That Scene in The City and the Pillar

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AT A TIME in the 1970s when talk at the playground was of the sex scene on page 36 of The Godfather, I was perpetually reading page 47 of The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. Of course, I read Mario Puzo’s wet, sticky rendering of a prenuptial encounter for comparison with the passage that had come to enthrall me. And while Vidal’s scene was vaguer, even flirting with euphemism (“lights glittered in circles behind his closed eyelids, their eyes [were]shut and seeing for the first time”), it was far more realistic to me, as it involved two young men.

For months, every day after school, I would sit in a worn leather chair in the small library of my parents’ hoVidal-Signet'50use and reread thepassages about Jim Willard and Bob Ford in a Book-of-the-Month-Club edition of the famous (infamous, to some) 1948 novel. While I knew what happened between the teenage characters on their camping trip, I also didn’t—and so I read and reread trying to learn how they arrived at the point of their encounter and what exactly happened. I wanted to be prepared for something as thrilling and life-altering. As the protagonist, Jim Willard, realized at the moment of embrace with his friend, “This was his world and he was alive.”

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