"The City And The Pillar and Seven Early Stories," by Gore Vidal. 336 pages. New York: Random House. $24
When "The City And The Pillar" was first published in 1948, it was called "obscene." The New York Times refused to advertise it. What was reasonably certain to be the brilliant political career of its 20-year-old author, Gore Vidal, came to an end, to his senator grandfather's sorrow. In a new preface to this novel, which has been in print for 50 years, Mr. Vidal explains: "in certain notorious lives there is sometimes an abrupt moment of choice."
Precocious young Vidal (this was his third work of fiction) had described homosexual life from the inside, sympathetically and so realistically that no reader could escape the fact that this author knew whereof he spoke. In a major contribution to a genre of which there were few models, Mr. Vidal created male characters unselfconscious in their sexual feeling for each other, depicted as both natural and for them inevitable. The story of Jim Willard's romantic passion for his high school friend Bob is told without apology. "I'm not as different as all that," Jim says.
Mr. Vidal traces the process by which Jim first perceives, then accepts that he's gay. That he desires masculine rather than "womanish" men at first confuses him. In picaresque fashion, Jim wends his way from Virginia to Seattle, to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mexico and New York (the scenes of gay life in New York in the '40s are superb). At the end Jim returns to Virginia for a reunion with a now-married Bob. Seven years have passed. He has chosen one way, Bob another.
Even as Mr. Vidal was correct when he defended himself against the charge of melodrama, in 1965 he rewrote the ending. Instead of having Jim murder a Bob now repelled by his advances, Jim rapes his old friend in a scene uncompromisingly rendered. The burden of years of frustrated longing, of the kind of repression described by Thomas Mann, who admired this book, have exacted their psychological toll.
"The City And The Pillar" is the work of an apprentice novelist not yet wholly in control of the form. There is some amateurish wobbling of point of view, and scenes where the characters obviously become mouthpieces for an author who cannot resist didactically grabbing the microphone: "Why should any of us hide? What we do is natural if not 'normal,' whatever that is."
Yet "The City And The Pillar" remains a profoundly important social document. Historically, it was fresh and extraordinarily courageous. Our culture has perhaps advanced somewhat in its acceptance of homosexuality. But if the world of furtive, closeted homosexual sex is receding, it has not faded sufficiently to render obsolete or dated Mr. Vidal's vision of men who must create an underworld to express their normal sexual urgings even as they remain vulnerable to society's reprisals.
The seven stories included in this volume and written around the same time partake of an arch, mannered and overly intellectualized quality. Despite the interest of their gay themes, they would not have been worth reprinting had their author not become that American icon of literary fiction Gore Vidal. Skip them. "The City And The Pillar" by itself is worth the price of admission.
* Joan Mellen is the author of 12 books, most recently "Kay Boyle: Author of Herself" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her "Hammett and Miss Hellman" will be published next year by HarperCollins. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.