09/17/2013 03:16 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Manly Pursuit of Desire: John Horne Burns' The Gallery

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I have just read one of the best books I've ever experienced in my life: John Horne Burns' The Gallery. A lot has been written recently about Burns: The New York Times had a big piece about him, and the recent biography that came out about him, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, by David Margolick, has resurrected this strange, basically one-shot writer from the dustbin of literary failure, but what a one-shot it was. The Gallery was praised when it came out in 1947; it was a bestseller, and Hemingway described it as the book he wished he had written about World War II. It is easy to understand why: The book is hardly a novel and more a series of vignettes, some almost novella-length, others much shorter, all basically taking place in August 1944, in Naples, Italy, after the Americans had taken Naples but the German war was still raging up north in Tuscany. Some of the vignettes are small portraits of men and women within the circle of Naples, and others are "walks" through Naples, Casa Blanca, or Algiers, letting you know what the war did to these places and the people in them.

At this point the Neapolitans had made peace with their own failure: Mussolini, Il Duce, had been defeated, and the Neapolitans, earlier our enemies, were not our friends either, but now they simply had to survive in a black market, demarcating the difference between starvation and subsistence, life and death, with American soldiers as the mediators between the two. Burns was in equal parts hated and admired for presenting the Neapolitans for everything they were: hustling and conniving, also gallant, incredibly hospitable, and genuinely responsive to the full range of human feelings. Much of the action of the vignettes takes place in one of Naples' landmarks, the Galleria Umberto Primo, a large indoor market housed under several stories of a round building with an open "eye" to the sun and rain. The gallery is filled with bars and little boutiques that sell everything available during the war, many of them stolen or black-marketed, as well as every imaginable form of prostitution and sexual availability, including prostitution of children of both sexes. The gallery, as Burns calls it, is a three-ring circus of human desires and frailties, and also a refuge from the teeming, dangerous streets of the city that is still in full night blackout, where speeding traffic is unregulated and casually crossing any street can be fatal.

Although a constant motif in The Gallery is desperation, the novel's main theme is love, how humans really cannot live without it, and how war basically teaches you this, because at the end, only love survives; nothing else does after everything else has been taken away from you, stripped from you. This is a feeling and theme I have used often in my own books -- not simply the futility of war but the triumph of love, because in the end, only love actually changes the world.

Burns' language is rich, and his writing is so energetic that it can't be contained: It surges out, without being purple or overdone. It is also a guide to an almost totally invisible but important segment of people: the queer presence in World War II, sensitive, alive, curious, able to see things more deeply and identify more because it was always on the sidelines, having to encode in secret every gesture, thought, and activity. This is found primarily in a wonderful section called "Momma," about a simple, loving, childless, middle-aged Neapolitan woman married to a boorish, philandering man who manages a gay bar in the gallery. She adores and protects her "boys" from the riffraff who will attack them, but even more so from the MPs who threaten constantly to close her down. An MP major says to her, "Either you get rid of most of the people who come here, or we'll put you off limits. And you know we damn well can, don't you?"

Momma ends up bribing him, as she usually does MPs, until his next visit. Even though her bar is only open three hours a night because of blackout regulations, she has become wealthy from the proceeds from it, but even more importantly she loves her boys and often entertains them after hours in her apartment not far from the galleria. And what an assortment they are, from butch ones like the English Desert Rat, who spends his evenings in the bar zoning out, barely acknowledging anyone; to Gianni, a "Neapolitan conte, dying of love," who dresses impeccably and whose ex was a German officer; to an assortment of privates, officers, and hustling Neapolitans, all overtly on the make. Two British queens, both sergeants, come in, "screaming like parrots," misbehaving to high heaven.

"What will become of us, Esther? When we were young, we could laugh at the whole business. You and I both know that's what camping is. It's a Greek chorus to hide the fact that our souls are being castrated and drawn and quartered with each fresh affair. What started as a seduction at twelve, goes on until we're senile old aunties, doing it just as a reflex action...."

"And we're at the menopause now, Magda.... O God ... I hate the thought of making a fool of myself when I turn forty. I'll see something gorgeous walking down Piccadilly and I'll make a pass and all England will read of my trial at the Old Bailey."

Every night Momma follows the action at the bar -- its lulls, its moments of high activity -- and prays that her boys will be safe, that they'll find the love that she never did, and that they will come back to her, because this is her life, and she takes great pride in it -- with passion, always a Neapolitan characteristic.

"Hal," a vignette that is close to novella-length, is a semi-idealized self-portrait of Burns: Tall and strikingly handsome, Hal is from an acceptable "preppy" background, incredibly seductive to both sexes as he makes himself glamorously unavailable, and is drinking himself to death to forget that he has no real role in the war but is simply an observer of it. Burns would drink himself to death and die at the age of 36 near Florence, where he had become an alcoholic phantom in the expatriate community. Gore Vidal, who frequented Florence at the time, said that people tried to avoid him; he had become an embarrassment. He could no longer play the graceful, detached game of the successful queer writer, a game at which Vidal and so many like him (Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams among them) was a master.

In closing, Burns, the narrator of the last vignette on Naples, says:

In a war, one has to love, if only to reassert that he is very much alive in the face of destruction. Whoever has loved in wartime takes part in a passionate reaffirmation of his life. Such love has all the aspects of terror and surprise.... [S]ometimes I wondered why the Neapolitans seemed so good to me. Their motives were so unmixed; their gladness so bright, their grief so terrible.... I remember Italian men who moved in a sober brilliance of purpose -- that nothing like this would ever happen again.... I remember their dark faces when anyone was kind to them. The gentle and noble Italians (and there were many) never envied me.

Almost at the end of the book, Burns says:

I walked often in the Galleria Umberto Primo.... I remember [it] as something in me remembers my mother's womb.... I must have spent at least nine months of my life there, watching and wondering. For I got lost in the war in Naples in August, 1944.... It seemed that everything there could be happening to me. A kind of madness, I suppose. But in the twenty-eighth year of my life, I learned that I, too, must die.

For years The Gallery was out of print; the only way to read it was to dig it out of old library stacks or used bookstores. The copy I managed to get of it was a 1947 first edition from "Harper and Brothers, 49 East 33rd Street, New York, 16, NY." But, happily, New York Review of Books Press has brought a paperback edition of it back into print. I think it is one of those pieces of writing that teaches you what fiction can really do: bring us the truth when what passes for "reality" every day is simply lies.