Skip to main content

Less Is Lost


Less Is Lost

When I reviewed Andrew Sean Greer’s LESS in 2017, I noted a certain similarity to John Updike’s books about peripatetic novelist Henry Bech. And now, after winning the Pulitzer Prize for its predecessor, Greer has strengthened that comparison by sending his protagonist, “Minor American Novelist” Arthur Less, on another odyssey, this time from sea to sea across the United States. While it’s too early to predict if LESS IS LOST will win any prizes, it’s another captivating blend of wry humor and emotional insight that makes for an equally pleasurable reading experience.

Less, “a middle-aged gay white novelist nobody’s ever heard of” who shares his name with a Black writer (the pair of them, in the judgment of bookstores “both too unknown for General Fiction”), unexpectedly finds himself on the receiving end of some welcome attention. The invitations that land in his inbox include a request that he serve on the jury for a major literary prize and an announcement from a group in the Deep South that it wants to mount a theatrical performance of one of his short stories.

"As he did in LESS, Greer ends this heartfelt sequel with a pleasing twist. It’s one of the novel’s appealing qualities that make one hope he might have more journeys planned for his protagonist."

But before Less can savor the sudden demand for his presence, he must deal with a more pressing concern: his impending eviction from the San Francisco bungalow he shared for 15 years with famed poet Robert Brownburn, 25 years his senior, and now occupies with his much younger partner, Freddy Pelu. Freddy is the novel’s narrator, a high school English teacher who’s writing from his vantage point in Maine, where he’s decamped for a writing conference. Brownburn has just died, and although he allowed Less to dwell in the “Shack” (as it’s affectionately known) after their breakup, the late poet’s ex-wife and executor of his estate informs Less on the day of his former lover’s funeral that he’s now on the hook for 10 years of back rent, due in 30 days.

Less’s financial straits launch him on an odyssey into the Mojave Desert with octogenarian science fiction writer H. H. H. Mandern and his black pug, Dolly, in Mandern’s bright green camper van nicknamed Rosina. He’s accompanying the decidedly more famous writer for a magazine profile that will earn him some quick, desperately needed cash. But after Mandern departs, Less heads eastward for Louisiana in Rosina, with Dolly as his companion, to connect with the traveling theater troupe that’s dramatizing his short story, based on his father’s abandonment when he was a child. He’s been told that an unknown benefactor will provide a generous stipend to him for the right to perform the story. A cryptic note from his estranged father stirs his imagination into believing that the senior Less is the mysterious financial supporter.

On the road through a vividly evoked desert Southwest and verdant Southland, “our hero” (as Freddy frequently refers to him) grapples with memories of his childhood in Delaware, a place he likens to “trying to describe an airplane meal you had a half century ago,” and his fears that Freddy may be on the verge of abandoning him for another man, especially after informing him in a phone call that “something needs to change between us.” For all its comic moments, these struggles give the novel a resonance that serves to make it much more than a manic romp.

Less’ encounters with an assortment of quirky characters and his occasional mishaps along the road tend toward the mild side. However, Greer’s consistently keen perception, easy wit and lively prose make for an enjoyable but meaningful trip, one that’s easy to imagine taking cinematic form someday. He skillfully captures his protagonist’s persistent unease as he traverses a part of the country that doesn’t seem especially hospitable, even as it “feels ordinary to Arthur Less not to belong.”

LESS IS LOST is peppered with piquant observations on the craft of fiction and the state of American society. Less, once told by a fellow writer that he’s a “bad gay,” endures a lecture from a Czech editor who tells him that the “problem with American writers” is that “you are all New Yorkers.” As Freddy describes him, in a tone that’s equal parts affection and exasperation, Less possesses an almost childlike optimism that’s a mirror of his country’s, “a mindset so UnitedStatesian you could serve it with ketchup.”

As he did in LESS, Greer ends this heartfelt sequel with a pleasing twist. It’s one of the novel’s appealing qualities that make one hope he might have more journeys planned for his protagonist. If they’re as entertaining as his latest, he can be sure that many readers will be happy to join him for what certainly will be a delightful ride.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 28, 2022

Less Is Lost
by Andrew Sean Greer

  • Publication Date: June 27, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316498912
  • ISBN-13: 9780316498913