1. “Oh god, how this story emerges from my bones!”
After her debut novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, Patricia Highsmith was under pressure from her publisher and agent to go back to the well and write another “novel of suspense.” But Highsmith, who could be mulish, had different ideas. She had taken a job as a sales clerk in the toy department at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas rush in 1948 — publication of Strangers was still months away and she was strapped for cash — and in that unlikely setting she received the spark for a new novel. As she would recall 40 years later:
One morning, into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. She drifted toward the doll counter with a look of uncertainty — should she buy a doll or something else? — and I think she was slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand. Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light…It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
The plain clerk had fallen in love with the radiant woman in the fur coat. Highsmith went home that night and, head still swimming, dashed off eight pages of ideas, plot, and story that would become her second novel, The Price of Salt.
The book astonishes on several levels. First, no one gets murdered, a rarity for a Highsmith novel. Second, it tells the story of a wealthy wife and mother named Carol Aird and a much younger clerk named Therese Belivet (pronounced the French way, Terez) who fall in love with each other and embark on a scandalous, sexually charged cross-country road trip that carries strong undertones of mother-daughter incest — in 1952, the year Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, the year the American Psychiatric Association proclaimed homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” and three years before Vladimir Nabokov gave us his account of Humbert Humbert cavorting with his beloved nymphet on their own scandalous cross-country road trip. Third, Carol and Therese are shadowed by a private detective, who tape-records their pillow talk, damning evidence that causes Carol’s tattered marriage to fall apart and forces her to make a wrenching choice: Will she give up custody of her beloved daughter so she can pursue her taboo love for Therese? The answer is yes, which, in Highsmith Country, qualifies as a “happy” ending. All this, as Highsmith noted, in “the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.”
Finally, and most astonishing of all, when the novel came out in paperback it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and generated an avalanche of letters from grateful readers thanking Highsmith for daring to write a book in which two gay lovers wind up happy. The mass-market paperback carried a sizzling kicker: “The novel of a love society forbids.” As Highsmith noted, “Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.”
This is largely, though not entirely, accurate. In 1948, four years before The Price of Salt appeared, Gore Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a novel the homosexual characters of which also manage to avoid the fires of hell and achieve something like happiness. That quibble aside, there is no doubt that Highsmith, who preferred women as sexual partners, was both leery and proud of her controversial book. Fearing career suicide, she published it under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; and years later, after finally acknowledging authorship, she exulted, “Oh god, how this story emerges from my own bones!”
2. Something Appalling Yet Irresistible
Now, more than six decades after it was published, The Price of Salt joins the long list of Patricia Highsmith books to be made into a movie. This latest adaptation has been renamed Carol by its director, Todd Haynes, who tackled similar taboo material in Far From Heaven, his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows. This new adaptation features Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, two inspired casting choices — the blondish woman in a fur coat who gives off light, and the dark plain pretty girl, perfect yin and yang. The screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, has been faithful to the novel without being slavish (she has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer to an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled the time sequence). Since this is a story of infatuation and fuzzy moral boundaries, the movie has an appropriately gauzy look and feel (shot by Edward Lachman). And the ending is perfect, the lovers’ reunion lifted straight from the novel: “Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing.” Cate Blanchett’s slow smile gives off light, and it announces that, against all odds, these two women are going to stay together and they are going to be happy.
With Carol, Todd Haynes joins an illustrious roster of directors who have mined Highsmith’s fiction for source material, including Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol, René Clément, Anthony Minghella, and Hossein Amini, among others. I first came to Highsmith’s work through Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I watched again recently and found just as shamelessly seductive as it was 16 years ago — all seaside sunshine and sex, with a relentless undertow of evil. Since talented Tom (played by Matt Damon at his very best) gets away with three murders and doesn’t appear to feel a shred of remorse or guilt, I assumed that the appeal of Patricia Highsmith’s fiction is that it operates in an amoral world, where evil deeds not only go unpunished, but are rewarded with a major lifestyle upgrade. This formula brazenly contravenes the Hollywood commandments that evil must be punished and everything must come up roses. Minghella, like Clément before him, bravely embraced it. But this dark formula, it turns out, is not universal in Highsmith Country.
