EMPIRE by Gore Vidal
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With this fourth and most effervescent entry into his American Chronicle (Burr, 1876, Lincoln), Vidal has concocted a fine champagne of historical fiction that plucks a lush heroine off the Krantz/Sheldon/Steel vine--a brainy beauty who angles her way to the pinnacle of newspaperdom--and bottles her in the glittering world of imperial America, vintage 1900. A brood of real-lifers tromp around heroine Caroline Sanford in this snob's epic, linking her charmed life with that of the nation at large. As the novel begins over a silver-service dinner in London, well-born Caroline shyly trades ripostes with expatriate author Henry James, US Ambassador to Britain John Hay, and Henry Adams of the Adamses. These three eiders form a kind of Greek chorus whose sage observations periodically punctuate the narrative, providing moral counterweight to the heady world of money and power into which Caroline--and Vidal--plunge. At the center of this world are two ambitious men, two superb characters--legendary newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Teddy Roosevelt--both avid supporters of the American Empire, whose reach into Cuba, the Philippines, and Panama constitutes the backdrop against which Vidal daubs his heroine's life. Caroline's tie to Hearst comes via her half-brother Blaise, who dupes her out of her share of their inheritance in order to invest the monies in Hearstian ventures. Riled, Caroline rounds up cash to buy a paper of her own, the flagging Washington Tribune, with which she out-sensationalizes Hearst--who's here depicted as an amoral swine. Surfing a tide of yellow ink to Olympian heights, she lunches with Astors and Vanderbilts, and makes pals with Alice Roosevelt and her dad Teddy, a human dynamo who steals every scene he's in. Along the way, she gets engaged (but her fiancÉ takes a tumble and dies); gets married (but not to the man she loves); and takes a lover (by whom she has a son). By novel's end, she's rich and happy, and America seems to be too; but as Vidal offers through Hearst's mouth in the last bit of dialogue, ""True history. . .is the final fiction."" This lightest of Vidal's historicals is intelligent, sophisticated entertainment, a giddy amalgam of fact and imagination that, while short on profundity, dazzles.

Pub Date: June 16th, 1987
ISBN: 037570874X
Publisher: Random House