A literary cause célèbre when first published more than fifty years ago, Gore Vidal’s now-classic The City and the Pillar stands as a landmark novel of the gay experience.
Jim, a handsome, all-American athlete, has always been shy around girls. But when he and his best friend, Bob, partake in “awful kid stuff,” the experience forms Jim’s ideal of spiritual completion. Defying his parents’ expectations, Jim strikes out on his own, hoping to find Bob and rekindle their amorous friendship. Along the way he struggles with what he feels is his unique bond with Bob and with his persistent attraction to other men. Upon finally encountering Bob years later, the force of his hopes for a life together leads to a devastating climax. The first novel of its kind to appear on the American literary landscape, The City and the Pillar remains a forthright and uncompromising portrayal of sexual relationships between men.
About the Author
Hometown:La Rondinaia, a villa in Ravello, Italy; and Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:October 3, 1925
Place of Birth:West Point, New York
Education:Attended St. Albans. Graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, 1943. No college.
Read an Excerpt
THE MOMENT WAS STRANGE. There was no reality in the bar; there was no longer solidity; all things merged, one into the other. Time had stopped.
He sat alone in a booth, listening to the music which came out of a red plastic box, lighted within. Some of the music he remembered from having heard it in other places. But the words he could no longer understand. He could recall only vague associations as he got drunk, listening to music.
His glass of whiskey and water and ice had slopped over and the top of the table was interesting now: islands and rivers and occasional lakes made the top of the table a continent. With one finger he traced designs on the wooden table. He made a circle out of a lake; he formed two rivers from the circle; he flooded and destroyed an island, creating a sea. There were so many things that could be done with whiskey and water on a table.
The jukebox stopped playing.
He waited a long time for it to start again. He took a swallow of the whiskey to help him wait. Then after a long time, in which he tried not to think, the music started. A record of a song he remembered was playing and he allowed himself to be taken back to that emotional moment in time when . . . when? He tried hard to remember the place and the time, but it was too late. Only a pleasant emotion could be recalled.
He was drunk.
Time collapsed. Years passed before he could bring the drink to his mouth. Legs numb, elbows detached, he seemed to be supported by air, and by the music from the jukebox. He wondered for a moment where he was. He looked about him but there were no clues, only a bar in a city. What city?
He made a new island on the tabletop. The table was his home and he felt a strong affection for the brown scarred wood, for the dark protectiveness of the booth, for the lamp which did not work because there was no bulb in the socket. He wanted never to leave. This was home. But then he finished his drink, and was lost. He would have to get another one. How? He frowned and thought. A long time went by and he did not move, the empty glass in front of him.
At last he came to a decision. He would leave the booth and go talk to the man behind the bar. It was a long voyage but he was ready for it.
He stood up, became dizzy, and sat down again, very tired. A man with a white apron came over to his table; he probably knew about liquor.
"You want something?"
Yes, that was what he wanted, something. He nodded and said slowly so that the words would be clear, "Want some whiskey, water, bourbon, water . . . what I been drinking."
The man looked at him suspiciously. "How long you been here?"
He didn't know the answer to that. He would have to be sly. "I have been here for one hour," he said carefully.
"Well, don't go passing out or getting sick. People got no consideration for others when it comes to doing things like that for other people to clean up."
He tried to say that he did have consideration for others but it was no use. He could not talk anymore. He wanted to get back home, to the tabletop. "I'm OK," he said, and the man went away.
But the top of the table was no longer home. The intimacy had been dispelled by the man with the apron. Rivers, lakes, islands, all were unfamiliar; he was lost in a new country. There was nothing for him to do except turn his attention to the other people in the barroom. Now that he had lost his private world, he wanted to see what, if anything, the others had found.
The bar was just opposite him and behind it two men in white aprons moved slowly. Four five six people stood at the bar. He tried to count them but he could not. Whenever he tried to count or to read in a dream, everything dissolved. This was like a dream. Was it a dream?
A woman wearing a green dress stood near him, large buttocks, dress too tight. She stood very close to a man in a dark suit. She was a whore. Well well well. . . .
He wondered about the other booths. He was at the center of a long line of booths, yet he knew nothing about the people in any of them. A sad thought, to which he drank.
