“Drugs, dick, disco, and dish—remember?” That’s how the drag queen Miss Mae Mae describes the good times in James McCourt’s 1993 novel, “Time Remaining.” She is on her deathbed, clutching a stuffed bear, and she marvels at how suddenly those words have been replaced by “dysentery, dementia, despair, and death.” Miss Mae Mae’s final quip is relayed by Odette O’Doyle, a “polymath drag-queen diva,” to Daniel Delancey, an orphaned performance artist, as they ride the midnight train to Montauk. Odette and Delancey are the sole survivors of a raucous group of drag queens called the Eleven Against Heaven, which has been decimated by aids. Odette has just returned from depositing the ashes of the Eleven in various European bodies of water: Miss Mae Mae in the Rhine, Miss Faith Healy in the Liffey, Miss Charity Ward “upon still waters in the fjord at Ålesund.” As she recounts the rites for Delancey, she immerses us in stories of the Eleven, and surfaces a singular history of mid-century queer New York.
“Time Remaining” arrived twenty-five years ago, during one of the bleakest stretches of the aids pandemic—shortly after a British study revealed that AZT, the foremost drug for preventing aids in H.I.V.-positive people, was ineffective—and it was praised, at the time, for capturing an excruciating moment. The novel marked a departure from the camp register that McCourt had honed in his first two books, “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” (pronounced “Mardu Gorgeous”), from 1975, the fable of an opera diva, and 1985’s “Kaye Wayfaring in ‘Avenged,’ ” a book of linked stories about a Hollywood star. The critic Harold Bloom called “Time Remaining” a “sad and beautiful elegy,” and included it in the list of “permanent works” appended to his best-selling 1994 book, “The Western Canon.” It is now out of print.
McCourt, who is seventy-six, was born and raised in Jackson Heights. In October, I spent an afternoon with him at the apartment near Gramercy Park that he has shared with his partner, Vincent Virga, since 1978. Their decorative philosophy is maximalist: in the living room alone were an Andy Warhol lithograph, a Holly Woodlawn poster, a signed photo of Bette Davis, and countless “Wizard of Oz”-themed trinkets, among other items. (McCourt frets about what will happen to all their stuff when they die. “That’s what dumpstersare for!” Virga said.) McCourt had recently suffered a fall, and he’d had seven stitches removed that morning. He sat cross-legged on the couch where Susan Sontag, one of his early champions, had spent many evenings, and he launched into a series of stories about the past.
McCourt speaks in endless digressions. In conversation, an account of Stonewall (“there’s nothing like a riot for a drag queen”) might follow a story about the Queen of England at Niagara Falls, or meeting Vivien Leigh, or visiting the poet James Schuyler, one of his mentors, at the Chelsea Hotel. Threaded throughout our chat were stories from the early years of the pandemic, when McCourt joined a group of recovering alcoholics who sat at the bedsides of the dying. The memories remain near the surface, hot to the touch. “I can close my eyes and see David McIntosh wasting away to nothing,” he said, summoning the friend of his who persuaded the L.G.B.T. center on West Thirteenth Street to construct a garden where it had once kept its garbage. The garden still thrives.
“There they were,” McCourt continued, “dying left, right, and center, and I thought, I’ve got to do something.” When he sat down to write “Time Remaining,” in 1991, the character of Odette became the spokesperson of his grief, and the progress of the train a wake for the lost. Some figures in the book are lifted straight from his life, such as Miss Diane DeVors, the camp identity of the photographer Jarry Lang, whose fictional film credits include “Samoan Love Song” and “Leftover Ladies.” Others are composite ghosts. Miss Mercedes Benzedrine, whom Odette recalls wearing a dyed-pink, sequin-covered straitjacket to cocktail parties, embodies McCourt’s memories of Cuban drag queens who fled to New York after Castro’s revolution.
