'Less is Lost' review: Andrew Sean Greer's sequel to his Pulitzer winning novel Greer's new comic novel, Less is Lost, is as funny and poignant as its predecessor. But comedy also arises out of pain and Greer smoothly transitions into the profound.

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Book Reviews

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

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For anyone craving wit and keen-eyed social observation, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a novel to recommend - two, in fact, since the novel she's just read called "Less Is Lost" by Andrew Sean Greer is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Less." Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 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 the 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' 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.

(Reading) 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 600-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: (reading) 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's 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.

(Reading) 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.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of English at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Less Is Lost" by Andrew Sean Greer.

On tomorrow's show, unearthing cases of racial violence from the Jim Crow era - law professor Margaret Burnham founded a project to research cases where murderers were unpunished and, in many cases, their crimes weren't documented in local media or court records. Her book is "By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow's Legal Executioners." I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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