Andrew Holleran’s The Kingdom of Sand presents one man’s entanglement with old age, both humorous and mournful in its final unraveling. Drawing on some of the elements found in the author’s earlier work, the novel manages to stun and disquiet with its duality. Mostly by failing to shy away from the crippling humdrum of existence.
In fact, humor is one of the foremost markers of the novel’s prose. It conveys the abstractness of old age, creating strife between the novel’s comedic tone and the sentiment it’s trying to convey. This can be glimpsed in the following passage,
This light and jovial imagery shows the protagonist’s heavy reliance on porn to combat solitude, at once adding depth to an already compelling surface.
We also see that comedy intensifies the desolation that follows in death’s wake, specifically when it makes way for emotional detachment. Holleran allows his comical remarks to start slipping from the pages of the novel, leaving the reader despondent by its end. This is why the novel’s sorrow materializes without a sound, binding its fragmented structure with quiet confidence.
The odd thing about the novel’s melancholy is that it stems from the protagonist’s total acceptance of the impossibility of need, the unfulfilled state of his desire. And yet, despite this capitulation, his attitude comes across as almost sanguine.
The mastery of such a delivery comes from Holleran’s overarching depiction of loneliness and lust. In many ways, this blend of hunger and despair reflects the anguished frenzy of youth, to which Dancer from the Dance is a testament. And yet, the novel’s portrayal of the friction between eroticism and undesirability makes the protagonist’s ultimate surrender, his recognition of life’s constraints, that much more acute.
It’s no surprise that Holleran’s prose is largely reflective, prioritizing consequence over incentive. And yet, the moments it conjures are so compelling that it feels less like a summation of life than an endless anecdote, one which titillates as much as it arouses sympathy.
The emotional heft of The Kingdom of Sand feeds on its lyrical sculpting of Florida, which offers scenic references to the ennui and nothingness that come with its luminous sunsets and parched lakes. The conversely lush and arid landscape, while suffocating, seems to respond to the ebb and flow of life. The two intrude on each other, compete for dominance, convey the ruthlessness of the human desire for life.
This backdrop also accommodates Holleran’s panorama of time. It provides mementos that shackle the protagonist to his parents’ house. What comes out of this struggle is a tender evocation of grief, his reliance on the intangible presence of loved ones.
The initial ache of loneliness that comes with the passing of youth and beauty soon makes way for the full-bodied agony of awareness. Death starts to dominate the pages, allowing the story to reflect on the futility of both staying and leaving, belonging to someone and remaining disjointed. Fear of death begins to disentangle need, treating it as a weapon against the ultimate dissolution of life.
The fact that carnal cravings keep blooming like fungi after rainfall further points to the instrumentality of desire, to the way it sustains the ego. Holleran also shows us that lust is impossible to unroot, even after the explosive relief of an orgasm.
Since the focus of the novel is on the individual, it doesn’t offer much in the way of momentum. And while this may not appeal to some readers, the novel’s unhurried pace complements its meditative form. After all, it’s both a rumination on death and a visceral account of the wait for its arrival.
This also explains why Earl, the protagonist’s much older friend, dominates so much of the narrative. Since Earl represents an ordinary man going through the ordinary process of dying, he serves as the perfect embodiment of what The Kingdom of Sand is truthfully about.
Publication date: June 7, 2022 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)