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.