Consider her 1964 novel The Two Faces of January, which was made into a 2014 movie of the same title. It returns us to similar terrain from the first of the five Ripley novels: Americans with lots of money on the loose in the Mediterranean. An alcoholic American con man named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) are touring the Greek ruins when they’re spotted as easy marks by a guide/hustler named Rydel (Oscar Isaac). When Chester kills a detective who has tracked him down, he manages to implicate Rydel as an accessory. Then Chester, in a fever of paranoia and jealousy, goes one better by killing Colette and framing Rydel for her murder. Eventually Chester is chased down and shot by the police, and as he dies he confesses to killing Colette, thus exonerating Rydel. It’s a far more conventional — and tepid — ending than The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Hossein Amini, the writer and director of The Two Faces of January, has said he was attracted to the jealous alcoholic con man at the center of the story. “What I love about Highsmith,” Amini wrote, “is the way that she puts us in the shoes of traditionally ‘unlikeable’ characters, often criminals, and then makes us not only understand their motivations but recognize something of ourselves in them.”
Highsmith attributed her enduring appeal to filmmakers to her obsession with duality, her tendency to let two mismatched characters have at each other — Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Tom and Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Chester and Rydel in The Two Faces of January, and now Carol and Therese in Carol. As Highsmith told The New York Times in 1988, “It’s always interesting…when two people opposite in nature get tangled up. I’ve always done that; it’s like pitting good and evil, putting two strong boxers into the ring.”
What sets Highsmith’s characters apart is not only that they are willing, even eager, to commit transgressive acts, but that they are so adept at covering them up and blithely living a lie, or, better yet, seeing to it that someone else gets the blame. As Amini said, we recognize something of ourselves in such people, and we find them both appalling and irresistible. It’s worth noting that Highsmith’s most indelible character, Tom Ripley, is such a slippery chameleon that he has been played, with varying degrees of success, by some very dissimilar actors, including Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Dennis Hopper. There’s something appalling yet irresistible in every one of their interpretations of the talented Mr. Ripley.
3. A Bad Bag of Applesauce
Patricia Highsmith was no one’s idea of a warm and fuzzy human being. She kept pet snails. She was a mean-spirited, alcoholic, racist anti-Semite who freely admitted that her mother drank turpentine when she was pregnant with her, in an attempt to abort the fetus. The editor and writer Otto Penzler is a great fan of Highsmith’s writing while acknowledging that she was “a horrible human being.” She was what Fatty Arbuckle would have called “a bad bag of applesauce.”
For all her documented flaws — there have been two scrupulous biographies — Highsmith was also a fanatical maker of fascinating lists. Here’s a beauty she tossed off on Nov. 16, 1973, while living in the French village of Moncourt:
Little Crimes for Little Tots.
Things around the house — which small children can do, such as:
1.) Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip.
2.) Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it.
3.) Setting careful fires, so that someone else will get the blame, if possible.
4.) Rearranging pills in medicine cabinets; sleeping pills into aspirin bottle. Pink laxative pills into antibiotic bottle which is kept in the fridge.
5.) Rat powder or flea powder into flour jar in kitchen.
6.) Saw through supports of attic trap door, so that anyone walking on closed trap will fall through to stairs.
7.) In summer, fix magnifying glass to focus on dry leaves, or preferably oily rags somewhere. Fire may be attributed to spontaneous combustion.
8.) Investigate anti-mildew products in gardening shed. Colorless poison added to gin bottle.
This list is at once hilarious and chilling and it contains, in distilled form, all the essential elements of Highsmith’s fiction: it’s highly practical, it’s written in unfussy prose, and in the end it’s all about murder. Item #3 is the most telling on the list, with its admonition to set “careful” fires so that “someone else will get the blame, if possible.” Here is the duplicity that lies at the heart of Highsmith’s enterprise — the urge to do evil and not only get away with it, but make sure that someone else gets the blame. In a Highsmith story, culpability for a single crime frequently passes onto two characters (think of Chester and Rydel). Or the victim becomes the victimizer, as in The Cry of the Owl from 1962, which has been adapted for the screen twice, the story of an “innocent” stalker who winds up getting stalked by his “victim.” Highsmith uses this duplicity to ratchet up her favorite states of mind, including anxiety, jealousy, paranoia, dread, self-delusion, and resentment. Small wonder that Highsmith considered herself a writer of psychological novels, not “novels of suspense,” or that one of her favorite writers was Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that inveterate list makers are trying to lasso unruly demons, bring some sort of order to inner chaos. My late father was such a person, and it got to the point where he admitted, only half jokingly, that he had started making lists of his lists. That was when I knew he was in trouble. But Patricia Highsmith put my father in the shade. As her list of “Little Crimes for Little Tots” attests, she wasn’t trying to lasso or tamp down her inner demons; she was nurturing those demons, trying to make them as monstrous as possible. She understood that her demons were the source of her dark genius. They are also what will keep drawing filmmakers to her books for years to come.
Merle Miller’s On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual is remarkable in part for where and when it first appeared, in the pages of The New York Times Magazine in January 1971. There have been many additions to the coming-out genre in the years since, in fiction and non-fiction. Everyone knows the conventions. The lonely child is burdened by primal needs. He nurses his secret in a world that despises him and slowly, after years of heartbreak, overcomes fear of societal or familial rejection and admits to the world the man he truly is. His family and his society at that point either accept or reject him. Quite often, they already knew his secret; his behavior had many “tells.” But by relieving himself of his secret he discovers at least a modicum of peace. This is the stuff of People magazine, high-brow literary fiction, long-form journalism, celebrity memoirs, Marvel Comics, alternative comics, young-adult literature, Oprah and Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. Miller’s piece came first and by publishing it The Times made it respectable. A few months later Miller expanded it into a book.
Miller had endured many insults by the time he told his story and a quiet anger permeates his prose as he asserts his dignity and refuses any further humiliation. It’s been 41 years since the piece was first published and the gods of publishing have returned to confer upon it now not respectability but prestige in the form of a Penguin Classics reissue. It’s a handsome edition, but I wish it included the essay that caused Miller to tell his story in the first place. I’ll get back to Miller in a bit, but first a word on Joseph Epstein’s “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity”.
In 1970 Harper’s, a publication few if any considered an incubator of right-wing cruelty, published Epstein’s study of homosexuality. It’s a long piece, taking up 11 pages in the magazine, but few people today remember more than a couple choice lines. Veterans of the nascent gay-rights movement still quote them through hisses. “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of this earth,” Epstein wrote. “I would do so because I think that it brings infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it, because I think there is no resolution for this pain in our lifetime…” The cruelest cut came at the end of the piece when Epstein, a father of four sons, imagined the greatest horror of all.
[N]othing they could ever do would make me sadder than if any of them were to become homosexual. For then I would know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustment they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth.
It’s obvious from reading this line or at least it seemed obvious to some reading this line in 1970 that Epstein preferred his children to become rapists or murderers. He was expressing an illiberal rage incongruous with his Jewish name. A sit-in at the Harper’s offices followed.
But the protesters weren’t entirely accurate in their characterization of Epstein’s essay. It’s always easier if bigots wear swastikas and white robes, and by that metric Epstein disappoints. I for one wish every genocidal hate monger posed as many questions to himself as Epstein did in his essay. Unfortunately, he was a good man. And the essay was a portrait of an intelligent human being whose prejudices made him less intelligent.
Epstein read all the popular materials on homosexuality then available to members of his intellectual class. He quoted Gide, Freud, Dr. David Reuben, M.D. — the anti-gay author of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask — as well as some early studies of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. On the nature vs. nurture debate he was an agnostic. “[O]ne can’t say with the same old confidence that homosexuality is unnatural, however deeply one might feel that it is.” He had enough sense to feel uncomfortable about comedians who would never think of telling black or Jew jokes, but who had no problem making fun of the faggots, well-aware of the “assured approval from their audiences.” He also condemned anti-sodomy laws.
But the piece took strange directions. Epstein pointed to several homosexuals he had met throughout his life, the pederast in Chicago, the lecherous mayor of a small Southern town, and a Lebanese army buddy who moonlighted as a drag queen. They were all miserable, or if not miserable, at least troubled and strange. He admired those who repressed their homosexual desires. “Men who are defiant about their homosexuality, or claim to have found happiness in it, will, I expect, require neither my admiration nor sympathy.” The essay’s meandering logic and its eerie condescension outlined the kind of conversation a husband and wife might have had at their Upper West Side apartment in 1970, after taking in the latest Edward Albee or Stephen Sondheim production. “My god the way those homosexuals understand some of our weird lives!” “It’s because they’re homosexuals. Everything we do looks weird to them.The talented freaks.”
Merle Miller was one of the many gay men who read Epstein’s casual bigotry as a declaration of war. Miller was a novelist and journalist whose work was fun, light and funny, if a little square. His life was interesting. He had done work for the ACLU in the ’50s during the McCarthy years. Later he tried to develop an aborted TV series that was to feature Jackie Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, and spent hundreds of hours interviewing Harry Truman for another aborted TV series. In between, he had written a few bestsellers. He had many friends in Manhattan and after reading Epstein’s piece, he complained about it to one of them, the editor of Harper’s. A few days later he had lunch with Victor Navasky, who was then a staff member at The Times Magazine. This is the account of that lunch from the book version of his memoir:
[Navasky] said he thought it was brilliant. He said, “At a time when everybody is saying we have to understand and accept homosexuals, Epstein is saying…”
I said, “Epstein is saying genocide for queers.” And then for the first time, in broad daylight, before what I guess you would call a mixed audience, in a French restaurant on West 46th Street, I found myself saying, “Look, goddamn it, I’m homosexual, and most of my best friends are Jewish homosexuals, and some of my best friends are black homosexuals, and I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
There it was, out at last, and if it seems like nothing very much, I can only say that it took a long time to say it, to be able to say it, and none of the journey was easy.
Epstein was not calling for a roundup to the camps. He simply wished, in his good honest heart, with his pompous style, that they be freed from the affliction of homosexuality. But it may have been a good thing that Miller misread Epstein, for it filled him with righteous fury and provoked him to come out for the first time to his straight friends, there in that restaurant, at the age of 51.
Miller would claim that he reluctantly agreed a few days later to Navasky’s request to write about what they had discussed over lunch. Who knows how reluctant he really was. There’s nothing that agitates a writer more than to listen to someone speak poorly on a subject the writer himself knows well. Miller had spent years listening to people with no knowledge speak about a particular at the very core of his being. At some point he had to answer back.
In 1971, a good few thousand years into human history, a literate man would have had access to several books about homosexuality. Gore Vidal had published in 1948 The City and the Pillar, a novel about a man doomed by a youthful love. In the mid-50s James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room about white gay people, and then in 1962, Another Country, an interracial melodrama. More patient readers had the novels of Jean Genet, that aged outlaw who was then hanging out with the Black Panthers. On the stage, the love that dare not speak its name howled it in Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, which had by that time been adapted to the screen by William Friedkin. This is to say nothing of the older books everyone knew about, Gide’s Corydon, Wilde’s De Profundis, Melville’s Billy Budd, Proust and Shakespeare. Every freshman at Columbia University spent their first week of school reading The Iliad, which featured the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Camp had seeped into the wider culture, but these books treated the subject of homosexuality as text not subtext. If you chose to condescend to gay people, you did so in the shadow of a canon.
The ’50s and ’60s can look at one angle like a sexual dark age in which certain highly-sexed monks guarded the great secret of a more liberal civilization in libraries for a future time that would be better able to handle these fantastic truths. But these books were widely read and all easily misunderstood. Shakespeare, Melville, and the Greeks were all located far enough in the past for their homosexuality to be considered part of a distant culture’s strange customs. Vidal and Baldwin were iconoclasts. And their genius, whether in the form of Vidal’s exoticized Waspiness or Baldwin’s blues-intoned blackness, was filtered through an outsider’s bent. Their novels were not about happiness. They were paeans to self-loathing. Vidal’s tragic narrator: “[I]t would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet.” Baldwin’s hero in Giovanni’s Room is suspicious of the effeminate men who surround him. “I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them.” The enraged queens in Crowley’s play speak even crueler aphorisms.
And this is where Miller, with all his unbearable whiteness, found a place. He was a middle-aged Midwesterner who wrote with irony when he had to but was just as capable of writing without it. “I dislike being despised, unless I have done something despicable, realizing that the simple fact of being homosexual is all by itself despicable to many people, maybe, as Mr. Epstein says, to everybody who is straight.” Vidal would never demean himself on or off the page by saying he wanted to be liked. Baldwin always demanded to be loved or at least, with a Whitmanesque lilt, to live inside you and for you to live inside him. Miller was comfortable with camp language and employed it in his 1972 novel What Happened, but here Miller described the basic need most humans, straight and gay, actually have, in a plain prose unencumbered by genius, the kind of voice you could hear over lunch at a restaurant on West 46th Street.
The story Miller tells in On Being Different is self-consciously un-extraordinary. There is no Achilles and Patroclus. There is no melodrama and for that reason gay men easily found and still find in his story parallels with their own lives. Miller draws a portrait of himself as the one man on earth least capable of living the life of an outlaw. He was an effeminate boy, a budding pianist, growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa in the 1920s and ’30s. From the age of four to the age of 17 someone called him a sissy everyday to his face, five days a week. “It’s not true, that saying about sticks and stones; it’s words that break your bones,” he writes. He had three close friends, all misfits in this small homogenous culture, a Jewish boy, a polio victim, and a middle-aged woman with a clubfoot. He headed to the local train depot for his earliest sexual encounters, picking up boys from freight trains lost in Depression-era America. “They were all lonely and afraid. None of them ever made fun of me. I was never beaten up. They recognized, I guess, that we were fellow aliens with no place to register.” Just as young gay men in later years would read his essay for comfort, Miller would turn to the library for solace, finding a mirror in an effeminate schoolteacher at the center of one of the stories in Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Reading the story didn’t do him much good. Literature didn’t liberate or ennoble him. Later, as the editor of the University of Iowa’s student newspaper The Daily Iowan he found himself turning his years of pain outward, humiliating the theater queers at his school. It’s an old story and all too human.
He didn’t go in for fag-bashing as an adult, but he spent his career ignoring the plight of people very much like himself. At the ACLU he would do nothing in response to the gay-baiting that characterized the McCarthy years. “The only group of outcasts I never spoke up for publicly, never donated money to or signed an ad or petition for were the homosexuals. I always used my radio announcer’s voice when I said ‘No.’” Activists can be annoying and obnoxious and the old writings from the Mattachine Society can sound shrill, naïve, and filled with a cloying self-regard. Those are also the people most willing to fight the necessary wars.
