Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I always enjoy the surprise that comes when a novel fails to live up to its bad reputation. For years I've heard dismissive criticisms of Vidal's The City and The Pillar: it was supposedly mediocre, poorly written, self-hating, decidedly minor, badly dated, a trashy melodrama, an undeserving succes de scandale... Ignoring this chorus of criticism and finally reading the book, I find it a fascinating, highly-readable, picaresque tour of the continent-size closet that was gay America in the 1940s. While certainly far from flawless--there are a few jarring inconsistencies of tone and point of view, and Vidal had not yet found his distinctive prose voice--the novel is not bad at all and remains well worth reading. Indeed, it's essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the state of American sexuality (and not just homosexuality) at midcentury, during the Kinsey years. (Vidal knew Kinsey, and somewhere in a locked room in Bloomington, Indiana, there is a coded form detailing Gore's earliest erotic escapades... There's also a home movie of the almost forgotten novelist Glenway Wescott masturbating with a dildo in his anus, but that, decidedly, is another story.) From literary New York to cinematic Hollywood, from frozen Alaska to the sultry Yucatan, Vidal's protagonist moves with Candide-like speed along a taut narrative arc that begins in Virginian (and Virgilian, perhaps?) gay pastoral and ends in violence and guilty oblivion. To criticize the ending today is like criticizing the book for being conceived and written during the forties. It's better to appreciate Vidal's novel, like Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, as a valuable window upon a darker time.

Some of my surprise is surely due to the fact that I read not the original 1948 edition of The City and The Pillar (the notorious edition to which most criticisms refer) but Vidal's 1965 revision, now the standard text. He changed the climax from a murder to a rape and might have made a few other alterations (which may have caused the tonal inconsistencies already noted). It would be interesting to compare the two editions page by page to see exactly what Gore changed and try to guess why.

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