The Most Famous Book You've Never Heard Of

Moise and the World of Reason was a literary scandal when it hit shelves in 1975. Now Tennessee Williams's long forgotten tale of sex and love is back in print. Find out why it's more relevant as ever.

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"I am not a pusher of anything but a pencil or pen, and that is part of my huge problem in life." There are disillusioned writer-narrators, and then there's the protagonist of Tennessee Williams's Moise and the World of Reason. Thirty years old and a "distinguished failed writer" by his own admission, Williams's nameless narrator floats through a world of loss and grief.

The love of his life, a towering figure skater named Lance, has died some years prior to the start of the novel. The narrator still occupies their makeshift apartment in a corner of an abandoned warehouse in the West Village, trying to find emotional fulfillment in a new partner, Charlie. He's prone to incomplete sentences, and when his notebooks are full, he chronicles the events of his life on the back of rejection slips from literary magazines. But Williams's lovely novel of heartbreak and sex has, until now, been out of print for decades.

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The first print of the novel caused a scandal when it was published in 1975.

Next month, Moise and the World of Reason will be re-released by New Directions Publishing, and in reading the novel more than 40 years since its first release, it's terrifying to see the nameless narrator's origin story mirrored in the stories of many young queer people today. At 14, he is nearly assaulted by a group of older men, he suffers violence at the hands of his father, and by 15 he is a runaway on the streets of Lower Manhattan. The literary editors who read his honest depictions of gay sex call his stories "filthy with prurience," a psychiatrist deems him a "sexual deviant," and he contracts the same STD twice. Anyone can attest that elements of this narrative live on.

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American playwright Tennessee Williams in a bar, Turkey, circa 1948. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Though often overlooked among Williams's more iconic works (e.g. A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie), and despite the narrator's evaluation of his own literary ability, Moise and the World of Reason is lyrical and witty, injecting camp into moments of melodrama. The novel's titular character Moise (pronounced "Mo-ease"), a painter and the narrator's best friend, decides to retire from reality—the "world of reason"—after the death of her elderly patron means she can no longer afford art supplies.

Tennessee Williams, seen here in 1966, wrote frankly about homosexuality in his later years. Photograph courtesy of Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Moise makes this announcement to friends at a party lit by a single candle, wearing a completely sheer dress. At the end of the novel, she takes to her bed like she's starring in a Victorian tragedy, gives a long-winded speech that mentions the high-wire artist who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974, and is preparing to die when a box of paints and canvases suddenly arrives from distant relatives. She can return to the world of reason once more.

Ultimately, loneliness isn't the nameless protagonist's destiny. As Moise begins to paint once again, a pair of photographers arrives to photograph the artist at work. The narrator looks up to see that "the younger of the two men…was looking directly at me, his eyes containing a very blue and open declaration of love."

Rediscover Tennessee Williams's long-lost novel Moise and the World of Reason, available from New Directions publishing on July 12. For more information visit ndbooks.com.

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