Another merry riff on Washington power politics, struggles, and failures from the venerable curmudgeon and sage: an appealingly unholy marriage of Burr, Duluth, and a suavely Vidalian amalgam of Tom Sawyer and Tom Swift. In 1939, a 13-year-old prep school student who's identified only as ``T.'' (and who, we soon learn, is a ``teenage mathematical genius'') is yanked out of classes and driven to the title location's main building (``the Castle''), where, after meeting wax figures who come mischievously to life after the doors are closed to the public, he becomes a pivotal figure in crisscrossing plans to either avert or win a forthcoming world war. Specifically, undisclosed forces (among them may be James Smithson, the Institution's presiding genius) have determined that T., also, incidentally, ``the best schoolboy pitcher in the Washington, D.C., area,'' may possess knowledge that will enable his country to detonate a nuclear bomb without producing the ensuing chain reaction certain to destroy the world. After a disturbing first few hours within the Castle, during which he's declared ``prime veal'' and almost parboiled in the Early Indian Exhibit Room (then relieved—to his relief—of his virginity by a nonNative American ``Squaw''), T. settles sturdily down to business, reassuring a depressed-looking Abraham Lincoln and a truculently pacifist Charles Lindbergh, explaining to Robert Oppenheimer just where Einstein went wrong, and, thanks to a jury-rigged thermostat, traveling about in ``innumerable parallel pasts.'' Only a cad would give away the beguiling results of T.'s refreshingly ingenuous adventures and discoveries—not to mention the dozens of ingenious anachronistic gags with which the narrative is studded. This may be the wisest book that Vidal—this incomparably urbane observer of our revered past, debased present, and unpromising future—has even written. It is, as well, entertainment of the highest order. Even Norman Mailer will like this novel.
If Vidal (The Smithsonian Institution, 1998, etc.) isn’t the last wild man remaining in the American literary left, then it’s hard to say who is. At any rate, this little volume will certainly add to the novelist’s reputation in that role. In fact, the book looks like something that Vidal dashed off on his coffee break. Consisting of the text of a three-part British TV series, with a brief afterword added, it’s an extremely condensed thumbnail history of the institution of the presidency, from its almost accidental beginnings in the aftermath of the Revolution to the office’s present-day decay into what Vidal gleefully dismisses as a glorified broadcasting job. “Currently, the American empire is governed not from the Oval Office, but from the White House TV studio,” he opines, a statement that recent events have done nothing to gainsay. Vidal regards the evolution of the presidency as a peculiar product of domestic paralysis—enforced by the powers of the rich and corporate—combined with a free hand in the realm of foreign affairs. As a result, activist presidents have tended to be those who concocted expansionist policies, usually to the sorrow of countries that were beneficiaries of a rather brutal form of American largesse. Scattered throughout here are small surprises, such as Vidal’s sympathy for Lyndon Johnson as a president genuinely concerned with a progressive domestic agenda, and his almost throwaway characterization of Polk as “intelligent, low-key.” Most of the time, though, the author giddily, flippantly slags off every occupant of the White House, from Washington to Bush—although he seems to maintain a certain odd affection for Clinton—in terms that run from the genuinely witty to the outright sophomoric. As a satirical novelist, Vidal is the nearest thing to Mark Twain. But as an essayist, he often leaves a lot to be desired. This is one of those times.
It must seem no less galling than appropriate to Norman Mailer that not even a year after the appearance of his own bulky retrospective volume (The Time of Our Time) there arrives this bracing sampler of his formidable old enemy’s variegated prose wares: on display—in judiciously mixed proportions—are the complete texts of Vidal’s once notorious novel Myra Breckenridge (a then-timely jeu to which the years haven’t been kind) and his outrageously savvy JFK-inspired play (The Best Man); choice excerpts from the loosely related fictional revisions of American history that began with Burr and extend (thus far) to Washington, D.C., and middling ones from other novels varying in quality from apprentice-like (The City and the Pillar) to dizzyingly inventive (Duluth) and urbane (Julian). Twenty-five miscellaneous essays and reviews offer eloquent tribute (“Eleanor Roosevelt,” “Montaigne”), incisive political analysis (“The Day the American Empire Ran out of Gas”), and inspired mockery (“Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures”). Essential work, indeed, and a good deal more fun to read than the work of many other highly esteemed writers who take themselves much more seriously.
Though its narrative temperature remains dangerously low, entertainment value is dependably high in this seventh and last of Vidal's delectable Novels of Empire.
The Golden Age follows chronologically Washington, D.C. (1968), and is also closely related to Vidal's Empire, Hollywood, and even (his best novel) Burr. It begins in 1939, when fears of inevitable American involvement in another European war increase the likelihood that incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt's "amoral mastery of world politics" will guarantee him an unprecedented third term. Vidal then summarizes (often rather tediously) the watershed domestic and international political events of the subsequent 15 years, as observed and discussed by a colorful gallery of interconnected fictional characters and historical figures. Former film actress and newspaper publisher Caroline Sanford (Vidal's Clare Booth Luce) manipulates the levels of power (and the several men still under her spell) expertly. FDR charms and deceives all who wander within his orbit. His successor, Harry Truman, shows the steel beneath his unprepossessing exterior. And Caroline's nephew Peter Sanford bridges the worlds of Washington and Hollywood his aunt had conquered, as founder and co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Idea. Prominent cameo appearances are made by such luminaries as FDR's nonpareil advisor Harry Hopkins, William Randolph Hearst, the young Gore Vidal (already, in his 20s, a Washington insider), an imposingly resourceful Eleanor Roosevelt, and underrated novelist Dawn Powell (who memorably disses her rather better-known contemporary thus: "Ernest writes pidgin English, the way he thinks real men talk and write, consummate sissy that he is"). It's all very talky, and creaks and groans noticeably whenever Vidal makes labored connections to earlier books in the series. Still, the talk is wonderfully witty and informed—and climaxes magnificently in a surprise metafictional ending, which takes place on the recent final New Year's Eve of the past century.
A beguiling conclusion to an invaluable extended work. If Vidal's novels were used as texts, we'd all be American History majors.
More political and literary essays from Vidal (The Golden Age, 2000, etc.).
Vidal’s style is unmistakable: erudite, contrarian, self-aggrandizing, elegant. Cranky. Never has it been more Vidal-ian than here, in his ninth volume of essays, a collection of pieces written between 1992 and 2000 that occasionally borders on self-parody. By far the strongest works are the literary and historical sketches grouped at the beginning: witty, knowing, insightful, and carefully written, taken together they comprise a prickly tour of the midcentury world of American letters. The last 20 essays are far more problematic, however. In these Vidal rants endlessly about the National Security State and the American Empire, two self-identified postwar political structures that he claims have ruined everything good about America. If one hasn’t read Vidal’s take on these issues before, perusing one of these essays might be fun—but reading 20 of them is not. Although they have different titles and are nominally written on different subjects, the monotony of analysis is numbing. (Plus, it’s hard to take Chicken Little seriously when, after nine volumes, the sky still hasn’t fallen.) But no matter, there are plenty of fireworks in the literary and historical sections—most compellingly, in a wonderful riff on Sinclair Lewis that interlocks with a controversial defense of Charles Lindbergh in an attempt to revive an intriguing pre-WWII American icon: the plainspoken, isolationist, independent hero from the Great Plains. Amazingly, Vidal, for all his namedropping and urbanity, can’t help but see himself in this role. A similarly palpable identification warms, to fascinating effect, the pieces on writers as diverse as Cavafy, Dawn Powell, and Mark Twain. And a merciless attack on Updike is not only provocative but wickedly funny, a flash of the younger Vidal’s dead-on comic sense.
Vidal’s gossip can feel as stale as his (very dated) political concerns, but few today have what he still displays in abundance: the desire, the intelligence, and the wit to continue living as a true man of letters.
In a piquant collection (originally published in Italy), Vidal (The Last Empire, 2001, etc.) asks readers to consider the forces that motivated Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden—and perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to heed the beating the Bill of Rights has been taking recently.
When President Bush (“a powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon warrior counselors”) tells his public that the nation is embarking on a “very long war,” a “secret war” against operators like bin Laden, who has been reduced to a Shakespearean motiveless malignity, warning bells should be heard. Citizens ought to wonder, Vidal suggests, how we got in such a fix. Have our actions in the Middle East been not only self-serving, but open to misinterpretation as well? Plain hypocritical? Should we give with one hand, take away with the other: support Saddam Hussein or bin Laden one day, vilify him the next? When “Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return” (Auden), is self-righteousness an option? As for McVeigh, does he bear witness to rage in the heartland? Is there a reason for the surge of militias? Has the destruction of the family farm anything to do with it? Have the trouncing of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the carte blanche given to the ATF/FBI/DEA/IRS to step on those rights, the abominations of Waco and Ruby Ridge, followed by the government’s smug refusal to accept any culpability, at the very least boomeranged on their proclaimed intent? Deserves some thought by anyone with a shred of skepticism, thinks Vidal. He provides plenty of examples to sustain his shimmering abhorrence for current American politics (e.g., his contention that FBI Director Freeh was “placed” in his job by Opus Dei).
Challenging as ever, Vidal quotes Justice Brandeis: “If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for laws; it invites every man to become a law unto himself.”
Another deliciously ill-tempered screed from veteran gadfly Vidal (Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, p. 398, etc.), perhaps our fiercest homegrown critic of American imperialism in general and the current administration in particular.
In this gathering of pieces from the Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere, Vidal amply reveals just how deeply ticked off he has been by recent developments. The judicial appointment of “the charmingly simian George W. Bush” to run the front office is by now old news, but it proves, Vidal insists, that corporate America is really in charge of the whole show. The failure of American intelligence to foresee the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in his eyes, speaks mostly to the general stupidity of the “oil-and-gas Cheney-Bush junta,” which neglected to pass on to us ordinary citizens mayday warnings that had emanated from “Presidents Putin and Mubarak, from Mossad, and even from elements of our long-suffering FBI.” The weird fact that representatives of the Taliban had toured Texas oil facilities shortly before Osama bin Laden arrived on the scene, evidently with an eye to striking a mutually beneficial deal for a new pipeline across Afghanistan, and the equally weird fact that said Talibanistas had hired a niece of former CIA director Richard Helms to handle their PR, are two more items on the seemingly endless list of things that annoy Vidal. American support for Israel, the death of the old American republic and its replacement, along about 1950, with “the National Security State,” the refusal of mainstream historians to admit the possibility that the Japanese had a point in bombing Pearl Harbor—he enumerates these aggravating items point by point with caressing venom. That Vidal is fonder of sermonizing than logical argument, of assertion rather than cold data, is no matter: this is trademark Goring and unforgiving: woe to its unfortunate target.
A pleasure for those convinced of the present ruling elite’s deep-seated flaws and deeper evils, and tasty food for thought even for the doubtful.
America’s favorite contrarian waxes wroth and righteous blustery in this gathering of new and recycled aperçus concerning elections past and present.
Since 1972, Vidal (Dreaming War, 2003, etc.) has been delivering alternative State of the Union addresses, a practice first begun on the old David Susskind Show and continued to the present. (Of Susskind, Vidal writes, “He was commercially successful; he was also, surprisingly, a man of strong political views which he knew how to present so tactfully that the networks were often unaware of just what he was getting away with on their—our—air.”) In those days, Vidal had Dick Nixon to pick on, and then Reagan and the Bushes and even Clinton, which allows him to make trendspotting pronouncements with his customary bite: “Republicans are often stupider and more doctrinaire than the Democrats, who are cuter, a bit more corrupt (sigh of relief), but willing to make small—very small—adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists [are concerned].” No one quite exercises Vidal so much as George W. Bush, who presides over an administration that he deems a “reckless junta,” “nakedly predatory,” and all around bad news. Vidal is deeply irritated at most of what Bush and company do, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read him before. He casts a wider net with some of his most recent ex cathedras, though, as when he notes that the head of the Diebold Corp., which makes voting machines, wrote a fundraising letter for the GOP in 2003 promising that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” That is hardly the impartiality one would hope for from a man in his position, but no surprise to Mr. Vidal, who merrily intones, “Sooner or later, wherever mischief lurks”—and vote-rigging is a species of the higher mischief, as far as politics goes—“a member of the Bush family can be observed on the premises.”
Vitriolic, bilious, venomous, and a lot of fun. Until, that is, you realize Vidal’s not kidding.
Eight elegantly styled but listless stories of gay life from the late 1940s to the mid-’50s.
There’s an air of nostalgia to these half-century-old tales, which frequently touch on the theme of childhood innocence lost. “Three Stratagems,” set in Key West, is related in two distinct voices: that of a young male prostitute looking for the perfect fool, and of the rich, middle-aged widower who falls for him. Michael is well-mannered enough to be taken for a Princeton graduate, but experienced enough to recognize that plenty of people “enjoy their own degradation.” Mr. Royal, who meets Michael on the beach and asks him to dine in his hotel suite that evening, senses he’s on the make but wants desperately to believe that this attractive young man is for real. “The Robin” brings the narrator back to the time he was a nine-year-old D.C. schoolboy enthralled by torture and violence, while “A Moment of Green Laurel,” which takes place during a presidential inauguration, follows the adult narrator’s wistful return to his childhood home in Washington, now occupied by another family. In “The Zenner Trophy,” a scandal involving two boys at an exclusive prep school threatens the buttoned-up administration, though it hardly fazes the star athlete in question, whose intrepid determination actually shames his interrogating official. The longest story, “Pages from an Abandoned Journal,” chronicles the narrator’s fashionable travels among pockets of gay friends in Europe and his strange, unsettling acquaintance with legendary “courtesan” Elliott Magren in Paris. The previously unpublished title story chillingly delineates a 14-year-old boy’s resolve to kill himself and thereby attain sainthood.
While occasionally truncated, these stories showcase Vidal’s stylistic authority.
In this successor to the first volume of his memoir, Palimpsest (1995), prolific novelist/essayist/gadfly Vidal mixes mournful minor keys among his usual trumpet blasts against what he regards as an American emporium run by oil men and religious fanatics.
Vidal fans will recognize much material from Palimpsest and Screening History, which offered his meditations on the movies. But in contrast to earlier reminiscences, “melancholy baggage” weighs more heavily on him here—declining health and departed friends, notably longtime companion Howard Austen. (The account of the latter’s final days is the most affecting part of this book.) Moving from his villa in Ravello, Italy, to the Hollywood Hills, Vidal starts this year-long chronicle on New Year’s Eve 2004. Death—Iraq casualties, disaster victims in New Orleans, the exits of Saul Bellow, Johnny Carson and Pope John Paul II—provokes a flood of memories and political fulminations. Like a weary ancient Roman patrician, he awaits his turn to shuffle off this mortal coil, though not without cost. “These rehearsals for death take more and more out of one,” he confesses. Sensing that time is no longer on his side, Vidal summons his energies to celebrate friends, flay enemies (the New York Times froze his first several novels out of its daily book reviews, largely, he says, because of his sexual orientation) and bemoan the end of “our old original Republic.” When of a mind, Vidal can produce memorable portraits (e.g., on Orson Welles: “When he laughed, which was often, his face, starting at the lower lip, would turn scarlet while sweat formed on his brow like a sudden spring rain”). But while taking credit for urging JFK to create a Peace Corps, he fails to note it was proposed in Congress earlier. Moreover, he mentions nothing about imbroglios with William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, and is mostly silent on novels like Lincoln and Burr.
Though Vidal’s memories from encounters in DC, New York, Hollywood and elsewhere remain intact, the wit that animates the best of his oeuvre is largely absent, leaving a voice at best affecting and at worst hectoring.
A splendid, savvy distillation of the best from the veteran novelist and essayist.
This lively volume’s raison d’etre is the inclusion of recent politically charged commentary, but most readers will huddle happily with its several golden oldies. For example, the included non-literary essays conclude with “Black Tuesday,” a reaction to the events of 9/11 that draws the mordant conclusion that “each month we are confronted by a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us.” Fair—and true—enough, but lesser mortals have made such observations. It took a writer of Vidal’s prodigious gifts to deflate the godlike reputations of the Kennedy clan (“The Holy Family”) and America’s most ebulliently macho chief executive (“Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy”), and to examine tax inequity and activism during our early history (“Homage to Daniel Shays”) and the late unlamented 1970s (“The Second American Revolution”). Elsewhere, in a clutch of literary essays, Vidal honors such critically embattled contemporaries as Tennessee Williams, Edmund Wilson and the now-rediscovered Dawn Powell. He’s rougher on others, such as the purveyors of “new fiction” led by maverick innovators Pynchon and Barthes (“American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction”) and university-based scholar-critics who overexplain and obfuscate the obvious (“The Hacks of Academe”). But Vidal strolls through many arenas, offering an affectionately incisive guide to Italo Calvino’s whimsical complexity and a brilliant analysis—really, it’s almost beyond praise—of the industrious and honorable William Dean Howells, whom Vidal has the good sense to admire almost unreservedly.
Nearly six decades’ worth of eloquent bile, dispensed with unmatched craft and wit.