Praised for his 'perfumed, dandified style', Andrew Sean Greer is one of America's finest young writers. He tells Stuart Jeffries about the family secret that inspired his latest novel, The Story of a Marriage
A long time ago in Kentucky, a man took Andrew Sean Greer's grandmother for a drive. The man, a family friend, told her something she didn't want to hear. During the war he and her husband had been lovers.
How did she react, I ask Greer. "She just said to him: 'Get the hell out of here.'" Greer sits back in his seat. We're chatting in his publisher's offices in Bloomsbury. I lean forward, thinking Greer will continue the story. I'm expecting (this being the American south of the 1950s) passion, ruin, shame, marital recrimination, probably divorce, possibly the husband being named and shamed for his sexual orientation in the local newspaper.
But no. That's the end of the story. "My grandmother was not a great storyteller," says Greer. Didn't she confront her husband? "They never talked about it. That wasn't the era of psychoanalysis when everybody tells everybody everything and where there is a presumption that confession and confronting difficult personal issues is good for a relationship." Do you know if your grandfather was gay? "Well, he did spend a lot of time cleaning his shoes and looking after his appearance. I knew him until I was about 13. He was this guy in a chair." You never asked him? "I never did."
These are not small matters. His grandmother's sliver of a tale sparked Greer's latest novel, The Story of a Marriage. Like Greer's 2004 novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, his new book comes to Britain with rave reviews. According to the New York Times: "Greer's considerable gifts as a storyteller ascend to the heights of masters like Marilynne Robinson and William Trevor." Whatever Greer inherited from his grandmother, it wasn't her shortcomings as a narrator. Greer is only 37 and John Updike has already compared him to Proust and Nabokov for his "perfumed, dandified style of disenchantment". He's a monster of precocity, with a (sickeningly well-founded) confidence in his talent scarcely imaginable among his transatlantic peers.
In the book, the eerie domestic calm of Pearlie Cook's marriage to her husband Holland in early 1950s San Francisco is disturbed by an elegantly dressed gentleman caller named Buzz. He has come not just to tell Pearlie that he and Holland were together during the war (he never, Pearlie notes, uses the word "lovers"), but also that he has "a proposal". It's not quite an indecent one, but it's pretty wild. He will give her $100,000 if she agrees to allow him to take her husband away, probably to New York, where a gay couple might just find a sympathetic corner to build a life together. She will be able to raise her boy Sonny in unimagined luxury, and spare him the shame of it becoming known that his daddy is homosexual. How can she refuse?
"In 1953, when the story is set, women did make sacrifices of this kind: she would have wanted to protect her son. Dad being exposed as gay would have been another mark against her son. It still goes on, that kind of naming and shaming of gay people," says Greer. Not, surely, in San Francisco? "No, but when I was living in Montana 10 years ago, they were trying to pass a law to put lesbians and gay men on the sex-offenders register." No! "Oh yes," says Greer. "My country is nothing if not diverse."
What is especially engaging about the book is that Greer decided to ventriloquise Pearlie. It's rare enough for a male novelist to attempt the first-person narration of a woman protagonist. It's surely singular for a gay man to tell the story of how a straight woman's world is turned upside down by a gay man, from her perspective.
But there's a twist. In fact, this is a book of thrilling twists that make it quite hard to write about without blabbing things readers might enjoy discovering for themselves. Pearlie and Holland are African American, while Buzz is white. The reader wonders: how can Greer, the juggler, keep adding balls - motherhood, race, sexuality, war, first-person narration of a historical persona of whose mindset he can have only the faintest glimmer - without dropping them?
Despite the book coming in at under 200 pages, there is so much in it, and it is written in such an elliptical, lyrical style, that it doesn't so much demand to be read as re-read. It is a complex novel set in the ueasy American era of the Korean war, red scares, Senator McCarthy and the execution of the Rosenbergs - Greer insists the 1950s was a fearful decade. "Some people think of the 50s as a time of innocence, but they are misremembering it or reinventing it: if you look at the papers of the time, they are filled with dread and anxiety." About what? "The shame of not being able to beat the communists in Korea. The fears of race and of sex. Fear is the main thing: people think of Eisenhower as this lost father of a president, but he advocated burning Karl Marx's books."