Then he stood up. Unsteadily, but with a face perfectly composed, he walked toward the back of the barroom.
The men's room was dirty and he took a deep breath before he entered so that he would not have to breathe inside. He saw himself reflected in a cracked distorted mirror hung high on the wall. Blond hair, milk white, bloodshot eyes staring brightly, crazily. Oh, he was someone else all right. But who? He held his breath until he was again in the barroom.
He noticed how little light there was. A few shaded bulbs against the walls and that was all, except for the jukebox, which gave not only light but wonderful colors. Red blood, yellow sun, green grass, blue sky. He stood by the jukebox, his hands caressing the smooth plastic surface. This was where he belonged, close to light and color.
Then he was dizzy. His head ached and he could not see clearly; stomach contracted with sharp nausea.
He held his head between his hands and slowly he pushed out the dizziness. But then he pushed too hard and brought back memory; he had not wanted to do that. Quickly he returned to the booth, sat down, put his hands on the table, and looked straight ahead. Memory began to work. There had been a yesterday and a day before, and twenty-five years of being alive before he found the bar.
"Here's your drink." The man looked at him. "You feeling all right? If you don't feel good you better get out of here. We don't want nobody getting sick in here."
"I'm all right."
"You sure had a lot to drink tonight." The man went away.
He had had a lot to drink. It was past one and he had been in the bar since nine o'clock. Drunk, he wanted to be drunker, without memory, or fear.
"You all by yourself?" Woman's voice. He didn't open his eyes for a long time, hoping that if he could not see her she could not see him. A basic thing to wish but it failed. He opened his eyes.
"Sure," he said. "Sure." It was the woman in the green dress.
Her hair was dyed a dark red and her face was white with powder. She too was drunk. She leaned unsteadily over his table and he could see between her breasts.
"May I sit down?"
He grunted; she sat opposite him.
"It's been an awfully hot summer, hasn't it?" She made conversation. He looked at her, wondering if he could ever assimilate her into the world of the booth. He doubted it. For one thing, there was too much of her, and none of it simple.
"Sure," he said.
"I must say you're not very talkative, are you?"
"Guess not." The intimacy of the booth was gone for good now. He asked, not caring, "What's your name?"
She smiled, his attention obtained. "Estelle. Nice name, isn't it? My mother named all of us with names like that. I had one sister called Anthea and my brother was called Drake. I think Drake is a very attractive name for a man, don't you? He's in women's wear. What's your name?"
"Willard," he said, surprised that he was giving her his right name. "Jim Willard."
"That's a nice name. Sounds so English. I think English names are attractive. In origin I'm Spanish myself. Oh, I'm thirsty! I'll call the waiter for you."
The waiter, who seemed to know her, brought her a drink. "Just what the doctor ordered." She smiled at him. Under the table her foot touched his. He moved both feet under his chair.
She was not distressed. She drank rapidly. "You from New York?"
He shook his head and cooled his forefinger in the half-empty glass.
"You sound sort of Southern from the way you talk. Are you from the South?"
"Sure," he said, and he took his forefinger out of the glass. "I'm from the South."
"It must be nice down there. I've always wanted to go to Miami but I never seem to get away from the city. You see, all my friends are here and I can't very well leave them. I did have a friend once, a man," she smiled privately, "and he always went to Florida in the winter. He had beautiful luggage. He invited me to go down with him and I almost went, once." She paused. "That was ten years ago." She sounded sad, and he didn't pity her at all.
"Of course it must be terribly hot there in the summer. In fact, it's so hot here that I think sometimes I'll die from the heat. Were you in the war?"
He yawned, bored. "I was a soldier."
"I'll bet you look good in a uniform. But I'm glad it's finally over, the war."
He moved his glass around the table, listening to the satisfying noise it made as it hit scars and cracks. She watched him. He wished she would go away.
"Why're you in New York?" she asked. "And why are you getting drunk? You got everything and still you're sitting here all by yourself, getting drunk. I wish I was you. I wish I was young and nice-looking. I wish . . ." Quietly she began to cry.
"I got everything," he said, sighing. "I got everything, Anthea."
She blew her nose in a piece of Kleenex. "That's my sister's name, Anthea. I'm Estelle."
"And you have a brother named Drake."
