"Too hot," he said. "Too hot to be wrestling."
and suddenly grabbed him. They clung to one another. Jim was
overwehlmingly conscious of Bob's body. For a moment they pretended to
wrestle. Then both stopped. Yet each continued to cling to the other as
though waiting for a signal to break or to begin again. For a long time
neither moved. Smooth chests touching, sweat mingling, breathing fast
Gore Vidal's third novel, The City and the Pillar first appeared in print in 1948. At the time, it created quite a stir and earned its author immediate notoriety, namely because of the book's content: The story of young tennis player Jim Willard, The City and the Pillar isn't your average coming of age novel. At the time of its debut, it was one of the first novels to frankly and compassionately deal with homosexuality. That The City and the Pillar, with its gay protagonist and focus on underground gay subculture, was written by Gore Vidal, at the time an admired and established writer, created an instant scandal. "To my grandfather's sorrow," writes Vidal in the preface of the revised version of the novel, "on January 10, 1948, The City and the Pillar was published. Shock was the most pleasant emotion aroused by the press. How could our young war novelist...?"
Still, the book sold and sold well. As Vidal notes, "In a week or two, the book was a best-seller in the United States and wherever else it could be published--not exactly a full atlas in those days."
Despite The City and the Pillar's popularity, Vidal was blacklisted. The New York Times refused to advertise it and no major American magazine or newspaper printed a review.
The novel's plot is simple enough. Without giving too much away, it deals with young Jim Willard who enjoys a fleeting sexual relationship with his childhood friend Bob Ford, who shortly thereafter ships out with the United States Merchant Marines. Younger than Bob by a year, Jim still has some time to go before he graduation, and the two lose touch as Jim's letters to Bob return undelivered (having been slower than the their swiftly traveling addressee) or simply go unanswered. Still, Jim is unable to forget their brief encounter and much of his life is characterized his passive search for his lost friend as he drifts through a changing landscape of relationships and cities, always, essentially, alone.
Finally, spending Christmas with his family, Jim discovers Bob has married one of their high school classmates and will soon be returning from sea to take a job in his father-in-law's insurance business. Jim, after so many years, prepares to lay his cards on the table and confront his old friend.
The novel is short, my copy checking in at 200 pages, and a rapid read. It took me two very long baths to finish it and the story was so engaging that I hardly noticed how cold the water had grown each time until after I'd already set the book down. It's a beautiful, sorrowful novel and, though very bleak, Vidal manages to keep the reader, like the protagonist Jim Willard, immersed in unlikely (even doomed) hope.
Nothing about Vidal's prose is superfluous. Fatless and stark, The City and the Pillar is unabashedly sexual and extremely interesting. Vidal goes out of his way to make his Jim Willard and Bob Ford ordinary American men, unflamboyant and masculine. In fact, though Jim's acquaintances throughout the novel range from old Hollowood queens to closeted army sergeants, his own character and general experiences seem to suggest that, far from being restricted to deviants, homosexuality is often the realm of the average and unremarkable. It was perhaps the normalcy of Vidal's characters that upon the novel's publication most shocked critics, who would have likely preferred a stock cautionary tale whose protagonists were less, well, real.
It's important to mention that there are two versions: the original and the 1965 revision. I've only read the revised version, the alterations of which Gore Vidal describes as follows:
I had always meant the end of the book to be black, but not as black as it turned out. So for a new edition of the book published in 1965 I altered the last chapter considerably. In fact, I rewrote the entire book (my desire to imitate the style of Farrell was perhaps too successful), though I did not change the point of view or the essential relationships. I left Jim as he was. He had developed a life of his own outside my rough pages.