The City and the Pillar

Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar (1948)

What it’s about: America, the late 1930s. Jim Willard, a handsome high school student from a middle-class family in Virginia, falls in love with his best friend Bob. The two have sex on a camping trip, though Bob comments later that this is not a “normal” thing to do. Bob leaves school and joins the Merchant Marines. Jim moves to New York and finds work on a cruise ship, and spends several years unsuccessfully looking for Bob. He settles in Hollywood where he becomes a tennis instructor, and becomes the live-in lover of Ronald Shaw, a closeted movie actor. The affair ends when Jim meets Paul Sullivan, a young screenwriter, and he moves with Paul to New Orleans. Jim meets Maria Verlaine, who he attempts unsuccessfully to have a sexual relationship with. When America joins WWII, Paul and Jim enlist in the Army. Jim is stationed at an Air Force base in Colorado, where he deflects the sexual interest of a sergeant and tries unsuccessfully to seduce a young corporal. Jim is discharged from the Army and returns to New York; he re-encounters Ronald, who has moved east to become a stage actor and avoid being forced into a sham marriage by his Hollywood minders. Jim rekindles his affair with Paul, and has a series of one-night stands with men he meets in gay bars. Ronald’s stage debut fails and he returns to Hollywood and marries as instructed. Jim returns to Virginia for Christmas, following news that his father has died. He is finally reunited with Bob, who has recently married. Jim persuades Bob to go to New York for the weekend, and gets him drunk in an attempt to seduce him. Bob lashes out violently, and they fight: Jim overpowers and rapes Bob, then flees the hotel.

Why it’s a classic: The front cover of my edition of The City and the Pillar has a black and white photo of the young Gore Vidal – handsome, composed and with just the hint of a smirk, facing the camera as he straddles a wooden chair. The cover quote, by Bernard Levin, proclaims this as “The first serious novel about homosexuality”. It’s a fitting illustration in more ways than one, since any sustained historical interest in The City and the Pillar is more about its author than the dull and uninspired story he tells. The young Vidal in the photograph seems to know this – you can almost imagine the speech bubble reading “It’s all about me, bitches.”

Published in 1948, The City and the Pillar became an immediate bestseller, and generated an equally bestselling scandal. The New York Times and many other newspapers refused to review it, and it ended Vidal’s aspiring career as a politician, which he was never able to resuscitate. Vidal was, by his own account, aware of the risks involved. In his 1994 Introduction, he writes: “If I published it, I’d take a right turn and end up accursed in Thebes. Abandon it and I’d turn left and end up in holy Delphi. Honour required that I take the road to Thebes.” Leaving aside the obvious pretentiousness of that metaphor, Vidal’s decision was a remarkable act of bravery: by announcing himself to the world as a gay man, in a culture where homosexuality was still illegal, and writing with unusual frankness about male sexual desire, he was truly a ground-breaker. The novel, together with Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, also published in 1948, effectively brought homosexuality out of the shadows, making it impossible for American society to avoid any longer.

Much of the novel’s initial success was due to Vidal’s strategy of placing his story in the heart of middle-class America. “I knew that my description of the love affair between two ‘normal’ all-American boys, of the sort that I had spent three years in the army with during the war, would challenge every superstition about sex in my native land,” he wrote. “Until then, American novels of ‘inversion’ dealt with shrieking queens or lonely booking boys who married unhappily and pined for Marines. I broke that mould. My two lovers were athletes and so drawn to the entirely masculine that, in at least the case of one, Jim Willard, the feminine was simply irrelevant to his passion….” Despite the horrific homophobia and misogyny of that statement (more on that later), Vidal deserves praise for writing a gay man who is unapologetic about his homosexuality and doesn’t seek to “cure himself” through marriage or kill himself discreetly in the final act.

It’s also a notable work for delineating the current of homophobic desire running through male-only institutions like the military, and exposing the secrecy and sexual hypocrisy of Hollywood, America’s leading dream factory. Vidal revealed to a shocked (and possibly titillated) Eisenhower-era America the secret life of New York gay bars and Californian pool parties, and describes the clunky performance of gay men attempting to pass in a heterosexual culture. The City and the Pillar was, in many ways, decades ahead of his time, describing a sub-culture that wasn’t documented formally until the burgeoning gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Shaw is a spookily accurate fictional forebear to Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and many other Hollywood actors who kept their sexuality a secret from their adoring audiences.

Vidal’s narrative hovers somewhere between sympathy and contempt for these generations of men living inauthentic lives. Jim is presented as an example in honesty (“It was important to remain oneself. Even though he could not acknowledge what he was, he refused to pretend that he was just like everybody else“), even as we are made aware of the violent and horrific consequences of his suppressed desires. In this sense, The City and the Pillar is both a historical document and a cautionary tale about the damage wrecked on men forced to live within a homophobic culture.

