has sprinkled white powder all over the carpets. Less closes the door behind him and sighs.
Small and solid and beautiful, nearly eighty now, Marian still gives off the aroma of vitality Less remembers from their first me. . .
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