A hilarious sequel to Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning novel
While not an original observation, actor Sir Michael Caine nailed it again in 2017 when he said: “Comedy is harder to do than drama. You can make anyone burst into tears, but trying to laugh is murder. I was reminded of this truism while reading Andrew Sean Greer’s technically accomplished and hugely entertaining “Less Is Lost,” the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Less.” Like its predecessor, the new novel is a feat of wit and brilliance, harder than it looks.
In “Less,” the middle-aged protagonist watched his demons — and his former boyfriend’s impending nuptials — as he moved east, from New York to Europe to Africa to Japan, accepting invitations to lectures, literary retreats and a lucrative magazine profile.
“Less Is Lost” picks up a few months later. After the heartbreaking death of his friend and first lover, an elderly poet, Arthur faces a mountain of debt. He could lose his private apartment in San Francisco. He returns to a familiar strategy: He’ll be canvassing the nation for paychecks in an RV named Rosina, accompanied by a pug, Dolly, only now in “this alien world, his own country.”
Arthur travels three time zones to a date in Maine with his partner, Freddy Pelu, an academic (who has called off his marriage). From his New England perch, Freddy recounts hilarious, cinematic scenes that include affectionate but campy portrayals of Arthur: “Look at his thinning hair whipped by the wind in the stiff tip of a blonde meringue, his delicate lips, his pointed nose and elongated chin reminiscent of the Viking invaders of the Bayeux Tapestry, as white as a white man can be.
Greer is a master of the picaresque, deftly moving his protagonist from a David Lynch-style seedy desert bar across the plains of Texas to a Southern theater troupe. In his native Delaware, Less’s sister is waiting for him, perhaps with the father who abandoned them both, and, further north, his partner. But will Freddy kiss Less?
Greer’s wordplay is glorious: he launches puns and ripostes, igniting his prose. (Some dialogue pays homage to Abbott and Costello’s iconic routine, “Who’s First?”) Less speaks German, perhaps not as fluently as he thinks; Greer translates a hilarious encounter with German tourists at a hot spring in Arizona.
Is “Less Is Lost” then greater than, less than, or equal to “Less?” Is more or less more or less? Jokes write themselves, which can be a problem here: Greer isn’t just winking at the reader, he’s winking at himself. Although he is a nimble stylist, he is captivated by the cadences of his own voice, Less’ network of connections, and unconvincing calculation.
The author’s gifts are manifold, however, and “Less Is Lost” finds its way, clinging to a Kerouac-esque exuberance even if Less falls short of the enlightenment he seeks. And despite the novel’s moments of self-consciousness, Greer pursues his character’s quest with unparalleled mastery of craftsmanship. Will love conquer all? As Freddy notes, “Well, reader, I’ll just keep you guessing.”