The Name of Love
In this panic over naming, we can see a homology between Jim Willard's fears and those of today's social conservatives. In the military context, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the now-infamous compromise over gays in the armed services, tacitly allows private homosexual sex so long as it is never mentioned or discussed publicly. Similarly, in the marriage debate, having lost the battle over the basic right of people to engage in voluntary same-sex conduct, both in the court of public opinion and now, with this past summer's decision in Lawrence v. Texas, in the Supreme Court itself, the right wing is digging in its heels over the question of what recognition or name that love will be granted in the public square. On both the military and the marriage front, then, the issue is no longer about sex per se but rather the publicity it receives. In legal-theory terms, the battle is no longer over conduct but status. Fifty years earlier, The City and the Pillar seems to have intuited that when it comes to homosexuality in this country, this is where the real struggle lies, not only in the realm of national politics but in the psyche of the American male.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the novel has often been described as being unapologetic about homosexuality. To the extent that it shows two young men having sex and not feeling terribly bad about the fact, this is accurate. But it would be a serious mistake to think it is an early literary banner for gay rights or a gay identity. On the contrary, the novel is shot through with an admiration for men who eschew that label and behave in a traditionally masculine fashion. In this sense, the book can be seen as a forerunner to modern gay culture's fetish relation to a certain parody of "real manhood" as embodied in a thousand commercial images of strapping muscles, military buzz cuts and tough-guy stares. Put rather crudely, Jim and Bob's riparian adventure would make a great hit in today's gay pornography: They're not gay, but they do it anyway.
One supposes that the tension between his family's early political ambitions for him and his own sexual preferences created in Vidal a particularly acute awareness of the line between conduct and status. There was no question of feeling guilty about the former ("As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of [sexual] guilt, a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt," he writes in his memoir). The status, on the other hand, could end your career, and Vidal knew it. Whatever its source, this negative capability on his part to celebrate the unlabeled act of sexual love between men while keeping his main character somehow aloof from the status such an act connotes is part of what makes the book still such a relevant text in understanding how and why men identify with or distance themselves from the public expression of sexual liberty. Relevant because no matter how complete the victories in gay rights become, each young man or woman is still confronted with the dilemma of whether to adopt the presumptive association between act and identity and describe themselves as gay. The resistance to this presumption has already shown itself in the form of queer activism, and will no doubt change as time goes on. Whatever the legal landscape, the tension over what place a named sexual orientation has or should have in self-understanding and self-description isn't going anywhere.
The "word Collins had shouted after him was hardly apt. It couldn't be. It was too monstrous. Yet because it had been said, he could never see Collins again." Following this moment of panic in Seattle, our hero leaves ship life behind and heads to Los Angeles. The next hundred pages of the novel take Jim to Hollywood, Mexico and New York and far into the gay underworld. These sections are among the strongest in the book. They combine a sort of documentary account of postwar gay life and its new, relative openness with Vidal's nascent genius for social satire. Jim becomes the kept boy of the closeted matinee idol Ronald Shaw, an endlessly vain, self-involved fellow. In his dressing room on the studio lot, "Shaw patted a muscular thigh with obvious affection. 'That's what they want out there in the dark and I got it.'" Vidal's take on America as a carnival of sex, power lust and hypocrisy, "a sanctimonious society of hustlers," as he recently called it on American Masters, is coming into early view, though interestingly here it is tinged with an empathy for those who act in the carnival, something his public comments don't always suggest. Narcissistic and unpleasant as he may be, Ronald Shaw is a sad figure, someone we are meant to pity.
Though he travels through these worlds, Jim Willard is not quite of them. Shaw is drawn to him precisely because he's not like the others. He's not effeminate but "natural and...unscheming." In other words, he looks and acts like a straight guy. Paul Sullivan, the handsome but tortured literary writer who has temporarily sold his soul to Hollywood, is attracted to the same quality in Jim and lures him away from Shaw. At a party for Sullivan's new novel back in New York, Vidal, already a cynic about publishing, has Jim overhear the bitchy chatter of editors. "I suppose there will be war novels. The real horror of war is the novels which are written about it."
One marvels at the worldliness of a 21-year-old who could pen such a wicked, jaded line. Certainly Jim Willard couldn't have. Vidal invests his hero with an innocence and naïveté that he himself no longer possesses, though he is as young. Which brings me to what I think is going on in the jarring and to this day still radical final scene in the book.