The Early Fiction of Gore Vidal: 1946-1956

During his teen-age years, Vidal tried numerous times to write a novel. Fragments of those books remain for perusal among his archival papers at Harvard. Finally, while aboard a World War II transport vessel, and later in a military hospital, he completed his first novel, Williwaw. He was 21 at the time of the book's publication. The seven novels that followed it in the 1940s and 1950s found Vidal trying on a variety of voices and forms and telling a wide range of stories. But none had the impact on his career like his third novel, The City and the Pillar, which made him notorious at age 23.

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Williwaw (1946)
Vidal's first novel - written when he was 19 and recovering from rheumatoid arthritis that flared up during his military service - takes place aboard an Army FS boat in the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. The title is an Indian word for a big wind, peculiar to that region of the world, which sweeps suddenly down from the mountains toward the sea. Such a wind occurs during the dramatic climax of the novel, which explore its milieu in lean, taut style. It's a swift read, with well-constructed characters, and it coolly captures the daily routines of men on the fringe of war. And like many books of men at war, it has a moral ambiguity, although in Vidal's nascent fictional world, there is ultimately no moral reckoning. More than 50 years after its publication, the book remains in print. In the 1950s, the paperback first edition was published under the title Dangerous Voyage, presumably because the word "williwaw" was too off-putting for general audiences. (Read the first chapter of Williwaw.)

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In a Yellow Wood (1947)
After returning from the war, Vidal took a job for several months at Dutton, his publisher. He translated this work-a-day life, which he deplored, into the character of Robert Holton, a young World War II veteran who works at a New York brokerage house and has a promising future. But he's dissatisfied with his mundane life, and during one 24-hour period, he comes to a crossroads - hence the book's title, borrowed from the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. ("Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler.") An extraordinarily observant novel, it's moody, moving and rather melancholy. It also shows Vidal exploring, for the first time, the New York nightlife he'll look at more deeply in future books. The dust jacket for the first edition says of this portrayal: "Vidal is merciless in his dissection of the social phonies, the artistic hangers-on, the frustrated homosexuals." This book has been out of print in the U.S. since 1947 and was last published in the U.K. in 1979.

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The City and the Pillar (1948)
Tired of "playing it safe," Vidal published this novel - against his publisher's advice - and changed the course of his career. The daily New York Times and other mainstream publications refused to review his next five novels, and eventually Vidal turned to writing teleplays and screenplays to make money. The City and the Pillar tells the story of Jim Willard, who goes on a post-graduation weekend in the woods with his best friend Bob Ford. The two fall into an erotic embrace after skinny dipping and spend the weekend having mutually satisfying sex. Bob ships off to war, and Jim, after a stint in the military himself, spends several years in New York and Los Angeles, drifting into relationships with an Errol Flynn-like movie star and an alcoholic novelist, all the while anticipating a reunion with his beloved Bob. But by the time they reunite, Bob has settled into his heterosexual life - the adventure by the river apparently having become for him just a vague memory of boyhood silliness.

Vidal revised this novel heavily in 1965, changing the climactic ending between Jim and Bob in a New York hotel room. The 1948 version has long been out of print. Years later, Vidal revealed that his own boyhood love was Jimmie Trimble, his best friend at St. Albans School when they were both around age 14. Jimmie was killed in World War II, and the dedication on The City and the Pillar reads, "For the Memory of J.T." It's a memory that would haunt Vidal for the rest of his life, and he would return to it often in his fiction and nonfiction. This novel appeared in one more hardcover edition, in 1995, reprinted with the seven stories from Vidal's 1956 short story collection A Thirsty Evil. Many of those stories have homoerotic elements, thus the 1995 volume sought to capitalize on the growing market for gay-themed fiction.

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The Season of Comfort (1949)
Here is Vidal's most autobiographical novel, the story of a young man much like himself, raised in Washington, D.C., by a free-spirited socialite mother who pays little attention to her son. It marks a slight change in Vidal's style, from the gray prose of his first few novels to a slightly more fluid and introspective style of writing. For the penultimate chapter, Vidal employs a technique he calls a "parallel construction." It's a scene in which mother and son shout their anger and bitterness at each other, and their words appear side by side - the son's on the left side pages, the mother's on the right side pages. The central character of the novel, Steven Giraud, has a teen-age affair with a boy in his class at school - the first of many times Vidal will recreate his relationship with Jimmie Trimble. Though out of print in the U.S. since 1949, the book is now available in the U.K. Vidal's biographer, Fred Kaplan, says he persuaded Vidal to allow the book to be republished after so many years out of print.

A Search for the King (1950)
Drawing upon the hours and hours he spent in his blind grandfather's library reading books about the past, Vidal tells the fable of 13th Century King Richard, who is kidnapped by the Austrians and rescued by his faithful court poet, Blondel. In the real story of Richard's capture, a large ransom was paid for his return. But Vidal has turned the legend into a story of friendship and male bonding. It's a minor novel by itself, but it shows Vidal's interest in historical material - an interest that would flourish beginning with his novels in the 1960s.

