Haplessness isn’t necessarily a quality we put up with in other people. We want them to keep it together. We want them to grab a clue. We bridle at how exhausting they are. “It’s not that hard!” we want to tell them. And yet, on the page, under the right conditions, haplessness is the thing we gather around like a biomass stove and gently warm our hands over. Indeed, if Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Less” is any guide, we will follow the most innocent of innocents abroad and watch him falter again and again — so long as the faltering is presented with a tenderly bracing wit and the sort of narrative cunning that conceals the globe-trotting love story in which it’s engaged.
Now, having postulated all this: How do we feel about a second round of haplessness? In “Less Is Lost,” our hero Arthur Less, “a middle-aged gay white novelist nobody’s ever heard of,” is seemingly calamity-free, living in San Francisco with his beloved partner Freddy. But upon the death of his former lover, he learns he owes 10 years of back rent and has only a month to come up with the sum. It’s a storm that sends him scrambling, in a fashion already familiar to “Less” readers, toward every port.
First he signs on as a judge for an unnamed major prize. (“My advice is not to bother reading anything,” his agent tells him.) Then he travels to Palm Springs, Calif., to interview a famous sci-fi writer, only to be dragged by said writer into the desert for an impromptu family reunion. He inadvertently ingests a psychedelic drug and floods an archaeological site, then finds himself hurtling across the country in a conversion van named Rosina with a black pug named Dolly and an itinerary that may or may not include hooking up with an itinerant theatrical troupe that’s adapted one of his stories and reuniting with the deadbeat father who abandoned him as a child. Accidents and misunderstandings abound, and it is no spoiler to report that Less, at story’s end, cries, “I made a fool of myself!” For that, of course, has been the whole point.
At least twice the book nods in the direction of Cervantes, who surely learned, by putting his Quixote through so many perils, that the picaresque carries perils of its own. If you make a mock hero charge at enough windmills, the reader may tire of both windmills and mock heroes. (Not everyone has gotten to the end of Cervantes.) And indeed, in clumsier hands, the episodic humiliations of Less, “this slapstick, ridiculous, zigzagging queer,” might quickly pall.
But Greer’s thirst for the nomad’s landscape remains undimmed: “The sun, monarch of the Southwest, has been exiled behind the peaks, and the whole valley can now relax into this cantaloupe horizontal glow, which brings out the intricate tooled leatherwork of the mountainside.” And his scene-setting touch is as funny and economical as ever, whether it’s the California columbarium with the see-through nooks or the Maine inn run by the oldest living whaler’s widow or the Alabama roadside bar where an ominous man in an eye patch breaks into karaoke.
To be sure, it’s a curious sort of America our hero traverses. No Trump signs, no MAGA hats. No election deniers, no anti-vaxxers, no covid against which to be vaxxed. And while there’s a splendidly tense sequence of a Black tour guide educating her writhing audience in the realities of sharecropping, I think Greer knows that his gifts, like those of the British comic novelists he clearly admires, flourish best in ahistoric climes. The people and places rising up through “Less Is Lost” could be transported back or forward a few decades without too much trouble and without losing any of their crisp outlines. Spend enough time in their company and you may fall back on the adage that the journey is as important as the destination.
But, as with his earlier volume, Greer has his own destination in mind and, in its final section, “Less is Lost” circles back to a ringing reaffirmation of love — while managing, without too much fuss, to call up our better angels. That hapless guy you avoid in real life? The wretch for whom “ordering a deli sandwich and wrestling an alligator held equal levels of terror”? The one who doesn’t know if his money is coming or going and seems incapable of learning no matter how often he’s schooled? Turns out that, mediated through the page, he becomes something not exactly Less but more: an eternally hopeful figure who can say, without irony, “America looks fine from here,” and whose heroism is both mock and the real deal. “I always think of him as the bravest man I know,” writes his partner, “for who can guess what feats of valor he has overcome simply to arrive at your door?”
Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”
Little Brown. 257 pp. $29
A note to our readers
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program,
an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking
to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.