Like any funeral rite, “Time Remaining” is suspended between realms: on one side is the 12:32 from Penn Station to Montauk, and on the other are European waters, where the Eleven come to reside. A scattershot monologue by Delancey opens the proceedings, before we receive Odette’s more lucid transmission. (Delancey’s monologue bears a separate title, and the book is often described as a pair of linked novellas, but McCourt confirmed my own sense that the two sections should be regarded as parts of a single work.) Delancey is choppy, circular, evasive. “The fact is, if you want to know the truth, I don’t know how to do this; I don’t,” he says. Like McCourt himself, Delancey was present at Stonewall on the night of the 1969 riots, but, unlike many of his contemporaries, he never fought in a war, and he never contracted H.I.V. (Neither did McCourt, a stroke of good fortune he credits to his long relationship with Virga. Sontag, who met Virga first, when he was a typesetter at The New York Review of Books, once called the couple “the only argument for marriage I know.”) Many people felt anxious about measuring up to the crisis at hand, McCourt told me, and Delancey likewise feels unworthy of speaking on the subject. Delancey tries to laugh off hisinability to get to the heart of the matter. “It’s an Irish affliction,” he says. “Did you ever hear an Irishman start to tell a story? You want to shout, ‘Get to the verb!’ ”
Odette, on the other hand, is perfectly at ease in the novel’s underworld. A born entertainer, she inhabits each moment like a fresh bid for her audience’s attention. “You’d better be prepared to stay interesting, otherwise, when you’re old, they just throw you away!” she says, quoting Katharine Hepburn. (In contrast to Delancey, she’s a veteran of the Second World War: she wore pearls entwined with dog tags, and toe shoes instead of Army boots, when she landed on Omaha Beach “with all the other stout-hearted men fighting for the right to adore one another—at least, that was my interpretation of that piece of theater.”) The story she’s telling—the novella itself, in other words—can’t afford to be dull, even for an instant; if boredom sets in, then the Eleven are “worse-than-dead.” (McCourt quit drinking after his brother told him he had become boring.)
Like Margo Channing, the aging actor played by Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” Odette has seen her star wane as a fresh generation has entered the theatre. (“All About Eve” is a crucial touchstone for McCourt; quotes from the film pepper his conversation, and it’s cited in all his books.) She has grown alienated from the queer culture that’s emerged during the pandemic, and her estrangement sometimes expresses itself in an ugly resentment—she refers to act/up, the vital grassroots advocacy group formed in 1987, as act/out, “Aggrieved Children Throwing One Uncut Tantrum.” But, like Channing, her rage emanates from a sense of rejection. She’s convinced that the liberation movement sees a survivor like her as “retro masochistic self-loathing detritus of the bad old days.” And, she adds, “Sometimes I want to say to them, May you never see the sights mother has seen.”
However grim those sights, McCourt always renders them in vivid oils, never charcoal. Odette has explicit scorn for George Orwell’s notion that good prose should be like a windowpane one can see through. “See through to what—a brick wall?” “Time Remaining” is like stained glass, “the expanding, unfolding kaleidoscope of the rose window,” as Odette puts it. For readers like me, without firsthand experience of the pandemic, the book delivers a blast of entombed air, at once sweet and fringed with decay. The Eleven take on the lustre of myth, “that which was never true and which always will be.” While it can’t serve as a total commemoration—its community is mostly white, entirely masculine—it preserves a vibrant strain of queer culture that came within an inch of extinction. I asked Harold Bloom whether the book has held up for him; he said that, twenty-five years later, he can still recall his “most anguished reaction” to reading it. The novel stands as “a kind of tombstone for a generation,” he added.
McCourt prepared for our meeting by reading from the book again, and he had “a shivering feeling” on returning to it, sensations of panic and sadness. “It pains me now to read it,” he said. This is partly due to his paradoxical memories of its composition. In the summer of 1991, McCourt and Virga travelled to Crossmolina, in County Mayo, Ireland. Away from the frenzy of New York, he conjured the book onto long sheets of paper in one sustained creative spell. It was, for him and Virga, “as a couple, a happy time,” he said. Writing the book, he was “smiling with tears in my eyes.”
It is precisely such inter-penetrations of bright and dark that generate the novel’s unusual triumph. As the train eases into the final station, one might expect the book to assume a tragic arc. In his 1978 novel, “Dancer from the Dance,” McCourt’s favorite contemporary gay writer, Andrew Holleran, describes the American audience’s “ultimately violent and/or tragic” expectations for queer writing. But “Time Remaining” upends those expectations. Against a vast darkness, Odette’s humor glimmers heroically, like a fragile vein of gold in heavy stone. In the months and years after the book was published, several people told James McCourt that they read it aloud to their dying lovers, and together, in what time remained, they screamed with laughter.