She looked surprised. "That's right. How did you know?" Suddenly he felt himself in danger of becoming involved in her life, hearing confessions, listening to names that meant nothing to him. He shut his eyes, tried to shut her out.
She stopped crying and took a small mirror out of her handbag. Tenderly she powdered the pouches under her eyes. Then she put the mirror away and smiled. "What're you doing tonight?"
"I'm doing it. Drinking."
"No, silly, I mean later. You're staying in a hotel somewhere, maybe?"
"I'm staying right here."
"But you can't. It closes at four."
Alarm. He had not thought what he was going to do after four o'clock. It was her fault. He had been happily listening to music, until she came along and changed everything. It had been a mistake, not assimilating her.
She menaced him with reality. She must be destroyed.
"I'm going home alone," he said. "When I go home, I go home alone."
"Oh." She thought a moment, decided on injury and hurt. "I suppose I'm not good enough for you."
"Nobody is." He was mortally weary of her, and sick at the thought of sex.
"Pardon me," said Estelle, sister of Anthea and Drake. She stood up, arranged her breasts, and returned to the bar.
Now he was alone and he was glad, with three glasses before him on the table: two empty, one half full with lipstick on it. He arranged the glasses to form a triangle, but then when he tried to arrange them to form a square, he failed. Why? Three glasses ought to be able to form a square. He was distressed. Fortunately, reality began to recede once more. And Jim Willard sat at his table in his booth in his barroom and made lakes, rivers, islands. This was all that he wanted. To be alone, a creature without memory, sitting in a booth. Gradually, the outline of fear grew blurred. And he forgot entirely how it began:
ON THE WARMEST AND greenest afternoon of the spring, the high school's commencement exercises ended, and boys and girls, parents and teachers, streamed out of the brand-new Old Georgian school building. Separating himself from the crowd, Jim Willard paused a moment on the top step and looked out, searching for Bob Ford. But he could not make him out in the mob of boys in dark jackets and white trousers, girls in white dresses, fathers in straw hats (this year's fashion in Virginia). Many of the men smoked cigars, which meant that they were politiciansthis was the county seat and singularly rich in officeholders, among them Jim's father, the courthouse clerk.
A running boy struck Jim's arm playfully. Jim turned, expecting Bob. But it was someone else. He smiled, struck back, and exchanged cheerful insults, secure in the knowledge that he was popular because he was the school's tennis champion and all athletes were admired, particularly those who were modest and shy, like Jim.
At last Bob Ford appeared. "This year me. Next year you."
"I sure wish it was me who just graduated."
"I feel like they opened the prison door and let me out into the great big world. So how did I look up there on that stage wearing that black potato sack?"
"Don't you know it?" Bob chuckled. "Well, come on. We better play while we still got some light." As they moved through the crowd to the door to the locker room, a dozen girls greeted Bob, who responded with an easy grace. Tall, blue-eyed, with dark red curling hair, he was known throughout the school as Lover Man, a phrase somewhat more innocent than it sounded. "Love" meant little more than kissing. Most girls found Bob irresistible, but boys did not much like him, possibly because girls did. Only Jim was his friend.
As they entered the dim locker room, Bob looked about him with a delighted melancholy. "I guess this is the last time I'll be coming in here."
"Well, we can still use the courts this summer. . . ."
"That's not what I meant." Bob took off his coat and hung it up carefully. Then he took off his tie. These were his best clothes and he handled them with respect.
"What do you mean?" Jim was puzzled. But Bob merely looked mysterious.
The two boys walked the half mile to the tennis courts without speaking. They had known each other all their lives but it was not until this last year that they had become close friends. They had been on the baseball team together and they had played tennis together, even though Jim always won, to Bob's chagrin. But then Jim was the best player in the county, and one of the best in the state. Games had been particularly important to both of them, especially for Jim, who found it difficult to talk to Bob. The hitting of a white ball back and forth across a net was at least a form of communication and better than silence or even one of Bob's monologues.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked up the book because I just wanted to read something while sitting all day in Jury Duty - I got really into the book. I like the main character Jim Willard. I was not able to put the book down. I really love the story. I am trying to hunt down some early edition with the original ending.
