NONFICTION: A war novel brought overnight but fleeting fame to pioneering gay writer John Horne Burns.
Writer John Horne Burns was a man of few friends. For good reason: He was bitter, vindictive, sarcastic, a misanthropic snob and an alcoholic who informed his mother in a letter, “I knew at 15 I’d never be a Nice Guy or a Good Joe.”
Gore Vidal, who viewed Burns as a rival, wrote that Burns “regards himself with the most appalling reverence.”
In “Dreadful,” David Margolick illuminates this fascinating figure in all his quarrelsome complexity.
Burns, born into a well-to-do Irish Catholic family in Andover, Mass., in 1916, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, where he was not-too-secretly gay.
It wasn’t Burns’ sexual orientation that made finding a teaching post difficult, but the anti-Catholic bias of East Coast prep schools. Burns was hired to teach English at Loomis School in Connecticut, where students either loved or hated him. He adored classical music, which he frequently blasted from the phonograph in his campus apartment.
Burns would not merit a biography if it weren’t for his World War II novel, “The Gallery.” Published in 1947, three years after Burns was posted to North Africa as an out-of-harm’s-way Army censor, it went into a dozen printings and won ecstatic praise by everyone from influential critic Edmund Wilson to celebrated World War I novelist John Dos Passos.
The book is set in Naples, Italy, in 1944, and its title comes from a famed 19th-century arcade that had been damaged by bombing but became a magnet to GIs, drinkers, shopkeepers, beggars, pimps and prostitutes. These people came to vivid life in a book that included a number of richly conceived gay characters, something almost entirely unheard of at that time. “The Gallery” also stood out for its negative portrayals of the U.S. military in Italy.
Lifted by rave reviews, Burns became an overnight literary celebrity, complete with interviews, magazine-writing offers and invitations to blurb other novels.
Back at Loomis, Burns worked to fulfill a three-book deal with his publisher. No sufferer from writer’s block, he often wrote 3,000 words per day. Novels two and three — a spiteful, quasi-pornographic prep-school satire (“Lucifer With a Book”) and a labored heterosexual romance (“A Cry of Children”) — got scathing reviews.
Burns, crushed, returned to his beloved Italy, where he settled in Naples, began a relationship with an Italian veterinarian and became a fixture at the bar of the Excelsior Hotel. Visitors there observed he seemed intent on drinking himself to death. He died, penniless, reportedly of a brain hemorrhage, at age 36.
Burns’ body was flown back to Boston, where he was buried after a memorial service attended by just four people. Margolick’s fluidly written and highly readable biography (though inexplicably lacking both index and footnotes) makes that skimpy turnout seem a major tragedy.