This short intense novel tells the sad story of an American man’s coming out but generally it’s an unflinching look at the endless ways people devise to be despicable to each other.
During his early adulthood, David is shamed and frightened with his sexual urges, which everything in his culture rejects as unnatural and impossible. After a stint in the Army where one of his lover was busted and court-martialed, he travels across the ocean to Paris, in flight “to find himself,” as if something had been misplaced.
In France, he proposes marriage to Hella. A free spirit, she needs some space to think marriage through (which implies her instinct about him is right to be wary), so she goes on her own to Spain. While she is gone, David meets Giovanni in gay bar whose milieu is described -- past-it old guys feeding starving street boys square meals for sex.
David and Giovanni start an affair, both deeply troubled about seeing themselves as gay. David can’t handle Giovanni’s room and readers who’ve lived with a hoarder will stare into space with throat-tightened recognition at “punishment and grief” in this passage:
The table was loaded with yellowing newspapers and empty bottles and it held a single brown and wrinkled potato in which even the sprouting eyes were rotten. Red wine had been spilled on the floor, it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy. But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening, it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder one realized that it was not be found in any of the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief.
David realizes that his love is Giovanni’s only hope out of physical and psychological squalor but he breaks up with Giovanni anyway, with tragic results. I think this novel is not just about gay issues but about loneliness, hostility, deception, dominance, power, and awful things people do to each when they feel lost, when they don’t know who they are or what they want.
This is an American classic, because it is about we value the pursuit of happiness, our dream, our passion.. Unlike his other fiction, all the characters in this novel are white. Social isolation in not limited to those who have the issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation because they were born a certain way. Baldwin also examines the idea that having solid ground to stand on with regards to sexuality and the freedom to express that sexuality are necessary prerequisites to having a clear sense of one’s own identity and feeling self-worth. Baldwin’s exploration of this taboo theme in the 1950s took courage, since he received sharp criticism from all corners for this book (his second novel) and the next one, the amazing Another Country.
Finally, this is up there with Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, if a reader is looking for a novel about the expatriate experience in the Fifites, about people who are lost after WWII.