A revealing biography of the brilliant, arrogant author of The Gallery (1947), a celebrated World War II novel.
John Horne Burns (1916–1953) grew up in a wealthy New England family and attended Harvard, where he began a lifetime of drinking that ended in lonely days as a regular at a hotel bar in Italy, where he died an embittered drunk at age 36. He attended and taught at Loomis, a prep school outside Hartford, Conn. As a student there many years later, Vanity Fair contributor Margolick (Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, 2011, etc.) became fascinated by the forgotten author whose Lucifer with a Book (1949), a vicious novel about Loomis, was forbidden reading at the school. Years later, Margolick encountered The Gallery, about U.S. soldiers in occupied Naples in 1944–1945, “perhaps America’s first great gay novel.” Even Margolick’s warning that Burns was a difficult man to like does not fully prepare readers for this story of an obnoxious, hypercritical, mean-spirited loner. For all his negativity, however, Burns was able to write his life-embracing The Gallery, a compassionate view of characters passing through a vast arcade, including gays in uniform. Always arrogant, Burns had nonetheless become more open-minded and decent as a result of his wartime experiences that inform the novel. Sensitive, well-researched and drawing nicely on the novelist’s vivid letters, the book covers Burns’ abnormally close relationship with his heiress mother; his years as a student and, later, disgruntled teacher at Loomis; his wartime postings in North Africa and his beloved Italy; and his career as an author, from the ecstatic acclaim for his war novel, to the poor reviews of later works, to his rivalry with Gore Vidal, who called Burns “a gifted man who wrote a book far in excess of his gift.”
Not a fun read, but a wonderfully crafted portrait of a tormented homosexual writer.