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Dark Green, Bright Red (1950)
Upon leaving his job at Dutton, Vidal felt he needed to get out of the U.S. in order to concentrate on his writing. He took a home in Guatemala, and his experiences in Central America led him to write this darkly comic novel, with post modern touches, about a fallen dictator whose financial backing from an Amercan fruit company allows him to mount an effort to return to power through military force. It's the first Vidal novel to explore his assertion that the U.S. is an imperialistic nation that uses money and power to destabilize and control the world's governments and economies. Vidal revised this novel in 1968, cutting it virtually in half and thus streamlining its sometimes rambling narrative. Oddly, when his U.K. publisher, Andre Deutsch, brought out a new hardcover edition in 1995, they used the lengthier text of the original edition and not the tighter revised text. In an introduction to the new British edition, Vidal writes of how his time in Guatemala opened his eyes to America's ongoing intervention into Central American politics. The "green" of the title refers to moneyed American interests in the region, and the "red" refers both to the bloodshed of rebellion and the possibility of communism.

The Judgment of Paris (1952)
This novel shows the first blush of Vidal's more mature, witty, engaging style of writing, which would emerge in his essays and in his later novels. Philip Warren is a would-be writer who doesn't have much to say. He's a non-descript young American, and to find himself and his future, he has decided to wander around Europe, where he meets a variety of continental types. He also bumps into Jim Willard - Vidal's protagonist in The City and the Pillar - who has become an alcoholic, drug addict and prostitute servicing mostly older men. In addition to its literal tale of Philip's life, The Judgment of Paris playfully retells the ancient legend of the ingenuous Trojan shepherd Paris, who judged a beauty contest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and whose decision (he chose Aphrodite) led to the Trojan Wars. Vidal revised and tightened this novel in 1961, republishing the revised text first in paperback and then in a hardback edition in 1965.

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Messiah (1954)
Vidal's last novel for a decade was the best of his career so far. Set in the future, around the turn of the 21st Century, and told in flashback by Eugene Luther, its aging protagonist, most of the action takes place in California, where Eugene, adrift in his life, becomes one of the driving philosophical forces behind a religious death cult. John Cave, the religion's central figure, is merely a former undertake who lectures, in his reassuring voice, that "it is good to die." But his disciples - distorting his words, creating false gospels, and selling Cave through broadcast images - turn Cave's idea into a religion that comes to dominate the world with subtly strongarm techniques. This is Vidal's first public attack on religion, and also a prophetic novel in the way it foresees the power of modern advertising and the broadcast image to capture the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Many themes here recur in later novels, and the novel's protagonist, Eugene Luther, who ultimately declares himself to be the true messiah, shares the name of his creator, whose birth certificate reads "Eugene Luther Vidal Jr." The novel's Eugene is also researching a book on the Roman Emperor Julian that he some day hopes to write. A decade later, after time spent as a playwright and script weiter, Vidal would return to the novel with Julian, futher cementing the kinship between his Messiah protagonist and himself. Vidal very slightly revised Messiah in 1965 and republished in a hardcover edition. Many paperback editions followed.

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A Thirsty Evil (1956)
Vidal began his adolescent writing efforts with poems and short stories. As a young adult, he even published a few mature poems and stories in some literary journals. Here he collects seven stories, many with homoerotic elements, in a book whose title comes from a line in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure: "Our natures do pursue, like rats that ravin down their proper bane, a thirsty evil, and when we drink we die." Thus the tales in the collection are often quite dark. In Three Strategems, a middle-aged homosexual learns that his rented catamite is an epileptic. In The Robin, two boys find a wounded bird and put it out of its misery. In The Zenner Trophy, the star athlete at an exclusive boys school is expelled when he's found to be having an affair with a classmate. And in the collection's best story, the magical A Moment of Green Laurel, a man walking around his old neighborhood encounters himself as a boy. Vidal claims Rod Serling stole this idea for a Twilight Zone episode called "Walking Distance" and denied it when confronted about it by Vidal. (You can read the story, then watch the episode and decide for yourself.) Most of the stories in the collection appeared in journals and anthologies before Vidal published them in A Thirsty Evil, although a few appear for the first time in this book. A small and cover somewhat obscure entry in Vidal's canon, it remained in print for many years, thanks to an early 1980s reprint edition by Gay Sunshine Press. In 1995, Vidal republished the seven stories of A Thirsty Evil in a volume with The City and the Pillar, capitalizing on the growing market for gay-themed fiction.

Vidal had planned to include one more story in this collection: Clouds and Eclipses, which he based upon an anecdote told to him by Tennessee Williams about Williams' family. But Vidal worried that publishing it might cause some embarrassment for his friend's kinfolk, so he withheld the story and then forgot about it. Flash forward to 2005, when the archival team at Harvard found the manuscript for the long-lost story as they prepared his papers for public viewing. The Harvard Review approached Vidal about publishing it, and the story appeared in the journal's issue No. 29 along with a note on the story by Vidal. In 2006, a publisher issued the short story collection Clouds and Eclipses, which includes the title story and several others from A Thirsty Evil.

The Early Fiction: 1946-1956
The Pseudonyms: 1950-1954
The Later Fiction: 1962-2006
The American Chronicles: 1967-2000
Works for the Theater: 1956-1972
Essays, Interviews and Memoirs: 1963-Present
Writing About Gore Vidal: 1951-Present

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ęCopyright 2005 by
Harry Kloman
University of Pittsburgh
kloman@pitt.edu