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Life as Gore Vidal finds it, sans apology

Special to the Times

"I guess there is something wrong with me, Mr. Beckman, because I can't for the life of me see what business it is of anyone else what I do." So says the protagonist of "The Zenner Trophy" -- an exceptionally bright young man about to be expelled from a fashionable prep school over an ongoing affair with another youth.

His words perfectly reflect the sentiments of their author, an exceptionally bright 31-year-old named Gore Vidal -- who not only recalls his school days with great clarity but has made them the key to his art. He knew what he wanted then, about all manner of things both public and private, and has continued to do so throughout his long and wildly productive literary career.

Vidal's affair with a youth named Jimmie Trimble wasn't exposed, and they weren't expelled. But had that happened there's no question he would have responded as his story's hero does. Instead, both Vidal and his "other half" graduated and went on to fight in World War II. Trimble, however, died in that war, living on in Vidal's memory and his art -- most notably in Vidal's memoir "Palimpsest" (1995).

The stories in "Clouds and Eclipses" are an important part of that art, born as they were of that pivotal postwar period, 1945 to 1950, that Vidal now calls "The Golden Age." The world was at peace, and America was a lively place to be for an artist -- especially a writer. A new generation had sprung up from the war's ashes anxious to write about all sorts of things -- same-sex relations being one of them.

No, not as a "problem" or even a "subject" -- simply as a given of everyday life. Most of the stories in "Clouds and Eclipses" touch on same-sexuality in one way or another. But Vidal was scarcely alone in this. Think of J.D. Salinger in "Just Before the War With the Eskimos" (one of the liveliest of his "Nine Stories") and Paul Bowles in his truly scandalous "Pages From Cold Point" (about a youth seducing his own father). And then there's "Other Voices, Other Rooms" by Vidal's nemesis Truman Capote -- a "coming out" story almost as eyebrow-raising as the original dust-jacket photo of its author.

Clearly there was a postwar market for stories with "homosexual themes" dealt with in "discreet" and "tasteful" fashion. And this phenomenon wasn't confined to serious literature alone. At the movies there was "Rope," Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's play a clef about the Leopold and Loeb case, given a rewrite by Arthur Laurents and starring Laurents' then-boyfriend, Farley Granger.

Famously insisting that "homosexual" is not a noun and declaring the universality of bisexuality, Vidal has been resistant to the term "gay," and while sympathetic to the "liberation" movement has maintained some distance from it. For Vidal it's all very simple, really. He saw no need to apologize for or "explain himself," even then. Moreover he thinks every citizen, regardless of sexual particulars, should feel the same way.

As many historians and commentators have observed, World War II was a turning point in American society, with the reality of same-sex affection confronted in the course of the war. The works mentioned above clearly reflected that awareness. What brought this free and easy sexual sophistication to an end was the Cold War, many of whose signal figures indulged in what Cole Porter liked to call "the urge to merge with a splurge." Hence same-sexuality went from "chic" to "toxic" almost overnight. Once open bars and clubs turned into Mafia-run speak-easies. Even private homes became targets when in 1950 a young man later known to the world as Tab Hunter was arrested for "disorderly conduct" in a police raid of an all-male party.

That things would come to this sad pass Vidal became wise to early on when the New York Times took grave exception to his 1948 novel "The City and the Pillar." Even though its tale of same-sex love ended unhappily, those lovers just enjoyed themselves too damned much. At the same moment his friend Tennessee Williams was facing opprobrium for "A Streetcar Named Desire." Their work evolved on different but in many ways complementary lines, because neither supported the status quo.

Happily this collection finds them together again in a most curious fashion. For the story that gives this collection its title was written in 1953 but never published at the time. According to Vidal, an archivist at Harvard's Houghton Library "discovered it among my papers" and brought it to his attention. The story deals with a minister being blackmailed over an affair with a young woman. It was inspired, however, by what Williams had told Vidal about his maternal grandfather, who had been blackmailed over an affair with a young man. Even though he altered the gender of the inamorata, Williams asked Vidal to withhold publication for fear that the old man might learn of it. Yes, he was blind, but his sister -- Williams' mother and his source of both artistic inspiration and personal woe -- might tell him about it.

This collection shows that had he wished, Vidal could have made a career as a short-story craftsman. "Three Stratagems" begins in a mode reminiscent of "Rashomon" as it relates in tripartite fashion an incident in Key West involving a well-heeled male hustler, his prospective john and another hustler with designs on trumping the first. But it takes an unexpected turn when the first hustler has an epileptic seizure in midpitch, inadvertently touching the john's heart: "I had never actually hoped to encounter my ghost except in that feverish period between waking and sleeping when degrading and marvelous visions compensated me for the days of nothing, for the days of approximation."

There's an almost Jamesian irony to all of this -- the "almost" factor being that Henry James was far more fastidious about sexual matters than the freewheeling, albeit discreet, Vidal.

Elsewhere in the volume one can find Vidal in "A Moment of Green Laurel" toying with themes he'd bring to fruition in "Washington, D.C." Most entertaining of all, "Erlinda and Mr. Coffin" -- the story of a singularly creepy couple (an older gentleman and his "ward") -- finds Vidal beating Capote at his own game with its bizarre characters and surprise ending.But the most fun is to be found in "Pages From an Abandoned Journal," a tale clearly inspired by the life of Denham Fouts -- an international boy toy of such charm and renown as to be immortalized by Christopher Isherwood, Gavin Lambert and Capote in the famously "unfinished" "Answered Prayers." Vidal finds his protagonist in Paris sinking into a stupor of drugs, recalling his glory days as demimondain. Here too we get a sketch for what Vidal would fill out later in "The Judgment of Paris," the novel where he found his tone of voice -- even though the New York Times dismissed his singing.

But Vidal was one jump ahead just like the hero of "The Zenner Trophy." While school officials chatter over "this distasteful business," the boy at the center of the storm is calm as can be. After all, his grades are such that he will have no trouble getting into a good college. As for his friend, "Oh, he's coming on to the university with me. He's got a high school diploma, too. He won't have any trouble getting in."

Yes, he's figured out all the angles -- as has his creator.

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