The Name of Love
After splitting with Sullivan and continuing his life as a tennis pro, Jim finally gets back in touch with Bob Ford, married now to his high school girlfriend. They meet once down in Virginia and Jim comes away with his illusions intact, imagining that with Bob still working at sea, somehow his wife can be kept to the side and he and Bob can carry on the love that began at the cabin by the river, a love unmarked and unsullied by the names Jim has been called and the places he has travelled in the intervening years. In the novel's final sequence, the two of them meet in New York and after a night of drinking end up back at Bob's hotel room. Jim carefully makes sure Bob gets drunk while he remains more sober.
At last he draws the conversation around to their time at the cabin; Bob dimly remembers that they fooled around. Encouraged, Jim asks if he has done it with anyone else. "Any other guy? Hell, no. Did you?" he asks.
"No," Jim replies, uttering what is perhaps the single saddest word in the book. Willing to cast aside everything his life has been to steal his way back into the affections of his married friend, the portrayal of Jim hovers here on the edge of a cliché: the pathetic or defeated homosexual. But the scene isn't over. When they finally crash out on Bob's bed, Jim reaches over and starts touching his friend as he has dreamed of doing again all these years. Bob swats him away in anger, calls him a queer and tells him to get out. The long-held illusion is shattered. At which time, Jim Willard wrestles Bob Ford to the bed and rapes him.
There may be other scenes in film or literature of a gay man raping his straight best friend, but I've never seen, read or heard of them. The original edition, in fact, went a step further and had Jim strangle Bob. Critics, along with Vidal's good friend Tennessee Williams, thought the ending weak and out of keeping with the rest of the book. The suggestion was that Vidal had shown us very little if anything in Jim to suggest he is capable of such a dramatic act, and for this reason the scene's violence isn't earned. I disagree. While it may be true that a line here or there would have better prepared the reader for the final act, be it murder or rape, the book is first and foremost about someone living an illusion, placing their hopes in an impossible dream; when it is denied there is an explosion, a violent decomposition of the personality formed on that hope. For all his apparent ease, Jim Willard is a man under pressure, and at the end he breaks.
Like all rape, this one is more about power and humiliation than sex. I have tarried so long with my desire for you, and now you dare to rebuff me? I'll show you who the weak one is. After the act itself, "Jim crossed to the bed and looked down at the body he had loved with such single-mindedness for so many years. Was this all? He put his hand on Bob's sweaty shoulder. Bob shied away from him: fear? disgust? It made no difference now. Jim touched the pillow. It was wet. Tears? Good."
It is a brief but incredibly powerful scene both dramatically and symbolically. For all the book's other merits as a social document, I think it is this utterly unsentimental conclusion that grants it the status of a minor classic. All the pathos of Jim's hope that he could exempt himself from the "irrelevant world" and enjoy a nameless innocence comes to dark fruition in this moment, and while the novel may be light on emotion through many of the more descriptive scenes, here you'd need to be numb not to feel it. The writing has cost the writer something, and it shows. It took guts to write this scene. It took someone as headstrong and brave as Gore Vidal to do it. And the writer's bravery lies not just in risking the portrayal of one young man raping another, symbolically a more radical act than simple murder. It lies also in being strong enough to imagine oneself behaving with such violence against a dead friend.
In his memoir, musing on the years after Jimmie Trimble's death, Vidal writes, "In due course, I wrote a novel in which I described what might have happened had we met again years later. The conclusion was too harsh for many readers, but that is the way American society is and I was a realistic writer until, one day, I realized that there is no common reality beyond desire, the pursuit, and, in at least one case, the achievement of the whole."
Fair to say, then, that in The City and the Pillar's final scene it is not just Jim Willard trying in his frustrated rage to humiliate Bob Ford but a young writer trying to murder and dominate a ghost. Of such doomed, utterly unsought tasks great writing is made.