Pausing briefly during his round of almost motorised erotic delights in New York, the hero of Andrew Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, proclaims the glory of gay liberation and foresees its doom. “We’re completely free,” he says, “and that’s the horror.” This was in 1978; three years later, Aids curtailed the disco-fuelled revels and Holleran began to write essays about a city that had turned into an ashen graveyard. His subsequent novels, published at intervals of a decade or more, have tracked a long withdrawal – from New York to Florida, where Holleran moved to care for his aged parents, and from hedonism to the metaphysical gloom or “morose delectation” that he absorbed from his Jesuit education.
Now, in The Kingdom of Sand, a nameless narrator, deputising for the near-octogenarian Holleran, soberly contemplates what Christian eschatology calls the last things. The arid corner of Florida in which he is beached might be a parody of Fire Island, the sandbar off Long Island where the characters of Dancer from the Dance alternately sun themselves on the shore and couple, triple or quadruple in the dunes. The sand that spreads through the drought-stricken setting of the new novel is a morbid symptom, warning that the planet, trashed by our “manufacturing mania”, may soon be uninhabitable. Sex for the narrator consists of occasional blowjobs administered to unattractive strangers, in sessions that amount to what the Catholic church defines as corporeal acts of mercy. Otherwise, he spends his days viewing porn, which he likens to the miserable games of solitaire played by his dying father. But the coital bouts on the screen only worsen his boredom, as the performers take so long to reach orgasm that “watching them is like waiting for a bus”.
Forget about Florida as the home of Disney World, Tupperware and Donald Trump: here, the state is death’s antechamber. The city of Gainesville is a concentration camp for retirees, all hospitals, nursing homes and crematoria; a cardiac unit is like the Nasa space station at Cape Kennedy, with patients as would-be astronauts preparing to be ejected from the Earth. Nor is death the end, since posthumous indignities follow. Bodies bound for the mortuary release a final spurt of gas, which doctors call “the Morgue Fart”. Fluids from a corpse left undiscovered seep into a concrete floor and an ozone machine has to work overtime to sanitise the room’s foul air.
Depression is relieved by Holleran’s grim wit and by flashes of sanctity from above. The characters in Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia” Angels in America are visited by seraphs and Holleran occasionally spots celestial castaways. A handyman has the face of a Giotto angel, though his “enormous ass” is disappointingly down to earth, while a bearded youth outside a pizza joint who looks like Jesus turns out to be peddling drugs rather than promising salvation. St Benedict supplies the novel with its haunting epigraph and when the narrator notices the sagging, raccoon-infested roof of his house, he recalls St Jerome’s verdict on the empty temples of the heathens, taken over by owls and bats after God set up shop elsewhere. St Francis is never name-checked, but the messy housekeeping described by Holleran entails a Franciscan respect for lowlier forms of life. Tree frogs that hop indoors are gently ushered out and earthworms receive homage because their labours make “agriculture, and therefore human civilisation” possible. Errant, entangled vegetation is allowed to take over the garden, simply because it wants to be there; even cancer, like Virginia creeper or Spanish moss, shows off “the same phenomenon: growth”.
Once you stop expecting something to happen, Holleran’s writing is as calmly compelling as the repetitive tasks that occupy a monastic day. The narrator picks blueberries one by one, not in bunches, at a tempo that “returns you to the Middle Ages”. Sentences that gradually unfurl and loop into circles share this soothing deceleration. Holleran’s model is the punctilious manner of the late Henry James, whose comment on the stroke that killed him is quoted here: as he collapsed, James solemnly welcomed “the distinguished thing”. In this distinguished but terminally melancholy novel Holleran seems to be anticipating his own end.
In Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise the literary critic Jack Parlett revisits the heyday of the resort where the sybarites in Dancer from the Dance cavorted. Although Parlett’s book pines for that carnal Eden, the history he reels through is dystopian, a reminder that “gay life is supposed to be a bit sad”. There are brawls in a lesbian bar frequented by Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin complains about the futility of addictive sex, while for the poet Frank O’Hara, who was killed by a runaway dune buggy on the beach, the surf is “dolorous”, battering the land to wind-blown granules. Holleran once described Fire Island as a blessed appendix to the mainland, where puritanical America could be forgotten for as long as your vacation lasted. Today, as the ocean rises and hurricanes rage, this fragile, erosive barrier is being nibbled away – annihilated, as we will all eventually be, by the sifting kingdom of sand.
• The Kingdom of Sand by Andrew Holleran is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
• Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise by Jack Parlett is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply