The Lost Novelist

Ronny Jacques/Trunk Archive
John Horne Burns, circa 1947

For a while in the 1940s John Horne Burns was widely considered one of the most promising American novelists, and his best-selling war novel, The Gallery, intimidated Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller. Then after not one but three dud novels he committed suicide at age thirty-six (or rather his death seemed to be self-willed, caused by epic drunks and exposure to the sun).

Other successful first novelists of the period killed themselves, such as Thomas Heggen (Mister Roberts) and Ross Lockridge (Raintree County). Burns was mostly forgotten, though over the decades Gore Vidal would frequently tell friends about the gay flash-in-the-pan author. Even Ernest Hemingway remembered him and as early as 1947 was recommending The Gallery to his Italian publisher, saying, “Very controversial book. Will raise hell to publish it. But really good.”

Those were the days when Americans still took new fiction seriously, and young novelists were fiercely competitive. Even friendliness took on a competitive tone. When James Michener beat Burns for the Pulitzer, he was quick to concede that Burns was the better writer; Burns turned around and said that Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific “will probably remain a minor classic”—damning with faint praise. Of course no one knew then that Michener’s book would be adapted into the blockbuster musical South Pacific, and that he would go on to write forty more doorstops that would gain him a fortune but little distinction.

In his 1991 memoir Michener wrote, “I think of John Horne Burns every week of my life,” and said he regretted the loss of the challenging competition that Burns would have represented: “I am sure he and I would have competed, honorably and vigorously, throughout our lives.” I doubt that many American writers today think in this way. The rewards are too few, the fame too fleeting, the terrain too parceled out in neat subdivisions of distinct minorities. No one talks anymore of “the great American novel.”

The Gallery is an excellent novel,* a series of portraits linked by “promenades” that recall other places during the war. The unity of the book, such as it is, is established by the primary setting: Naples’s nineteenth-century glass-roofed shopping arcade, the Galleria Umberto I, which today is mostly deserted but which in World War II, after the Allied conquest, was a populous center for prostitution and the black market. The book is really more a series of vignettes than a through-composed novel with a plot.

Burns wrote it rapidly and for once in his often bitter and sneering life he was compassionate toward his strange assortment of characters. This is the same man who at the Excelsior Hotel bar in Florence shortly before his death would mockingly repeat the awkward banalities fans would address to him: “One of his favorite tricks was to parrot what was…

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