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.