But what does Greer know of this time and those people's struggles? He was born in 1970 in Washington DC to two scientists. "They both told me the 50s were dreadful." He has also clearly spent a lot of time reading up on the era, the fraught period before the civil rights movement, Vietnam, women's liberation, rock'n'roll and queer politics.
Isn't it presumptuous of you, I ask Greer, to write a black woman's story? "Yes! I knew what I wasn't going to do was to pretend to cover the African-American experience. That was not for me to do. And I wasn't going to write her as a representative African-American woman. That would be insulting." Instead, he tried something more daring: Pearlie is an exceptionally well-read woman (how many poor, non-college-educated twentysomething Kentuckians in the 1950s would have read Flaubert and Ford Madox Ford?). "So, yes, I am presumptuous, but I wanted to have an imaginative empathy with her."
Holland and Pearlie are an odd couple, the only black family living in Sunset, which is the only district of San Francisco, Greer gleefully relates, that the government reckoned would survive a nuclear attack. They have attempted to escape their shameful Kentucky pasts (in which Holland was locked in his bedroom by his mother to avoid the Korean war draft and Pearlie had been snitching on her workmates for government agencies) and to deracinate themselves.
This, I suggest to Greer, is hardly Armistead Maupin's San Francisco, a sunny city of hedonistic sexuality. Sunset even has its microclimate - cold, even in summer, and frequently consumed by fog. "You should see it - it's a network of small houses with little yards stretching right to the ocean. Not quite suburban, but where, after the war, families could build their little fortresses against the world." It sounds great: a fog-bound zone of tepid couples devoid of community spirit, locked in festering relationships. It is here, nonetheless, where Greer sets his story.
In one scene, Pearlie finds herself outside a bar called the Black Cat, part of San Francisco's nascent gay scene but where incoming transvestites are obliged by bouncers to wear badges announcing: "I am a man." Later, she stands outside the newly opened City Lights Bookstore and feels a change coming on, one long sought by those alienated from America's often straight, white, paranoid, male, conservative national narrative: "It was as if part of the body was stirring, moving very slowly to rouse the rest. Some change was coming; I was part of it. The way we lived would not do, would not hold."
Pearlie isn't talking overtly about her strange marriage, but she might as well be. How she and Holland live together, burdened nightly by unspeakable secrets as they sit silently listening to the radio, is one of the book's mysteries. Each is inscrutably passive, which - again - is a challenge for Greer: how do you write about non-communication, how do you dramatise the book's main point - the essential unknowability of even those we love best? At one point Pearlie reflects on marriage, to my mind harrowingly: "At the time, my sense was that marriage was like a hotel shower: you get the temperature right and someone just beyond the wall turns on his shower and you're stung with ice water, you adjust the heat only to hear him yelp from pain, he adjusts his, and so on until you reach a tepid compromise that both of you can endure."
Isn't this a gay writer's scathing critique of heterosexual marriage - at least as it was once practised - where secrets and lies fester unexamined for decades? "You may think so," laughs Greer. "But I thought there was something true about it that applies to all long-term relationships. Not the whole truth of course."
The book has attracted some dissenting reviews, most significant being Updike's in The New Yorker (the very place where, four years ago, he made Greer a star with his eulogy to The Confessions of Max Tivoli). Updike wrote: "The Story of a Marriage is a sentimental, overwritten, overcalculated novel that nevertheless proves moving in the end, pulling all its prevarications and flourishes into an affirmation of the unideal everyday as it was experienced 50 years ago and, possibly, as it is even now."
How does he respond to that? "When Updike wrote that, it was like having a father admonish you. But he loved Max Tivoli, so if I take the praise, I have to take the criticism. It's not as overwritten as my previous book, which I did that way for the fun of it. My language is certainly heightened and intense, but I wouldn't have it any other way." Quite possibly, this is Edmund White's fault. Novelist and critic White taught Greer literature at Brown University. "There's a lyrical writer and I learned a lot from his literary taste. He supervised my thesis, which was a novel. Fellow students made fun of it because it was written so lyrically. It was a time when everybody seemed to aspire to write like Raymond Carver."
Greer likes to set himself formidable literary challenges. The Confessions of Max Tivoli had an eponymous hero who was ageing in reverse. His latest book revels in imaginative complexity. Greer tells me that in his next novel, which he has just started, he has set himself a huge, though undisclosable, challenge.
"With each book I'm trying to do something that terrifies me," he says. I wouldn't expect anything less.
· The Story of a Marriage is published by Faber, £12.99