The City and the Pillar

by Gore Vidal

In the final days of high school in small town Virginia, Jim Willard has a homosexual encounter with Bob Ford, and he falls for him hard. Unfortunately for Jim, this happens only days before Bob leaves to travel the world as a sailor. The City and the Pillar follows Jim’s journey in search of the man he loves over the high seas and across North America. In it, the author examines Jim’s struggles to understand his sexuality while manoeuvring the hidden, and yet pervasive, queer world in ’30s and ’40s America, and the deep impacts his uncertainties can have on his relationships.

Written in 1948, The City and the Pillar has a reputation for influencing what is deemed permissible in literature, largely because it portrayed homosexual love romantically and because the protagonist was an all-American, manly athlete, not at all the typical queer sissy that was common in writing and other media at the time. And the writing’s terrific––overall, at least. Vidal shows a deep understanding of certain aspects of humanity that he presents with such biting sarcasm that I often found myself laughing aloud. And then, without warning, the heart surfaces, and it becomes a sobering read. While I took issue with what felt like padding or at least a loss of focus in the middle, most of the story’s confident and strong, even down to fine techniques the author employs. (A memorable example is how Vidal uses repetition to underscore insincerity during conversations.)

Far and beyond the most striking thing about The City and the Pillar, to me, at least, is the author’s ability to breathe life into such complex ideas and characters, typically involving understandings of and expectations that come with love and desire. Vidal shows the clashes that occur when these things don’t mesh between those trying to make these deep connections, or at least some sort of a life together. And a major focus is on the tragedy that comes with hoping for the impossible, including during a touching romantic, but asexual, relationship between a gay man and a woman. In short, while I think the book’s far from perfect, it certainly was ahead of its time, and there are certainly many great reasons to give The City and the Pillar a read. It feels like the work of a great talent near the beginning of his career.