Bouquet or Brickbat: This is a difficult one. Despite all that’s admirable about The City and the Pillar, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a pretty terrible novel. The language is flat and drained of affect (though Vidal explained that this was deliberate, to better explain his moral lesson to Middle America) and Jim is a monumentally dull protagonist. Vidal goes to great pains to describe Jim’s middle-of-the-road, All-American ordinariness, but it doesn’t make very fun reading to follow him around for 200 pages. His few attempts at poetic or expressionistic language – including the opening scene, where Jim sits at a bar getting progressively drunker and fending off the attention of women – feel awkward and sedentary. He’s much more comfortable as an omniscient third-person narrator, where he’s free to lecture his audience and tell us what he wants us to see. Jason Epstein, Vidal’s longtime editor, once commented that Vidal had “too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist,” and this rings painfully true in a reading of The City and the Pillar. “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” Vidal once quipped, not entirely jokingly. This attitude was fine for his career as an essayist and cultural commentator, but it was death for his attempts in prose fiction.

Then there’s Vidal’s very outdated and frankly quite offensive sexual politics. The athletic and masculine Jim is forever comparing himself favourably to the “pansies” and “faggots” he meets on the scene. “Too many of them behaved like women,” Jim observes at one point. “Often after he had been among them, he would study himself in a mirror to see if there was any trace of the woman in his face or manner; and he was always pleased that there was not.” As contemporary readers, we could give Vidal the benefit of the doubt, and excuse this as simply reflecting the homophobic attitudes held by closeted gay men. But Vidal goes much further than this, parodying the camp patter of his “faggot” characters with enormous gusto and venom. He reserves special contempt for the queens of Hollywood, whom he satirises savagely if very wittily. One poor creature, a Mr Kirkland “was a short man whose real name was probably not Kirkland. He affected a British accent, while his clothes and manner were exquisite and discreet, except for the large diamond he wore on the little finger of his left hand, an outward and visible sign of sudden rise and of unfamiliar affluence.” This is meant to be from Jim’s point of view, but there’s no way such a dull passive character could make those scathing observations. This is Vidal speaking, in full-throttle Bitch mode, sticking it to the “faggots” he despises. Ironically, these passages are some of his best writing, showing an emotional engagement and articulacy that’s lacking in the rest of the book. They also reveal – ho, ho, ho – that Vidal the man’s man was probably closer to the bitchy queens he satirises than he wanted to admit.

The other ugly underside of Vidal’s worshipping of masculinity is a staggering amount of misogyny. Nearly every woman is described as a “whore”, and (apart from Jim’s mother) exist solely as impediments, trying to tempt poor closeted Jim and his friends into bed. Vidal gives Maria a little more attention than the others, but she’s a flat cardboard cut-out of a femme fatale, and never comes alive as a character. Again, one could argue that this reflects the attitudes of closeted gay men of the time, frustrated at having to pretend to be heterosexual. But Vidal is too intelligent a writer to get away with this, and his refusal to give sympathy to his female characters makes this a chilling and often uncomfortable read.

Vidal’s old-school worshipping of masculinity and loathing of the feminine might have been groundbreaking in its day, but feels deeply unfashionable in the age of Queer Theory and #MeToo. I finished The City and the Pillar with huge admiration for its author, and utter relief that I would never have to read such a dull caustic novel again. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in an age with gay writers of a more generous disposition, like Armistead Maupin and Edmund White, who understand and actually like women, and who can write beautifully about the complex and fascinating world of gay-straight relationships. 

Which leaves me only with my rating. Like most things to do with Vidal, I have wildly contradictory feelings. It’s too important a book to give it a Brickbat, and too badly written to deserve a Bouquet. Is there a middle ground – a Brickquet? Vidal always loved a paradox, so I hope he would approve.

Quotable Quote: “It starts in school. You’re just a little different from the others. Sometimes you’re shy and a bit frail; or maybe too precocious, too handsome, an athlete, in love with yourself. Then you start to have erotic dreams about another boy – like yourself – and you get to know him and you try to be his friend and if he’s sufficiently ambivalent and you’re sufficiently aggressive you’ll have a wonderful time experimenting with each other. And so it begins. Then you meet another boy and another, and as you grow older, if you have a dominant nature, you become a hunter. If you’re passive, you become a wife. If you’re noticeably effeminate, you may join a group of others like yourself and accept being marked and known. There are a dozen types and many different patterns but there is almost always the same beginning, not being like the others.”

 

 

 

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