The City and the Pillar ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Jim Willard and Bob Ford are high school friends, growing up together in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1930s. Bob is one year older than Jim; when Bob graduates from high school, he and Jim spend the night together at the river in a falling-down “slave cabin.” During that one night before Bob goes off “to sea,” Jim and Bob do more than sleep. They have a never-to-be-forgotten (by Jim) and much-hoped-for (by Jim) sexual encounter. Of course, they are both “straight,” but that doesn’t keep them from commemorating their friendship with (then-taboo) homosexual sex. To Bob, their night of sexual adventuring has little or no meaning; to Jim it is of monumental significance.
After their one night together, Bob goes off on his seafaring adventures. For the next seven years or so, Jim carries around the memory of his night at the river with Bob. He believes, even though they both go their separate ways after high school, that he and Bob will get together again one day and will be together always. We, the reader, know this is never going to happen.
Jim has plenty of adventures while he is pining for Bob. He ends up in Hollywood, where he has a gay affair with a closeted gay movie star. (This is the most unrealistic part of the novel.) During World War II, he finds himself doing military duty but he never goes overseas and never sees any fighting. When he develops health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis, he is honorably discharged from the service.
Jim’s athleticism and masculinity, his “butchness,” are stressed throughout the novel. He is such a good tennis player that he makes his living for a time as a tennis instructor. Even though he is essentially “in love” with a man from his past, he is always masculine, never fitting into the stereotypes of gay men that were prevalent during the time this book was published (1947). He is not self-loathing because he is “different” and doesn’t destroy himself, either through drinking, pills, promiscuous sex, or self-pity. For that reason, The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (1925-1912) is a groundbreaking novel because it is a positive portrayal of a proudly gay man, written at a time when such a thing hardly existed.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp