“What do you know about a woman named Hélène de Rastignac, a French countess?”
Le Mouche sighed. “Many things. I know, for instance, that she is not French, but Alexandrian, and I know that she is not a countess.”
“But is she rich?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Was she a spy in the war?”
“Everyone in Cairo was a spy. It was the thing to be.”
Welcome to Cairo in the 1940s, a world of piano-playing hunchbacks, Nazi femmes fatales, hashish smoking brutes, club-drunk Kings, and Gore Vidal?
In 1950, down on his luck and dangerously short on cash (after purchasing his Edgewater estate), Vidal turned to America’s drunken literary dad, William Faulkner, for advice on navigating the tattered market for serious-minded writers. Avoid Hollywood, Faulkner said. Instead, Vidal turned to pulp fiction, writing three novels — In Death in the Fifth Position (1952), In Death Before Bedtime (1953), Death Likes It Hot (1954) — under the pseudonym Edgar Box. And he wrote another, A Star’s Progress (1950), as Katherine Everard, whose surname he took from a gay bathhouse in New York City.
“You sneak!” wrote Vidal’s pulp editor at Fawcett Gold Medal in 1953. “Why didn’t you tell me you were that world-famous crescendo-making writer, Gore Vidal, instead of pussyfooting around with a cardboard alias?”
Recorded on a Dictaphone and transcribed in a matter of weeks, Vidal never earned more than a few thousand dollars apiece for these sensational pieces of a-literary trash. But, in the end, he felt fondly enough about his entertainments to reissue them under his own name. That is: all of them except for one.
Thieves Fall Out is Vidal’s only novel written under the pseudonym “Cameron Kay,” a nom de plume that combines the first names of his great uncle — once the attorney general in Texas — and his grandmother. Vidal was paid $3,000 for the novel in 1953. After that, he disowned it.
It’s not hard to see why. Set in a lived-in and nearly authentic Cairo, the novel is more Beat the Devil than Alexandria Quartet. Actually, that makes it sound better than it is. It’s more like a B-movie written by a disaffected (and therefore affectless) millennial poet. And it is totally of a piece with the lackluster Hollywood screenplays penned by high-minded novelists of the previous era. Vidal might have avoided the Hollywood mousetrap by writing this novel, but in exchange, it has to be said, he wasted a few weeks of his life.
Summarizing Thieves Fall Out is like relating a fireworks show to a seeing person already in attendance. More or less: Peter Wells, a dumb American, wakes up dazed in Cairo, quickly joins a scheme run by a cherubic British drunk and a beautiful ex-Nazi, ends up being tailed by a large gay policeman named Mohammed Ali, dialogues with a wealthy Egyptian named Said, and falls in love twice — the second time with Anna, an ex-Nazi lounge singer — before attempting to flee an Egypt suddenly hell-bent on revolution. Again, like fireworks: most of these plot points flare up and fade without leaving so much as an afterimage.
“I myself think it’s a shame to see a bad novel by Gore Vidal put back into print,” wrote Jay Parini for the Guardian last year. “I have no doubt Gore would have preferred [it] to die the quiet death it richly deserves.”
Louis Bayard, at The New York Times, was somewhat more generous. “Thieves Fall Out is not an aberration but one more link in the chain,” he wrote. “A writer making the choice to write. Even if he knew it wasn’t for the ages.”
But is that the lesson here? Whether the book should have been published? Vidal, in the end, was still Vidal — he was birthed, he lived, he died rich. The only thing owed to his legacy is honesty. And honestly: I found pleasure in watching this novel flail about angrily, like a drunken American in the scorching Cairene sun.