Fab cover. Sadly, her charms are wasted on Jim.
What is it?
A novel by Gore Vidal, originally published in 1948, and significantly revised in 1965. My Vintage edition has a 1995 intro by Vidal.
What’s it about?
It’s the story of Jim Willard, a young man from the American South, from his teen years into his mid-twenties, in the late 1930s through to the end of World War II. Early in the novel, he has a sexual experience with Bob, another high school student, which confirms to him the nature of his sexuality. Subsequently, he leads a peripatetic life that takes him to Hollywood, where he becomes the live-in lover of a major screen star, to New York, where he shacks up with a writer of middling success, and back to his hometown in Virginia. Along the way he has a sexually unsuccessful “affair” with a woman, all the while dreaming of reuniting with Bob, his first partner.
That all sounds pretty full-on for a novel published in 1948.
Yeah, especially when you consider how repressive things swiftly became in 1950s America, with the association of homosexuality and Communism. This novel got in just under the wire, I’d say, but of course it was controversial for years.
Did it speak to you as a gay guy in 2018?
It has to be said, a lot of the interest of the novel is historical, in its depiction of how men lived gay lives in the 1940s. It’s pretty fascinating. In some ways it depicts a society where sexual orientation was less defined than it is now. One of the characters remarks that “Everyone is by nature bisexual,” and there is a sense in the novel of a lot of fluidity: there are essentially heterosexual guys who’ll nevertheless have sex with another guy for fun (or money); there are essentially homosexual guys who’ll have relations with women and maybe even marry them, while carrying on with men on the side; and there are the confirmed gay characters, who, it must be said, come off looking like a lot of poofs.
So there we have a world that’s distinctly historical. But then there are the abiding themes of gay lives: the self-loathing (Jim has this in spades), the draw to be what we would now call straight-acting, the repulsion that some gay men feel for anything “effeminate,” the difficulty of attaining a healthy, nurturing same-sex relationship, the crippling loneliness that characterizes so many gay men’s lives. For me, this passage conjured, in plain language, an ever-present reality for queer men and women when we come up against the straight world:
“They talked of marriage, secure people whose lives followed a familiar pattern, the experience of one very much like that of the other. But when they tried to advise Jim, none suspected that their collective wisdom was of no use to him, that the pattern of his life was different from theirs.”
So would you recommend this novel? Does it have things to say to gay men nowadays?
For anyone interested in gay history, the answer is an unequivocal and enthusiastic yes. As far as informing us about our lives today, the book definitely portrays experiences that are timeless—the mark of fine literature—even if the shadowy gay world it portrays is mostly, in Western societies, a thing of the past.
One star. I don’t quite share the opinion of some folks that this is one of the great gay novels of all time. Some of the writing is self-conscious and precious. But it is a complex and intelligent book, and it’s all about homosexual men’s lives, so it’s definitely worth a read—or even a reread.