If Miller’s book is an argument for dignity and acceptance, it is also an argument against politeness. It is an argument against letting stray homophobic remarks from your liberal friends just go in the interest of keeping the evening pleasant. It is an argument against letting someone change the topic of conversation when they tell you they feel uncomfortable about gay marriage. It’s an argument for demanding the part of the territory to which you are entitled. And that last part is an odd thing for a man with Miller’s background to be arguing. “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe,” James Baldwin would say in his later years. “The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.” There’s a wounded rage in Miller’s piece, a fury at having to negotiate this territory in the first place.
The gay rights movement, despite what its depiction in The Advocate or the TV series Queer as Folk would suggest, was never a white movement. The greatest heroes of Stonewall were black and Latino drag queens. And then there’s Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gay mentor. But part of the power of Miller’s piece came from the fact of entrenched prejudices beyond homophobia. The portrait Miller draws of himself is of a white man unable to find a proper place in a white world. As an Iowa boy in Manhattan, he could be something that Baldwin and Vidal and even the later Jewish gay activists Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk could not be. If not for that one thing Miller could have fit into society and perhaps enjoyed a less traumatic childhood. If not for that one thing he would have enjoyed the comfortable place of his straight high school classmates. His cultural background allowed him to obtain a pose that an ethnic marker would have made inauthentic. His Midwestern whiteness could make him always tantalizingly almost normal.
There’s something else the book is arguing for. The gay man is miserable, in part, because of homophobia. The homophobe uses his misery not as proof of the evil of homophobia but as proof of the evil of homosexuality. How does one fight this line of attack? Miller was married to a woman for 10 years and they remained friends after their divorce. And though he doesn’t detail his adult male-male relationships, he does tell the story of a couple who had been together for 25 years who find a place for themselves in a dark time. “They still hold hands, though not in public, and they are kind to each other, which is rare enough anywhere these days.” This is something you do not read in Vidal or Baldwin or the rest of the canon Epstein had read. Miller’s book is a genuine argument for the possibility of such happy lives.
This is the part of the essay in which I am supposed to note the amazing march of history, the ways in which the world we now inhabit differs from the world in which Merle Miller first wrote his piece. We just re-elected a president who supported same-sex marriage, a position which seemed to help his campaign. A Midwesterner, a woman from Wisconsin, will become the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Three states, including the state in which I grew up and the state where I now live, passed referendums legalizing same-sex marriage. When the first returns came in on the marriage question here in Seattle on election night I was at a party hosted by The Stranger downtown. Dan Savage and his husband Terry were dancing on stage.
Gay men have an acute sense of history. Charles Kaiser, who wrote the afterword to this edition of On Being Different, was born about 30 years after Miller and remained in the closet throughout the ’70s while working as a reporter for The New York Times. Savage, who wrote the foreword, was born about 45 years after Miller and came out as a teenager. Today, there is this new breed of young men and women who never knew the closet and never second-guessed their bodies’ desires. I was born in 1980 and, given the changes I have seen in my own lifetime, I believe that if I had been born a short five years later I would have known a less difficult adolescence and become a less anxious man.
It does get better, as Dan Savage says, if not perfect. There are still the stories of gay kids killing themselves. I am surprised when I meet gay men my age who are not out to any of their straight friends. I am even more surprised by the gay people my age who are not even out to themselves. It’s even more surprising than that when I find that these souls enjoyed childhoods as I enjoyed mine in liberal communities, like the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Such stories upset the historical narrative we are telling ourselves. The march of progress is never neat. For the moment at least the closet is still a part of American life and for that reason alone On Being Different is still an important book.
But I foresee a time not all that far in the future in which the closet will no longer exist as we know it. Sure, people will still feel embarrassed about some of their sexual desires. Society will still hold onto certain gender roles, but the acceptance of gay people may allow society to tweak their stereotypes. What will no longer exist in the world I envision is the man who spends years lying to people about who he is, who marries a woman, and allows himself to grow cold, gray and isolated as the years pass. What will no longer exist is that weird English graduate student who doesn’t understand why everyone thinks Henry James or Walt Whitman is gay. Comic foils like David Cross’s Tobias in Arrested Development will have no corollaries in reality. Gay kids will go on their first dates when they’re 12 or 13 and they will go out with kids of the same gender and everyone will be happier for that fact.