There is some question whether the analysis of the success or failure of a novel should take into account the times in which it was written. A novel that was ground-breaking and earth-shattering in its time may only be a decent read now. Is it still great for what it did in the past? Or should it only be evaluated for what it is today?Such is the struggle with The City and the Pillar, Gore Vidal¿s story of a young man¿s discovery of himself as a gay individual. There is no doubt that, in the 40¿s, this was a shocking story. Its frank discussions of sex between men (well, not that frank in today¿s culture, but definitely not unapologetic) was not exactly what people were used to hearing about back then. However, today most readers will no longer be shocked. It will not be a shock that so many leading men in Hollywood are gay, it will not be a shock that there is a gay lifestyle in New York, it will not be a shock that there is a gay sub-culture in the armed forces, and it will not be a shock that there are a lot of gay people out there.So, to stand the test of time, this novel has to be evaluated on the same criteria used to determine if any novel is good ¿ does this tell a compelling story about compelling people?And the answer is no and yes. Without the shock value, the first part of this novel struggles under Gore Vidal¿s skill. He tells the story so simply and elegantly, that the modern reader is tempted to greet it with a ¿ho-hum¿ and the desire to move on. However, Vidal uses a device toward the end of the novel that brings the pieces together (and brings the story to its conclusion) in a way that piques the readers interest. Jim (the primary subject of the tale ¿ the young man learning who he is), after almost dying and then finding the situation will lead to his discharge, sends out letters to all the people with whom he has been involved (in various ways). In this way, we learn their history after Jim has left, and Vidal also brings them back together for the conclusion.All told, this means we have a well-written story that has, indeed, suffered some from changing times. The shock is not there. But a decent story still exists.
The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal The book opens in the present - sometime in the late 1940's in a bar where men looked for men - and the protagonist, Jim Willard, has a flashback of his life. Jim Willard, a junior in high school in the late 1930's in a small town in Virginia, is the oldest of three children in a marriage that could best be described as cold. He's a very good tennis player but is not popular with the girls - not because he's ugly - he's a beautiful blond and muscular man - but rather because he's secretly in love with Bob Ford. Just as Bob is going to graduate from high school, Jim and Bob go camping to a secluded cabin in the woods and they have sex. Jim is infatuated with Bob for life. Bob decides he wants to sail: he joins the Merchant Marine and even though he writes to Jim for a short while, Bob practically disappears from Jim's life. Trying to find Bob, Jim goes to New York City with $75 in his pocket. Out of money and unable to find Bob, Jim becomes a cabin boy on a cruise ship. Jim sails all over the world until he's exposed by a fellow cabin boy, Collins, who calls him queer after Jim is unable to have sex with a woman. After this episode, Jim settles in L. A. where he becomes a tennis instructor at the Garden Hotel in Beverly Hills. He is introduced to the famous actor Ronald Shaw by Leaper, one of the bellhops at the hotel, and starts an affair with Mr. Shaw. Jim can't bring himself to love Mr. Shaw - he's still in love with Bob. Their affair is ended when Jim meets the writer Paul Sullivan who is in his late twenties. Jim is drawn to Paul because he seems so different from the other, more stereotypical homosexuals he meets at Hollywood parties. Bob had married once - although he never consummated the marriage. Again, Jim can't love Paul because he's still in love with Bob. Jim considers Paul adequate for the time being. Paul however, needing some pain in his relationships for artistic inspiration, introduces Jim to Maria Verlaine, who seems to specialize in seducing homosexuals, hoping his relationship will end in a suitably tragic way. Together, the three go to Yucatán, where Maria has to settle an inheritance. Jim actually falls in love with Maria, but he is unable to perform sexually. They remain good friends: lovers in every way but the physical part. This affair is broken up by WWII. Both Paul and Jim enlist. Jim gets transferred to a Colorado Air Force base, where he must deal with his sexuality. Bob ends up as a war correspondent. Due to the cold Colorado weather, Jim contracts a severe case of Strep throat which almost kills him. This leads to rheumatoid arthritis and a honorable discharge with disability benefits. Jim goes back to New York, where he meets Maria and Ronald again. Ronald has been forced to marry a lesbian, Calla Petra, by studio executives to uphold his public image and tries unsuccessfully to become a stage actor. He also introduces