The Name of Love
This lingering memory of young love has its seeds in the author's own youth. While a weekly boarder at St. Albans prep school, Vidal became friends with a boy named Jimmie Trimble. As 13- and 14-year-olds, they had an adolescent love affair, fooling around together at school or at Vidal's house overlooking the Potomac. Soon Vidal was shipped off to another school and the two didn't meet again until they were 17, at a formal dance. "Our bodies still fitted perfectly together, as we promptly discovered inside one of the cubicles [of the men's room], standing up, belly to belly, talking of girls and marriage and coming simultaneously," Vidal recalls in his memoir.
Two years later Trimble died at the battle of Iwo Jima. Vidal returned from the war and began a career as a writer. In Palimpsest, he devotes long sections to Trimble and says he was the one true love of his life, a twin never to be found again. Vidal has spent the past fifty years involved with the same man but says sex has played no part in their relationship. His adolescent affair with Trimble was apparently for him the one and only time sexual and emotional life were joined.
The specter of the dead friend and lover is no doubt the psychic engine that drives The City and the Pillar, though not in the obvious autobiographical ways one might imagine. Rather, Vidal, showing at 21 the signs that he was probably destined to be a writer and not a politician, performs the quintessentially literary act of forcefully reshaping his own world and experience into a new form, one that can forge meaning out of loss. Trimble is resurrected in the novel as Bob Ford; he is made to survive the war; and thus Vidal is able to have Jim Willard meet his love once again.
Their first brief idyll takes place at an old slave cabin on a riverbank. Bob, a year ahead of Jim, has just graduated from high school and is about to sign up for the merchant marine. On this final summer weekend, they spend a day and night fishing, swimming and wrestling together in splendid isolation from the outside world. In this mini-state of nature, the boys frolic naked. While Bob appears unselfconscious of the fact, Jim "tried to fix the image of Bob permanently in his mind, as if this might be the last time they would ever see one another. Point by point, he memorized him: wide shoulders, narrow buttocks, slim legs, curved sex." By the fire that evening they wrestle once more and then comes the moment when the wrestling stops:
As faces touched, Bob gave a shuddering sigh and gripped Jim tightly in his arms. Now they were complete, each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.
So they met. Eyes tight shut against an irrelevant world. A wind warm and sudden shook all the trees, scattered the fire's ashes, threw shadows to the ground.
But then the wind stopped. The fire went to coals. The trees were silent. No comets marked the dark lovely sky, and the moment was gone. In the fast beat of a double heart, it died.
Vidal has disparaged the writing in his own book as "clumsy gray all-American prose," a style he outgrew in the later, more imaginative novels such as Myra Breckinridge and the highly praised historical fictions. He went so far as to revise the original text in 1965, changes the new edition incorporates. While the book is no prose masterpiece, it's a reasonably deft piece of postwar realism that later on in the book has a number of wonderfully executed satiric set-pieces, precocious for a novelist of 21. In the passage above it isn't grayness that we see, but rather a youthful writer's indulgence of the pathetic fallacy as wind and fire mirror the boys' rise and fall from unity. Bob says afterward, "You know that was awful kid stuff we did," and Jim replies, "I suppose so...but I liked it." When Bob says it's not natural, Jim reluctantly agrees, but "again excited, they embraced and fell back onto the blanket." The powerful fear of intimacy between men is ineluctably present, but it doesn't win out over the boys' youthful hearts.
The scene by the river becomes a memory that Jim will carry with him through the rest of the book. This innocent, unnamed affection becomes the rule against which he measures all other versions of love, and all come up lacking. After heading to sea in search of Bob, he ends up on a double date in Seattle with a sailor named Collins. They go home with the girls, but at the moment of truth Jim can't stand the sight of the woman's naked body, and flees from the apartment. "Let the queer go! I got enough for two," Collins calls after him. Jim's anxiety that he might be gay doesn't begin at the river where he lies with his teenage love, but here at the first point in the novel where his desire is actually named. It's the label, not the act, that produces crisis.