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literature

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Novel: Gay Male  
 
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Something close to despair pervades each novel: Both are obsessed with liquor and death. The City and the Pillar opens with twenty-five-year-old Jim Willard getting blind drunk in a bar; the second chapter goes back to his adolescence and his one moment of supreme sexual joy with his best friend, Bob Ford; subsequent chapters lead back to the opening scene. We learn that Jim is getting drunk because he has just killed Ford, who, meeting Jim after many years, now contemptuously spurns Jim's love.

The novel is not just about failure to deal with one's own sexual nature, but is also about the fatal consequences of remaking a memory of the past into a dream of the future.

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This account is of the first version of the novel; it was a pioneering work and as such has historical as well as literary interest. (We learn, for instance, that the word gay was in common use at that time--1948--as self-description among New York homosexuals.)

In Giovanni's Room, the first-person narrator, an American in Paris by the name of David (also known as Butch) is a confused and unpleasant young man. He first meets Giovanni in a gay club where the boy tends bar. David believes he has been in but not of the homosexual subculture of Paris; when he meets Giovanni, both are instantly smitten.

But David cannot accept the implications of his feelings; he tells himself that the relationship with Giovanni, the time spent in Giovanni's room, is just an interlude until his girlfriend returns from Spain. When she does, David's self-imposed heterosexuality fails him, and they are driven to mutual loathing.

Meanwhile, Giovanni has been convicted of the murder of Guillaume, the bar owner, who wants Giovanni as his kept boy. The novel opens on the day of Giovanni's execution, but we are to see David as a tragic victim too: a victim of his own fear of commitment and of his bottomless capacity for fooling himself.

A gay reader might take up Vidal or Baldwin glad that a major fact of his being could now be discussed in fiction, and put them down angered and saddened by their portrayals of inevitable misery.

A different novel entirely is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964). Written by a transplanted Englishman living in California about a transplanted Englishman living in California, it shows a man well-adjusted within himself and capable of functioning in ordinary (straight) society.

Fully cognizant of his nature, George does not fall into fantasies about himself (although he can fantasize vividly about boys he sees); capable of self-mockery, he is not drenched in self-contempt. He is even amused at the pedestrianism of the heterosexual world around him.

George's lover has died some time since, and thus he is a single man in the most literal way. He is a college teacher, and when, toward the end of the novel, he meets one of his students in the bar where he and his lover first met, it seems that a new relationship or at least an adventure is in the offing. But it passes away.

George appears to die at the end of the novel (the passage is rendered in conditional terms), but even so, A Single Man is a highly positive work, a portrait of a day in the life of a gay man who is unimpaired in his dignity and self-esteem.

Another novel that caused some stir in 1964 was John Rechy's City of Night, which throws us back into the demimonde of "deviant" sex. As the title suggests, it portrays a dark world of hustlers, drag queens, impersonal furtive sex, and lovelessness. Written in a tone and style that clearly show the influence of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, City of Night has the quality of a documentary or exposé.

Certainly it was then the fullest exploration of that mostly urban sexual subculture that is its subject, although the work of Hubert Selby, Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn [1964] and later titles) has a similar grittiness.

Likewise, the even earlier work of William S. Burroughs such as Naked Lunch (1959), with its kaleidoscopic presentation and its hallucinogenic mixture of drugs, sex, and death, hit like a shock wave. For all its impact, Burroughs's fiction suggested that the world of the homosexual was a fairly weird, very much a foreign, place.

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