Jim to his local friends like the effeminate millionaire, Nicholas J. Rolloson (Rolly) . Rolly has frequent parties where he celebrates his two passions: modern art and the military. Jim begins frequenting gay bars to find sexual relief. Later, he meets Paul at a party and the two start an open relationship, not because of passion, but out of loneliness. In the meantime, Jim's father dies and Bob marries his childhood sweetheart, Sally Mergendall. When Jim finally goes home for Christmas, Jim meets with Bob. Jim is very excited and determined to win Bob back. Jim realizes that Sally wants Bob to settle down and leave the Merchant Marine, but Bob doesn't want to settle down. Jim arranges an appointment with Bob on his next stop in New York, hoping their affair can resume. The resolution of their relationship comes in New York, where they end up on the bed in Bob's hotel room after an all night out drinking. When Jim finally thinks he has attained what he wants, he moves closer. Grabbing Bob's "sex", he panics. Bob is outraged to be thought of as gay, and punches Jim in the face. The two struggle and Jim wins because he is stronger. Jim is infuriated enough to murder Bob but settles on raping Bob and then leaves the room. He then resumes a loveless life... "....Jim Willard sat at his table in his booth in his barroom and made lakes, rivers, islands. This was all he wanted. To be alone, a creature without memory, siting in a booth." (p. 10) The City and the Pillar is the third published novel by American writer and essayist Gore Vidal, written in 1946 and published on January 10, 1948. The story is about a young man who is coming of age and discovers his own homosexuality. The City and the Pillar is significant because it is recognized as the first post-World War II novel whose openly gay and well-adjusted protagonist is not killed off at the end of the story for defying social norms. It is also one of the first modern gay novels where the homosexual man is portrayed as masculine. Vidal set out to break the mold of novels that up until The City and the Pillar depicted homosexuals as transvestites, lonely bookish boys, or feminine. Vidal purposefully makes his protagonist a strong athlete to challenge superstitions, stereotypes, and prejudices about sex in the United States. To further this theme Vidal wrote the novel in plain, objective prose in order to convey and document reality. It is also recognized as one of the "definitive war-influenced gay novels", being one of the few books of its period dealing directly with male homosexuality. Gore introduces the reader to the homosexual terms of the period: "Beards" women who hung around homosexuals, the equivalent of today's "fag-hag;" "pansie" an effeminate homosexual, pejorative; "fairy" an effeminate homosexual, pejorative; "gay" the preferred term for homosexuals; "queen" an effeminate homosexual accepted term; "trade" young heterosexuals who offered themselves for seduction while proclaiming their heterosexuality. (p. 164) Told masterfully from the universal point of view it deals with the foolishness and destructiveness of wishing for something that can never be and to waste one's life dwelling on the past. Vidal believes that love is not achieved easily, not even in heterosexual marriage. When Jim goes home for Christmas after his father's death, his mother talks about her sham of a marriage: "I always believed if you make a bad bargain, you just have to keep it. But when it's over, there's no use pretending that it was the best thing that ever happened." (p. 187-8) It must be said that when the book was written in 1946, the ending consisted of Jim strangling Bob after his refusal to become Jim's sexual partner. However the ending was revised in 1965 to the current form possibly to reflect the changing trends of the homosexual life. I read the book in a day and a half. Could barely put it down. This is a must read for any self respecting homosexual and anyone who cares about us.....
This book was wonderful. The relationship between the main character and his lover is strong in the beginning but you see the decline of jim throughout the novel into a very raw crash. Jim is not all that deeply delved into but some can connect with him on some levels. The book is sexy at parts and sad at others and kept my attention throughout.
First, I would to sing the praises of Vidal's third novel 'The City and the Pillar.' The novel shows the complex world of gay men in the 1940s and allows you see their torment without making any moralistic comment which does not stem from the characters themselves. He shows the normality and abnormality of the life with grace and great control of style. However, some of his secondary characters, especially Sullivan and Maria, become more interesting than Jim. In several places he (Jim) seems like an necessary expedient to tell other character's stories. Also Jim's naiveté, which Vidal says he intended, almost boarders on the unbelievable. However, this novel shows the great able to illuminate American society which he will focus on in his later historical fiction.