Gore Vidal may have died last July, but he left behind a body of work that continues to speak volumes, both politically and ethically (if you can really separate the two). I was able to see the new Broadway production of his 1960 play The Best Man last Friday and I found I had a copy of his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar (the revised 1965 edition) sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. While the novel may feel a bit dated (though it was quite ahead of its time), the play is remarkably prescient.
Set at an unspecified Presidential primary in 1960, The Best Man could easily have been set just last week (or this coming week), the speeches by the character of Senator Cantwell to the press corps might have come right out the mouth of Paul Ryan. But it was also terrific theater – tightly constructed with an engaging dramatic situation that highlighted Vidal’s themes; smart, winning dialogue; a number of terrific character roles; and an energetic cast having a wonderful time. The only thing I might get rid of is that second intermission, which my friend Tony rightly described as a “buzzkill.” It’s the kind of play that we don’t get to see too much of anymore – partly because of the economics of the cast size, but partly because what makes it so enjoyable (its tight construction) is viewed as outdated and old-fashioned. Well, we should all be so old-fashioned that our work is remarkably refreshing and politically current half a century after it first appears.
Which brings me to Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar. It too has an old-fashioned feel, if only because it’s a gay coming of age story. It also may offend some modern sensibilities with its division of “masculine homosexuals” and “effeminate” ones, but it seems to capture what it must have been like living as a gay man in the late 30’s and early 40’s. It also doesn’t apoligize for itself, which I loved about it. Take for instance this exchange (and remember it was published in 1948):
“Why should any of us hide? What we do is natural, if not ‘normal,’ whatever that is. In any case, what people do together of their own free will is their business and no one else’s.”\
The fat man smiled. “But do you have the nerve to tell the world about yourself?”
Paul sighed and looked at his hands. “No,” he said, “I don’t.”
“So what can we do, if we’re all too frightened?”
“Live with dignity, I suppose. And try to learn to love one another, as they say.”
Isn’t that part of what we’re still trying to do today? Vidal’s book may be best viewed today as something of a history lesson on gay culture, but presents its characters as strong, vital and normal men who want nothing more than any other man.
And let’s not forget the writing. Vidal’s prose are surprisingly simple and straightforward. I’ve only read some of his autobiographical work and was actually somewhat taken aback by the novel’s effortlessness, which I found wonderfully refreshing. But, thinking on it, I realize that the language reflects the plain-thinking, affectless character of its protagonist, Jim. Jim himself is a bit of cypher – relentlessy refusing to let go of the past and ignoring the opportunities that seem to come his way – and the language marvelously replicates this. It’s a short novel, but covers a great deal and I found the savagery of the ending unforgettable. If you’re looking to read something by Vidal, I highly recommend it.