Vidal unvarnished: the private life of an aging provocateur.
Near the end of this memoir of life with Gore Vidal (1925-2012), novelist and journalist Mewshaw (If You Could See Me Now, 2011, etc.) writes that he prefers to remember how “generous and hospitable” Vidal was. “Not at all the bitchy, mean-spirited man his critics imagined.” It’s an odd conclusion to a book that, if anything, makes the opposite case. Mewshaw knew Vidal well, as a friend, interview subject, dinner companion and part-time expat neighbor in Italy, but the relationship clearly tested his patience. As he writes, “[Vidal] embodied Goethe’s dictum that ‘the world only goes forward because of those who oppose it.’ And those who oppose it have to expect to take their lumps.” Although he never denies Vidal his assets—literary brilliance, productivity, loyalty, professional and financial help to others—Mewshaw was also clearly worn out by the older writer’s boorishness, self-absorption, and apparent decadeslong ambition to eat and drink himself to death. As the author sees it, Vidal’s lordly, self-satisfied demeanor was something of a ruse; he was also beset by demons—old resentments, vindictiveness, oversensitivity to slights—which he battled with alcohol and pills. Luckily, he also had a hardy constitution; Mewshaw recalls one evening after the next seeing Vidal drinking enough wine or whiskey to slay an ox, only to get up the next morning and write. Consequently, the book counterbalances Vidal's airbrushed self-portrait in Palimpsest (1995), which Mewshaw writes “wasn’t so much a memoir as a novel with a thoroughly unreliable narrator.” Mewshaw gives a good inside picture of Vidal’s domestic life, as well as showing his fears, vulnerabilities and full-time dependence on his 50-plus–year partner, Howard Austen, whose death in 2003 left Vidal with little more than alcohol for consolation.
Mewshaw’s account is more devilish (and sometimes downright cruel) than sympathetic, but it’s also well-written, funny and never boring. Literary lives don’t get dishier.