Isn't It Romantic? : The memoir of a man who knows everyone and likes almost no one : PALIMPSEST: A Memoir, By Gore Vidal (Random House: $27.50; 435 pp.)

James McCourt is the author, most recently, of "Time Remaining: Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf)

Gore Vidal, author of this long memoir, of many novels, including the groundbreaking "The City and the Pillar" and the comic masterpiece "Myra Breckenridge," of a clutch of hit plays for early television and high-tide Broadway, and of such film scripts as "Ben Hur," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "The Best Man," is the child of the broken home called America, of which he has made himself, in dozens of splendid essays, the preeminent public scold.

At age 14 he shortened his name, lopping off Eugene and Luther . I regret the loss of the appropriate Eugene (he was well born into the American sociopolitical aristocracy) and only somewhat less the Luther (it seems to fit one who was nailed any number of authoritative personalist theses on any number of church doors). Gore is a smart first name, but Gore Vidal is two of his mother's names, and his mother wasn't at all good to him.

Like his grandfather, T.P. Gore, the first Oklahoman senator, he comes from a border world--his is that of the "straight" queer--and what the Saturday Review critic of "The City and the Pillar" wrote nearly 50 years ago still applies to his best work: "When one considers that Vidal has succeeded not merely in putting futility behind him but in making a tragic affirmation in the midst of futility, his achievement becomes impressive indeed." Put next to his own words--"One reason I didn't like football was the boredom of putting on and taking off all that gear. Even so, at an early school, I made what I thought was an unusually brilliant touchdown against what proved to be, on closer analysis, my own team"--it says more than I can in the space provided here.

Perhaps because I dislike most of "Palimpsest's" cast of "power people" (a race that, for it to rule, must renounce love), I am riveted by the great romance of his life, with Jimmie Trimble, a golden beauty met at prep school and killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. "At 13 we talked about girls less than we did about each other. This was a sign, though I was hardly adept at signs then. Why should anyone happy ever note a sign?" That's bewitching, faltering pitch and all--and having reservations about "Palimpsest's" pitch is rather like going to a favorite singer's recital and carping: "But why that song?" (There were even songs Judy Garland sang that I could do without, although her anthem too was "The Man that Got Away.")

The author of "Palimpsest" is certainly entitled to speak about some of the most important, or self-important of the century's Americans. (He says, assuredly, "Look, I know these people.") He is brilliant on the Kennedy myth and unassailable in his appraisal of the way "power" women campaign for and attain alternate office.

Early ripe, he has met all the principals in his story before age 25, and presumably unlike the people in novels, he's grown tired of them all ("once-famous people who mean nothing, by and large, to people now"), except for dead Jimmie, whose nimbus has a long half-life, and his longtime companion, Harold Austen, barely glimpsed. ("I have now lived a half century with a man, but sex has played no part in the relationship and so where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness. But there are satisfying lesser states, fragments." I infer some kind of love; as to its type, it did for the Lunts--and as was written elsewhere, I reckon if it's love, the Lord won't mind.)

Quoting the American essayist John Jay Chapman, he writes, "The thing that stirs us in any man's writing is the man himself--a thing quite outside the page, and for which the man is not responsible." Yes, the man is outside the page, just as the singer's voice is in the mask, but there's some responsibility, I think, and shouldering it is a component of the art.

Complaining of Rousseau, he writes, "What one does get is a querulous tone of voice" and then goes on to write himself, "We are apt to become extinct, a consoling thought on one of the most beautiful days that I remember here on the [Amalfi] coast or anywhere else for that matter." Often he is thus hoist on his own petard--and I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that Gore Vidal's petard is legendary. Brilliant perceptions are offset with the odd howler, like "the United States has never had a civilization." (Such also-ran self-loathing! I want to slap him, or absolve him. But then he drinks too much in the evenings, boasting, "I have never broken down, as opposed to slowly crumbling.") Still and all, the important thing to say is that, although I believe that Gore Vidal often goes awry, I think he never deliberately lies, and that distinction is worth making. Did he give up politics, convinced at heart that no such thing as the truth obtains in the world, to be able to deal in some kind of unworldly verity? "Again, I note that only the novel can ever be true," he writes. Odd if so, for the image of him that will prevail, I think, is that of Jesting Pilate. ("What is truth--pass the hand towel.")

In general, he is better on people than places--they do more to recall his interior life, whereas places (any, all) merely goad him into an ever more facile chronicling of his roaring takeoff, stormy rise to cruising altitude, and trans-world flight. There's not much there anywhere in "Palimpsest," except (brilliantly) the frightening Washington, D.C., the childhood houses, and the aerie in Ravello, where he begins to suggest Tiberius at Capua (but seems far too decent an American for the worst excesses of that). He's better on people (he seems to wish they were different; so do I) if sometimes nonchalantly hustler-crude--on Jack Kerouac, for example, or more than a little opaque ("At 11 I started, mysteriously, vomiting in [his mother] Nina's presence." Mysteriously?). He's probably at his best on the Capote feud. (Can it mean anything that both their mothers were drunks with the same Christian name? I wonder too, if in a fictive world, Myra Breckenridge and Holly Golightly might not be gal pals.)

He is both inaccurate and unfair on New York. "I could never bear the fashion-magazine world that dominated the arts in New York, a world obsessed with decoration, whether of a stage set or of a prose style." "Dominated by a fashion-magazine world" is shallow. Nor did the one magazine that did help classify (rather than merely feature) the producers and product of New York's great post-war arts boom, the Ross-Shawn "New Yorker," ever fall (as does its name-only successor) into the category of "fashion magazine." I consider the Gotham nightmare a comeuppance ("I also dream that I have gone into an unfamiliar brownstone house in New York City only to realize that I own the building but can never recall its address."). It just makes no sense to eulogize the fabulous Everard Baths (28 West 28th Street), then trash the city that took the rough-hewn tyro to its manly bosom.

Memoirs done, I wish he would now write a novella about Jimmie Trimble; it could be his second masterpiece. Melville found Billy Budd in his late years. "For years," Vidal writes, "whenever I was in a numinous place like Delphi or Delos, I would address the night: 'Jimmie, are you anywhere?' and almost always the wind would rise. . . . I still want Jimmie to be , somewhere, if only on this page."

He succeeds: More than much else in this memoir, Jimmie is . Why not let him be everywhere on about 200 pages? "Finally," the last sentence in "Palimpsest" reads, "I seem to have written . . . a love story, ending with us whole at last in the shadow of a copper beech." He hasn't in fact done so; I wish he would.

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