I don’t know what place On Being Different, this classic of the coming-out genre, will have in a world in which people no longer need to come out. Miller’s internal struggles may look as bizarre to future generations as the intrigues and marriage plots of 19th-century novels look to us today. Merle Miller’s book could just as easily survive. We humans have a long history of making people we don’t like feel that they are not fully human. Even if homophobia were to die, human nature would remain. In another 100 years On Being Different may simply serve as the record of one man’s attempt in middle age to declare that his particulars made him no better or worse than you.
Gore Vidal was the first living writer to get under my skin — for good and ill, but mostly for good. With his death last week, I am still puzzling out how I fell under his spell and what it might mean.
I came of age in Virginia in the 1960s and first knew Vidal as a TV personality. It was the age of talk show intellectuals and he appeared regularly on television along with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and others. He was memorably smooth, articulate and witty. He was also very handsome, but I was a repressed gay teenager and not ready to acknowledge that. A copy of Myra Breckinridge made the rounds at study hall (along with Valley of the Dolls and The Harrad Experiment), but I didn’t read him yet, only the reviews of his work in Time.
I witnessed his most famous TV appearance, his confrontation with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. I was 16 and home from the Boy Scout camp where I worked as a counselor. The two men provided commentary each night, Vidal from the left, Buckley from the right. They were very testy even before the rioting broke out.
When Buckley called the student protestors crypto Nazis, Vidal said the only crypto Nazi he saw was Buckley. Buckley exploded: “Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.” Vidal remained remarkably calm. He broke into a boyish smile, as if he thought Buckley were only joking. Then the smile wavered when he understood how angry the man was.
I sat there open-mouthed, uncertain I’d heard right. One did not hear grown men call each other fags on live TV in those days. People talked about it the next day, but the newspapers couldn’t print the word. “Queer” was considered an obscenity. Of course, the accusation made Vidal only that much more interesting to me.
Two years later I actually met Vidal — by proxy anyway. I met a distant cousin, an adult Scout leader who was my date for the Eagle Scout banquet. Each new Eagle was paired with a grown-up who worked in a field the boy wanted to enter. By this time everybody knew I wanted to be a writer, and so they looked for somebody with a literary connection. And all they could find was old Bill Vidal.
Looking back on it, I am amazed the Boy Scouts of America would think a Gore Vidal surrogate was suitable. This was after the publication of Myra Breckinridge and the fight with Buckley. But the fact of the matter is that my adult leaders knew Vidal only as a famous name and occasional guest on TV talk shows. They did not know his books. They certainly didn’t know The City and the Pillar. Bill Vidal confessed over dinner that he’d never met his famous cousin, only heard stories about him. However, he did tell me good stories about growing up in upstate New York, including the first time he ever saw an automobile.
I didn’t get to The City and the Pillar myself until college. I can’t say I liked it. I was a gay neophyte looking for sex scenes and the novel opens with a great one: two teenage boys have hot sex on a camping trip. But Jim, the protagonist, spends the rest of the novel longing for his buddy until he finally meets up with him years later and finds he’s straight. So he kills him. (This was the original 1948 version. When Vidal rewrote it in 1965, he relented and Jim merely rapes the poor guy.)
But shortly afterward, I discovered Vidal’s essays and that’s when I really began to read him — passionately. The first book was Homage to Daniel Shays. His range of subject matter was glorious: Roman history, American history, French literature, the Kennedy family, Anaïs Nin , and yes, sexuality. The prose of his essays is erudite, surprising, and very funny. He had a stand-up comedian’s gift for placing a startlingly rude phrase in the midst of an otherwise civilized sentence. For example, in his damning review of Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, he launches into a riff about the myth of monogamy and another book’s advice for how to keep a husband excited. “Nevertheless, by unexpectedly redoing the bedroom in sexy shades, a new hairstyle, exotic perfumes, ravishing naughty underwear, and an unexpected blow job with a mouth full of cream of wheat, somehow a girl who puts her mind to it can keep him coming back year after year after year.”
