Jim Willard, former high-school athlete and clean-cut boy-next-door-, is haunted by the memory of a romanctic adolescent encounter with his friend Bob Ford. As Jim pursues his first love, in awe of the very same masculinity he possesses himself, his progresss through the secret gay world of 1940’s America unveils surreptitious Hollywood affairs, the hidden life of the military in the Second World War and the underworld bar culture of New York City.
With the publication of his daring third novel The City and the Pillar in 1948, Gore Vidal shocked the American public, which has just begun to hail him as their newest and brightest young writer. It remains not only an authentic and profoundly important social document but also a serious exploration of the nature of idealistic love.
The foreword was everything that a foreword should be. It warned of controversy, promised scenes of an explicit nature, highlighted the significance of this as a post-war novel about an openly gay person and generally whipped us up into an anticipatory frenzy!
We discussed the fact that this was the second ending. The first edition apparently ended in murder while the second closes with a rape. The publishers had asked for a cautionary ending which the author refused to give. Altogether dark, but certainly this was something that Vidal didn’t shy from. Some of us weren’t altogether sold by the ending – even the toned down version.
Perhaps temporarily turned as bleak and dark as that strand of the subject matter we agreed that it was refreshing to read a book that contained no abusive family judgement; priest or football coach as a ’cause for deviation’. Though we did continually return to the family dynamic. His mother had such an unhappy marriage – why was this facet so pushed? What was the significance?
Female characters were not as well developed as their male counterparts. Marie doesn’t fare quite as badly as Sally who is a shadow of a character. The I just have a four word note ‘ Two sluts were great’ which I can’t actually remember the context for!
Having said that, we weren’t convinced that Bob would disappear and never have contacted Jim again, especially not when he was writing to his wife. It felt abrupt and not realistic given their romantic ties. For a little while we wondered Jim and Bob would meet up and live happily ever after…course that flew out the window!
We also spent a little time discussing the sex and lack thereof at sea. Clearly the author wasn’t shy about depicting it and the act features heavily in later sections of the book. “It went a bit broke back for a bit” was the comment that made it into the notebook. It had struck us as a little incongruous – we know of Vidal as an elder statesman and political commentator – it was odd to reflect on him as a passionate and controversial young man. We loved the breakdown of ‘types’ on the scene – “you’re new” and how limiting it could be. All the same people time and again. Like cruise ships in the 80’s, discretion was key. There were beards, betrayal and men in denial about their sexuality.
We found this book to be very readable and particularly well written. It’s a circular tale, beginning with a love story and taking that to a most unusual conclusion. The youth and the passion experienced by the characters was depicted so well. We contrasted the obsession with Bob with scenes from the Great Gatsby and sagely decided that all obsession goes horribly wrong.