Nonetheless: Andrew Sean Greer's "Less Is Lost" is less than "Less"

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 18, 2022
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author Andrew Sean Greer (photo: Kaliel Roberts)
author Andrew Sean Greer (photo: Kaliel Roberts)

The old adage about lightning comes to mind. I was one of the readers for whom Andrew Sean Greer's last novel, "Less," was a uproarious surprise hit. Not that I hadn't liked previous Greer novels, but I was enchanted by "Less," unprepared for its rich vein of comedy and delighted that, comedy being as personal a matter as underwear (as a friend avers), I found it a fit.

If you're a reader who also loved "Less," and, you know, reads for pleasure, rush to the nearest bookseller and snap up "Less Is Lost" (Little, Brown), the sequel. But with apologies in advance to overworked headline-writing editors everywhere, I have to report that, in what could be called a second act, the follow-up "Less" is —literally, sadly— less.

That out of the way, let's look under the hood. The metaphor applies, because "Less Is Lost," like its prequel, includes a road trip, as obligatory a feature in such fiction as the car chase at the end of a vintage action movie.

author Andrew Sean Greer (photo: Civitella Ranieri)  

Tales of the open road
Whereas the previous book took its hapless protagonist to Europe (on the lam, de rigueur in American fiction), this time Greer dumps the revised and abridged Arthur Less, still a lapsed, or prelapsarian, novelist —though roughly a year has passed, no time at all in the calendar of a procrastinating scribe— partly on the Eastern Seaboard but mostly in the American Southwest, a region ripe for analysis of the Whither-America variety.

That's a lot to stack against your protagonist. The novel-about-a-novelist trope alone... How far we've come from that ur-gay novel, Huck Finn.

Oh, that. Like his creator, Less is gay, fetching in a post-camp way (to Freddy anyway) and dodging the invisibility of gay middle age with an asiduousness that could produce, in other word processors, a "Queen of the Night." But Arthur has more low-hanging fruit to pick.

Part of what worked best in "Less" was the San Francisco-specific content —not that you'd have to know the city to appreciate it anymore than you need to know Oakland to indulge Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue," though god knows local color pays off big in both books. Greer's San Francisco is a kissing cousin of Armistead Maupin's, which I say without snoot. When Maupin capitalized "City" it was, besides San Francisco Chronicle house style, a hat-tip to the magical, pre-Googled toy metropolis by the Bay.

Not to linger long here, but whatever you thought of "Tales" by the time it reached its final installments, no other fiction has had a comparable hold on its readership since serialized Dickens. When it still ran in the paper, Muni cars were as quiet as sepulchers as passengers took in the day's installment, as was only right. My love of early "Tales" ferried me happily to the end.

Before Greer exiles him to the desert, Less is shacked up in a down-at-the-heel pied-a-terre on the Vulcan Steps, the place in my own self-willed exile that I miss most. Less happily, Less, and Greer, call it The Shack, and this time it comes with an eviction notice. Less and his live-in, Freddy, face the prospect of leaving their "unmarital bliss" hand in hand like the First Couple cast out of Eden in "Paradise Lost."

High, perhaps highest, on the list of Less's ineptitudes is money (a writer to the manner, if not manor, born). The "donnee" of the plot is that Less's longtime ex, who has allowed him to inhabit The Shack rent-free, dies and his (female) widow wants back rent, ten years of it. Sitting on his grief and like a hen on its egg, Less frets while Freddy suffers Shack shock as a threat to his possible if not imminent second marriage, this time to the once-dumped Less.

Unable to comprehend either loss, Less promises Freddy safe keeping by becoming a free-range freelancer, a trick that was easier to pull off when he was younger and more reckless and fewer people he met spoke English. Afoot and heavy-hearted, he takes to the open road.

A bug of a car
Lest anything inanimate remain nameless, Less calls his carriage Rosina, a la the vixen in "The Barber of Seville," and so the picaresque adventure gets underway. Enough of the spoilers, except that Less becomes less of an observant Mark Twain and more of the chauffeur in a downscale "Driving Miss Daisy." Less's confinement is to the road less traveled, the micro-comforts of Rosina the V-Dub, and the company of an even older fart.

Despite having bagged the peachy assignment of writing the biography of science-fiction writer H.H.H. Mandern (a holdover from "Less" and a not-dead-yet ringer for a certain fan-fiction scribbler whose name also begins with a freight train of initials), Less suffers. The job is no fantasy, and he moonlights by driving Mandern and his dog Dolly to make amends to his daughter in Arizona, from where little good issues.

But issue becomes the issue as Mandern's paternal dysphoria triggers Less's prodigal-son issues as he learns of his own father's having one foot in it —a situation rife for more amends, if in the old-fashioned sense rather than as apologies in any direction. Matters threaten to get serious.

How this all turns out, including for Freddy and the rapacious widow landlady, is for the stalwart reader to discover. The drag on the story is not, you will have gathered, plot-related but rather by —what else, with a novelist protagonist— the musings on the writer's life, almost in the abstract given Less's tenuous relationship with the actualities of his chosen craft. His thoughts are more jaundiced than the glass-half-full Freddy's, but they too only simulate seriousness.

Where the humor in "Less" was buoyant, the levity in the sequel is, well, you guessed it. Lost on me, anyway, and I lack words to express how desperately I wanted a book —now— as diverting as "Less."

Inevitably, the sense of work on Greer's part overtakes the reader. The jokes are more calculated than fun, and the loopy but frequently masterful sentences that leavened "Less" are present and accounted for but too few and far between. It missed its chance to be a beach book.

"Less" was the kind of out-of-the-blue, runaway hit on which an author can bank the rest of a career. Its successor would have been a lot more successful without it.

'Less Is Lost' by Andrew Sean Greer, Little, Brown, 257 pp. $29.

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