People who don’t actually read Vidal know him as only a curmudgeon, a scold, a hater. But his essays could praise as well as mock, celebrate as well as condemn. He wrote warmly and appreciatively about Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Dawn Powell, Italo Calvino, and his own father, aviation pioneer Eugene Vidal.
His fiction can’t help looking pale in comparison to the essays. His friend and editor Jason Epstein said he was too egotistical to be a good novelist, and there is some truth in that. But Vidal was able to navigate around that difficulty by giving his egotism to his strongest characters: Julian the Apostate, Myra Breckinridge, and Aaron Burr. They are the protagonists of his best novels.
In addition to his essays I regularly read his interviews. He gave brilliant interviews. More than one person has said that Gore Vidal’s public persona — a thing of imperious authority, omniscience and dry wit — was his best fictional creation.
I almost never dream about writers, but sometime while I was writing a first novel, I dreamed about Gore Vidal. We were at a family reunion (apparently we were related) and he and I sat side by side on a log. He had just finished reading my manuscript. He told me, quietly but firmly, that the book didn’t work and there was nothing for me to do but put it aside and start a new novel. I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking: No, no, I can fix it. I can make it work — before I remembered I was not related to Vidal, we hadn’t even met, and he hadn’t read my novel. Incidentally, his dream self was right: I never was able to publish that novel.
But finally, in 1987, I did publish a novel. More novels followed, about a broad range of topics — coming of age in the 1970s, New York in the 1940s, AIDS in the 1980s — with only a gay milieu in common. Not until my fourth novel, Almost History, about a gay man in the State Department, did I notice how often I wrote about politics and history. I was as obsessed with them as Vidal was. I wrote about them differently: they were more background than foreground. But I joked that I was the low-rent Gore Vidal — or even the gay Gore Vidal. A couple of reviewers compared us, though not in my favor.
It might have produced a debilitating anxiety of influence, except I stopped thinking about Vidal around this time. Maybe that was just my way of dealing with the anxiety. And I was very busy writing my books. But the fact is Vidal became less interesting as a writer in the late 1980s and the 1990s. And his public persona became more difficult, often impossible. He grew crankier, less witty, less winning. His jokes became stale, his political positions, such as his defense of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, unsettling.
But when I wrote Eminent Outlaws, my history of gay American writers after World War II, I found myself going back to the Vidal who first won my admiration. I was surprised by how important he was to the first half of the book, valuable not only for himself but as connecting link with many other writers. He knew everybody and he liked more of his peers than we give him credit for. He took a lot of brutal knocks as a gay writer at the start of his career, knocks that left his contemporaries, Truman Capote and James Baldwin, unhinged. Vidal remained calm, centered, and sane for much longer than they did. He really was an amazing man and an excellent writer. I was glad to rediscover that before he died.
You don’t have to read a writer to be influenced by him. Sometimes you fall in love first and don’t begin to read him until afterwards. It’s as irrational as love at first sight. Sometimes you learn that the love is deserved; sometimes it isn’t. But influence is trickier than most people think. It’s not simply a matter of one artist copying another. It can be as mysterious as the influence of the stars in astrology: they can affect our lives from a distance, as if by gravity.
I didn’t copy Gore Vidal and I never took anything from him directly. But I took great satisfaction in his prose and I learned from his example. It’s not so much the anxiety of influence or even what Jonathan Lethem calls the ecstasy of influence. No, it’s more like a feeling of kinship, a distant genealogical bond, a family relationship. Maybe, as in my dream, we are related after all.
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