Chapter One starts with Jim Willard, sitting at a table in a bar, alone, and getting drunk. This is the frame. Chapter 2 is the start of the narrative making this a story within a story, explaining what has brought Jim to this position.
Jim is gay. It is pre-war Virginia and homosexuality is so repressed that, Jim doesn't even known that he is gay; all he understands is that he fancies his friend Bob. After a weekend being boys at a log cabin in the wilderness, Bob leaves town to go to sea and Jim soon follows, searching for the man he loves. But he can't find him so he begins an extraordinary Odyssey, starting as a sailor and then becoming a tennis pro in Hollywood, slowly entering the homosexual world, becoming the kept boy of an acto and then meeting a writer, joining the army and then going to New York. Always aware that whatever impulse he has, it has to be kept secret, except from the other initiates in this sub-culture. And always searching for love, his first love, in the person of Bob Ford.
It is a simply told narrative, carefully glossing over the sex (it was published in 1948). It broke literary ground and almost made Gore Vidal unpublishable; it was read with appreciation by Thomas Mann. There are moments when it falters: for example, there is a professor and a writer at a 'faggot party' discussing homosexuality in what strays from being the sort of conversation you might have at a party into a written academic debate. But mostly it is on the money.
Of course it helps that the protagonist Jim is incredibly innocent to the point of stupidity and so all-American (a very good looking tennis professional); it means that he can be educated by the more experienced homosexuals he meets; it makes him a sort of blank sheet everyman who can be shaped by experience. The innocence and the repression are also representative of the time. But the theme of the young American boy struggling to accept himself as a homosexual is very much better done by James Baldwin in Giovanni's Room. But that was written in 1956 and (probably necessarily) set in Paris. As for John Rechy's City of Night, the fictionalised memoirs of a frent boy, that was publsihed in 1963. It was a steep trajectory and it still took years. The City and the Pillar paved the way and for that it should be celebrated.
The City is, I suppose, Sodom, one of the Cities of the Plain in Genesis, and refers to Jim's experiences in LA and NY, and the Pillar refers to the pillar of salt that Lot's wife turned into because she looked back when she fled from Sodom and, I think, refers to the final terrible scene.
It is a little dated in its use of words which might give offence nowadays.
Some great moments:
- "It makes a man so horny he could lay a mule, if it would just stand still." (2.3) Terrible foreshadowing.
- "He realized it would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet." (3.2)
- "You're not like the rest of us who want a mirror." (5.1)
- "Tag ends of scripts tended to work their way into his conversation." (5.1)
- "Primitives don't seem to mind what they do if it's fun." (5.2)
- "If a man wants to be accepted by a barracks, he must listen to a great deal of talk about a very few subjects, and he must accept as a law of nature that, whenever a point is made, it will be repeated a hundred times, often in the same words, rather like part-singing." (7.2)
- "I have such hopes for the afterlife. I see it as a riot of color! And all the angels will look like marines. Too gay!" (9.1)
- "Trade was regarded with great suspicion; in fact, it was a part of the homosexual credo that this year's trade is next year's competition." (9.1)
- "At his feet the water rose and fell slowly, gently, like the breathing is some vast monster." (11)
- "The purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea." (11)
A ground-breaking novel. September 2020; 186 pages
Also written by Vidal and reviewed in this blog: Kalki
Vidal also wrote some classics of American fiction such as Burr, and Lincoln,