Friday, 22 April 2016

What I'm reading: Gore Vidal - America's gay pioneer


Continuing my intermittent trawl through through the 'classics' of modern gay literature, I've just re-read this novel from 1948, which I think is the very first 'home-grown' gay novel in the US. The literary establishment - and the critics - were vicious in their condemnation of Vidal. He rewrote the book in 1965 with major changes and this version, still reprinting today, has sold millions. The revised ending is less melodramatic than the original (murder) but the hero's "hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-wronged-faggot" action seems equally out-of-character.

Vidal's writing, especially in the later volumes of his American History series, became verbose and flatulent, almost a parody of Henry James. The City and the Pillar, like many early novels from writers in the 40s and 50s (and still all too often today), shows clearly the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald: lean, finely-honed prose with a kind of muscular elegance, which works supremely well for this chronicle of the coming-of-age and the coming-out of a gay high-school senior during WW2 and its aftermath. Jim Willard's briefly reciprocated love for a fellow student casts a shadow over the next decade of his life as he becomes a sailor, then a tennis-coach (and kept boy) in Hollywood and New York.

Scenes in NY and LA offer early glimpses of the archness that were to characterise the author's public persona in later life and reach an apotheosis in Myra Breckinridge and Myron, the two-volume high-octane farce which for many readers is at once his best and his worst writing. Ronald Shaw, the closeted actor who keeps Jim for a while, an on-screen macho-man who is privately needy and insecure, calls Rock Hudson to mind although the time of the story means he's more likely to be based on Randolph Scott or perhaps another version of the author. Paul Sullivan, the writer Jim comes close to loving, doesn't suggest Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, the 'obvious' candidates for a gay author, but again he may just be a twist on Gore, as Jim obviously is. In fact there are many moments that seem to demonstrate how a writer chops his own life into pieces to provide the basis for different characters, although in his autobiography Vidal insists his protagonists are not based on real people except for Bob Ford, Jim's lost love, and a woman 'inspired' by Anais Nin, whom Gore claims to have romanced. Many scenes - and many of the characters - could as well belong to New York or Los Angeles of today as to the 1940s. Except for some clunky conversations exploring the 'Nature Of Homosexuality' which must have seemed insightful as well as daring in 1948, this is a lot less dated than other gay novels of the era.

The sex scenes are almost as discreet as Mr Forster's - there's nothing as lurid or as dazzling as Gore would later concoct for Myra/Myron. But overall The City and the Pillar is not only an outstanding piece of gay fiction (better than many that were to come after Vidal opened the floodgates) but also one of the best novels of its era, different from but as exquisitely readable - still - as the early works of Capote and Carson McCullers.

In later life Gore overdid the bitchiness and bitterness, perhaps disappointed by his failure to make it as a realm presence in US politics, the role he most craved. But his output as novelist, historian and essayist was prodigious. Other writers may have left a bigger footprint (Roth, Mailer, Updike, Irving,), but Vidal deserves to admitted to the literary pantheon. He wouldn't thank me for this, but he is probably, as Somerset Maugham is supposed to have said of himself, "in the very front rank of the second-raters".

Saturday, 9 April 2016

RIP, Jackie: "tasteless and flashy" to the end!


We're not supposed to speak ill of the dead - so here goes! I gave up on Jackie Collins many books back. Yes, her Hollywood novels are glamorous and gossipy, like the film and pop 'fanzines' whose style she writes in, but the formula became very repetitious. And this one is no exception. We're not told how old Lucky Santangelo now is, the ruthless hotel and film studio mogul who is also the insatiable wife of comedian Lennie Golden and matriarch to a brood of gorgeous but dysfunctional children, now grown, who variously model, act, sing or run nightclubs. As always, there's lots of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. One of her characters uses "amazeballs" as a superlative, an adjective I'd only previously heard on TV's Miranda show. Everyone else uses the f-word, of course, excessively. "Tasteless and flashy" is how one bitchy character describes Lucky to her husband. There's no arguing with that.

Again as before, there's a vengeful psycho stalking Lucky's family and friends. This one, topically, is the ruler of an imaginary Arab state called Akramshar. His name is King Emir Amin Jordan - shouldn't that be al-Jordan? And how did her editors let ludicrous King Emir get into print?

RIP Jackie: will she write from beyond the grave?
Ms Collins writes her own kind of prose, which almost defies criticism. An undercover cop "was Puerto Rican and verging on pretty, in a tough 'don't fuck with me' kind of way." The bar on this sort of writing has been lowered rather than raised by la Collins during her long reign as the Queen of Hollywood fiction. She was famous for her raunchy sex scenes, all written with sledgehammer subtlety in fifty shades of scarlet and often unintentionally (or intentionally?) comic: "Men got off on her nipples; in full bloom, they were quite spectacular."

Harold Robbins, without any grand aspirations, was a much better writer: The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers had all the greed and gossip of a Collins novel, but his style had a kind of Mickey Spillane crispness and grandeur. Jackie Collins occasionally reaches for crisp but she cannot (couldn't) do grand.

Billed as 'The Final Chapter' in the life of Lucky Santegelo, this ninth instalment may not be the last. Harold Robbins carried on writing from beyond the grave, and so too may Jackie Collins. There's gold in them thar cemeteries.

The fabulous Collins sisters - only Joan is left now
Two weeks ago I reviewed a Southern Gothic thriller that was one of the best books I've read in the last few months. The Santangelos is far and away one of the worst: scrappily plotted, poorly written and under-edited. Total tosh, in fact, but - although I skimmed through chunks of it - I had to read through to the end! Jackie Collins had her own kind of magic: RIP.