Gore Vidal, 1925-2012
This ran in 2006, but I thought it appropriate today to run it one more time:
The first book I read by Gore Vidal was “Washington, D.C.” I still have the 95-cent Signet paperback published in April 1968 (I pretty much have every book I ever bought—the Berkeley house is groaning under their weight). I was a junior in high school, a reader who always leaned toward books unsanctioned by English class. Okay, “A Tale of Two Cities” is a great novel (great Cliffs Notes, too, as I recall), but how could it compare with “You Only Live Twice” or “Farewell, My Lovely” or “Red Harvest” or “The Martian Chronicles”?
“Washington, D.C.” had been a bestseller in hardcover, and I was anxious to read it. So there I was in April 1968, enthralled by Vidal when I should have been studying Latin or trig (I still get chills thinking about trig). I loved Vidal’s novel, in part because one of the major characters was close to my age in the opening chapters.
I became a major Vidal fan, and next read “Julian,” another terrific novel, this one about a Roman emperor who had the excellent idea of returning Rome to a polytheistic society. In other words, Julian wanted to get rid of Christianity, or at least give people some options. Think how interesting the world would be if there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of gods to choose from, kind of like all those choices on cable TV today.
Over the years, I read lots and lots of Vidal: novels, plays, essays, and criticism. His versatility is impressive (among Vidal’s American contemporaries, few can approach this output. Mailer and Updike come to mind, and it’s probably no surprise that Vidal has had disagreements with each). The popular wisdom is that his criticism surpasses his novels, which is an insult to some very good novels. “Myra Breckinridge” is one of the great novels of the 20th Century. Naturally, I still have my paperback of that, published in September 1968, meaning I read it as I started my senior year at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens. “Myra,” which is about a transgender person (a term not in use in 1968) who takes on Hollywood and other American lunacy, was not required reading at BRHS. Is it any wonder that to this day I refuse to divulge my awful math SAT scores? While I should have been cramming for the college boards, I was reading “Myra Breckinridge.” I like to think I’m a better person for so doing. Vidal’s book is funny, cruel and packed with lots of truths about the USA. If you’ve never read it, do so.
Which brings us to “Point to Point Navigation.” By my count, this is Vidal’s 46th book (he published his first novel, “Williwaw” when he was about 20), excluding several pseudonymous efforts. He’s now 81. This latest book is a sequel to his 1995 memoir “Palimpsest” and picks up where that book ended, around 1964. Sadly, this one has little of the verve of the earlier memoir. Repetitive in spots, Vidal seems somewhat disinterested in his own life, or later life. He still has interesting stories to tell, for Vidal met every famous person of the last century (a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle refers to him as Zelig-like). By far the best parts of the book are his moving descriptions of the death of his best friend and companion, Howard Austen.
But if you’ve never read Vidal, pick up “Burr” or “Julian” or “Washington, D.C.” or “Messiah” or “United States” or “Myra.” And there's plenty more.
The man’s a hell of a writer.