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'Less' offers more in Andrew Sean Greer's follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning novel

Less is Lost, by Andrew Sean Greer
Little, Brown
Less is Lost, by Andrew Sean Greer

Why do we underrate comedy when we need it so badly? When Andrew Sean Greer's novel Less won the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 there was a dismissive shrug on the part of some critics. After all, the Pulitzer is usually awarded to a novel that's not as much fun to read as Less was.

A satire of the pretensions of the literary world, Less chronicled the efforts of its hero — the white, gay, American, minor writer, Arthur Less — to outrun his impending 50th birthday and the wedding of his former partner by accepting every invitation to every literary conference, junket, writer's retreat and festival that came his way. Naturally, when news of a sequel to Less was announced, more dismissive shrugging ensued, as though no one remembered acclaimed sequels written by the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Hilary Mantel.

Less is Lost picks up with Arthur Less now living with that aforementioned partner, Freddy Pelu, who left his new husband to return to Less. You'd think that demonstration of love would be enough, but Less is a chronically uncertain person, prone to what Freddy, who acts as our occasional narrator, calls a "clumsiness of the heart." The death here of Less' first love, the famous poet Robert Brownburn, only deepens Less's uncertainty, since it turns out that Less owes a decade of back rent on the San Francisco bungalow he's been living in that was owned by Brownburn.

Fortunately, for a writer so minor he's often confused with another minor writer of the same name (even though the other guy is African American), Less has lately been receiving a strangely high number of invitations for lucrative literary gigs — public lectures, glossy writing assignments, and the like. So Less hits the road again — this time in the U.S. Both he and Freddy assume that a separation may clarify their relationship.

Less' first assignment is in Palm Springs, where he'll write a profile of the science fiction writer H.H.H. Mandern, who appeared in the first novel. Here's Greer's skewering description of Mandern:

A bestselling author since his first book, Incubus, came out in 1978 ... H.H. H. Mandern instantly became a towering figure in the world of books, with ... his striped Vincent Price beard ... [and] rock-star behavior such as  ... setting money on fire. ... But nothing stopped his output: a novel, sometimes two a year, and not just any novels but six-hundred-page portraits of interstellar war and alien empire-building that would take a normal human being a year just to type."

Mandern, always cranky, uses the profile as a bargaining chip to make Less drive him and his pug dog in a decrepit camper van through the Mojave desert for a reunion with his estranged daughter. Thus begins a travelogue through the West and South where, among other misadventures, Less is repeatedly greeted by the proprietors of RV parks with variations on this question, here asked by a lady in Louisiana:

"Now, you're not from around here are you, honey?" ...

"No. ..." [answers Less]

"See, I thought from how you sounded, you was from the Netherlands.

Less, we're told, "knows what this means. ... and he has never known what to say. Because the question [this woman] is really asking, without at all knowing she is asking it, without meaning anything in the world except that she detects a linguistic flourish, is Are you a homosexual?"

The question you may well be asking at this point is: Is Less Is Lost as good, as funny, as poignant as its predecessor? To which I would happily answer: Yes, at least!

There are extended comic passages here about Less' Walloon ancestry and a mediocre gay men's chorus singing Leonard Cohen songs that I read aloud, laughing, to anyone I could waylay. But comedy also arises out of pain and Greer smoothly transitions into the profound, such as in this rumination by Less about the empty encounter he has on the trip with his long-lost father:

The moment holds neither disappointment nor delight. Realizing we are no longer in love is not the heartbreaking sensation we imagine when we are in love — because it is no sensation at all. It is a realization made by a bystander.

Greer has said in interviews that this sequel is the end of Less. That would be a shame. Greer should add even more to Less' saga and take him as far as he can go.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.