Kids in America – Gore Vidal, Edmund White, Armistead MaupinAugust 17, 2015
Ok, ok – the first line of Tales of the City tells us Mary Anne is 25, and most of the other characters in the book are that age or older. But, c’mon – kids, yeah?
A couple of things I meant to say in my last poofter-books blog: On the back cover of Dancer from the Dance, novelist and critic Edmund White is quoted saying the book “accomplished for the 1970s what The Great Gatsby achieved for the 1920s … the glamorization of a decade and a culture”. Bollocks. A sub-editor should have replaced “accomplished” and “achieved” with “did”, and what the writers have in common is their foreboding about what the future held.
And: It amused me to find, in The Lost Language of Cranes and a story in The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, a reference to Anais Nin (a writer Netty and I have discussed before) living in a squalid “walk-up” (New York slang for a high-rise without a lift). David Leavitt wrote Cranes a few years before he edited the anthology but I’m guessing he noticed the reference in Gary Glickman’s story (Buried Treasure), and I’m guessing Glickman had read Cranes before he wrote his story. Or maybe all that’s irrelevant and it’s common knowledge among the Gotham glitterati that Nin once lived in squalid walk-up. Anyway.
Maybe that walk-up is where Gore Vidal schtupped her.
Vidal’s The City and the Pillar wasn’t “the first gay novel”, but I’m guessing it was one of the first to be a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. “The world-famous novel of unconventional love”, according to the front cover of my 1978 edition, bought secondhand in London (“Anne St Lawrence, 20 November 1984, London” scribbled on the first page). Vidal’s third novel was originally published in 1948 but the book we read today (and I read in London 20 years ago) was Vidal’s substantially rewritten version dating from 1965. Most obviously and most famously he rewrote the ending.
The title is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God in the Bible because they were all homo n shit (or “lacking in hospitality”, if you adhere to modern Christian interpretations. Modern Christians are SO funny). It’s the story of Jim Willard, a not-terribly-affluent late-teens country boy who is in love with Bob Ford, a dirt-poor late-teens country boy. As America nudges its way out of the Depression these two share a weekend of forbidden sensuality in a shack by a river, before Bob moves to New York to look for a job on a boat. Jim, who is insistent that he is not queer or homosexual at all, then spends a number of years being very queer and very homosexual and even “gay”, once the novel’s action moves to New York in the last years of World War II. After years apart Jim, who vaguely comes to terms with his sexuality, encounters the love of his life once again. But Bob is now a married man – and let’s just say it doesn’t end well.
Vidal is – was – is magnificent. I’ve just realised I almost certainly own more of his books than any other writer, although that’s mostly because he wrote so many. The only thing about him that annoys me is his insistence – and he carried it to his grave, in 2012 – that we’re all bisexual. We’re not, as the science is increasingly indicating, and as Vidal’s own novel demonstrated decades ago. The City and the Pillar is the story of a young gay man. He might not like being called queer, or homo, or even gay, but that doesn’t stop him being sexually attracted only to men. Vidal might not have seen it but I, and plenty of other readers, certainly do.
The other slight glitch is Vidal’s refusal to acknowledge the autobiographical elements to the story. He may have done this later in life – they are so obvious – but in his afterword to 1965’s rewritten version, as well as his pallaver about bisexuality, he was adamant it was not autobiographical. Most of it isn’t, but Jim’s love for Bob is clearly a reflection of Vidal’s love for a boy called Jimmy Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima in 1945. Vidal’s 1996 memoir Palimpsest (in which he claims to have schtupped Anais Nin – and Jack Kerouac, actually) dwells much on his unrequited love for a long-lost teenager – the last of many, many photos in the memoir is of Trimble’s gravestone.
A Boy’s Own Story, on the other hand, is undeniably autobiographical. It’s one of the few of Edmund White’s books that I enjoyed (and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading) – its sequel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is as good, while the last in the trilogy, The Farewell Symphony, is enjoyable, but arguably a slide (and not properly edited – it’s maybe three times as long as its predecessors). The three books that precede his trilogy – Forgetting Elena (about Fire Island, apparently), Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole, are worthy but dull and confusing, while the only post-Symphony book of his I’ve read – Jack Holmes and his Friend – is terrible.
A Boy’s Own Story, though – the book that hid beneath my seat at an early-‘90s Amy Grant concert in Melbourne – is superb. It is among the finest pieces of gay fiction I’ve read. Set in the ‘50s (White is 20 years younger than Vidal), it is the story of a teenage boy with a bit of a sex life – there is “cornholing”, there are hustlers, there is a very queasy threesome – and a clear understanding that he is attracted to men, and men alone. In The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard doesn’t want to acknowledge his identity, and at one point even tries to have sex with a woman, but ultimately he knows what he likes. White’s unnamed narrator understands that his attraction to men is societally unacceptable, and he tries to do something about it – seeing an astonishingly dodgy therapist – but he knows what he likes, and he knows what and who he is.
White’s narrator is self-aware, and predatory, and slightly creepy. He is as aware of his liking for books as he is of his liking of men – and in ‘50s America neither of these would have been considered healthy. There is guilt and there is paranoia, there is a desire to change the unchangeable, but coursing beneath these negatives is a confidence that comes (pardon the pun) to its head (pardon the pun) in the book’s last pages. That the cost of this triumph is the betrayal of a relative innocent (although, look, “relative” is, um, a relative term) has always sat a little awkwardly with me. And I’m not sure about the narrator’s icky obsession with finding a rich daddy figure to control and abuse. Nevertheless, this was one of the first, perhaps the first, pieces of gay literature I read, and my god it’s good.
There are those who would say Armistead Maupin doesn’t deserve serious consideration. They would say Tales of the City and its sequels are amusing enough but qualify only as “popular fiction”.
And look, they may have a point, but … Actually, you know what? Fuck off.
I have enjoyed all of the books I’ve read so far for this individual mini-challenge (or maxi-challenge, maybe, except that sounds like a feminine hygiene product) but none of them has given me the joy Tales of the City did. I’d forgotten how good a writer Maupin was at the beginning, in the ‘70s – having read his three post-millennial Tales novels in the last few years, I knew how good he eventually got. It was an unexpected pleasure to read about these characters, back at the start of it all. Some of the things people gripe about – the “product placement”, as it would be called today – chafes, and some of those references are incomprehensible (do new editions of Tales have “notes”, like Penguin editions of Victorian novels, explaining outdated cultural references?). But some of the other objections – particularly the Dickensian criticism that he relies too much on coincidence – are rubbish. The City and the Pillar is excellent. A Boy’s Own Story is excellent. Neither of them is huge fun. Tales of the City is.
Tales is also interesting in its depiction of gay men at a particular point in time. Maupin is gay, obviously, and Michael Tolliver – Mouse – is arguably Maupin’s main character throughout his nine Tales novels – and, especially in the later books, a reflection of Maupin himself. Unlike Vidal’s Jim Willard in the ‘40s, unlike White’s narrator in the ‘50s, Maupin’s Mouse is shamelessly, proudly, riotously gay. There are emotional hangups, sure, mostly concerning romance, but hey – this was the ‘70s, and everybody was having a ball, and nobody gave a thought to the cataclysm that was to come.