"United States: Essays, 1952-1992" by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal the novelist's best character is Gore Vidal the essayist. Beside him even Myra Breckenridge seems a pale creation, and this great fat book, chronicling 40 years of the essayist's adventures, is like a lively picaresque novel in reverse.

Its hero starts out as a wickedly clever but world-weary 26-year-old: between the inauguration of Eisenhower ("The Great Golfer") and the election of Clinton (sobriquet still to come), he grows steadily cleverer, funnier, more indignant and less amenable to compromise. At 66, Vidal appears to be just coming to his full dimensions as an enfant terrible: one of the best, most stinging pieces in the book is a passionate attack on Christianity--and, for good measure, Judaism and Islam--published last July.

Age has strengthened his hand, in part because the character of Vidal the essayist has always rested on his claim to possess a memory that goes back, in leaps and bounds, at least 2,000 years. America (a k a "Amnesia") forgets; Vidal remembers. He has put together for himself a lineage that makes him as old as the hills. His father's job, as director of the Bureau of Air Commerce during the New Deal, makes Vidal a vicarious intimate of F.D.R. (and a friend of Eleanor's); his maternal grandfather, Senator T. P. Gore of Oklahoma, gives him a foothold in the ruling class under Theodore Roosevelt. From there, it is a short hop to Lincoln's Washington. (Vidal, like Lincoln's son Robert, went to school at Exeter, where, circa 1940, "memories of Lincoln were still vivid." Vidal is a great one for milking his connections, however far-fetched or cousinly far-removed.) The Lincoln link gets him, in another long stride, to Jefferson, Tom Paine, Voltaire, from whom he makes the easy jump to Swift and Montaigne. Once there, he takes the 30-minute shuttle back to the Roman satirists, Juvenal and Martial. In no time at all, the friend of John F. Kennedy ("I told Jack that (Tennessee Williams had commented favorably on his ass. He beamed. 'Now, that's very exciting,' he said"), the fifth--or is it sixth?--cousin to Jimmy Carter, and sometime Democratic Liberal candidate for the U.S. Senate, is in toga and sandals, his gray locks becomingly encircled by a wreath of bays.

The pose is crucial to Vidal's literary method. Seen from this quasi-Roman perspective, everything from Christianity to television presents itself as a vulgar abomination. For Vidal, though a contributing editor to the Nation and widely thought of as a dangerous lefty, is a conservative. The past he appeals to is simply a much older past than the one beloved by the American Spectator and the National Review--not the Golden Age of unbridled Victorian capitalism but the era of Enlightenment rationalism and the sexy, literate, secular society of Rome before the later Caesars corrupted it with their tyranny. There is a lot of Latin in his prose style--its sting-in-the-tail sentences, their poison cunningly withheld until the clinching verb at the end--and Latin, too, in the characteristic Vidal mixture of sensuality and high-spirited ferocity.

Satire, he wrote in 1958, "is truth grinning in a solemn canting world." It's the grin that makes Vidal irresistible--his huge appetite for pure verbal mischief. No one else would manage to identify George Bush's home town as Kennebunkport, Tex.--as no one else would labor for several paragraphs under the happy misapprehension that Hilton Kramer is a resort hotel in the Catskills. Vidal's anecdotes are laced with threads of finespun malice. In an essay on Frederic Prokosch, he describes taking Prokosch to an academic party full of tenured poets:

"Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme positions were taken. Finally one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. 'It's Dante,' a full professor whispered to a full wife."

Nor is Vidal ever too pushed for time to settle an old score when the opportunity arises. In the course of a particularly brilliant piece about Somerset Maugham, he suddenly pulls off the shelf an "agreeable picture book" about Maugham, compiled some 15 years before by Frederic Raphael, an English book reviewer. "Mr. Raphael," writes Vidal, "quotes from Dreiser, whom he characterizes as 'an earnest thunderer in the cause of naturalism and himself a Zolaesque writer of constipated power.' Admittedly, Dreiser was not in a class with Margaret Drabble, but--constipated?" Here Vidal posts an asterisk, which leads to the only footnote in the essay:

* Mr. Raphael has many opinions about books that he has not actually read. You will see him at his glittering best in the Times, in his obituary of Gore Vidal (date to come).

Such parenthetical skirmishes and revenges give a tart edge to Vidal's writing even at its sweetest and most reminiscent: You never know when he's going to find an enemy to wipe the floor with.

His style is provocatively de haut en bas; it is the style of a man who has spent a lifetime suffering fools ungladly. He is fond of tweaking his readers' ears, school master-fashion: "Third Republic? Fourth Republic? What am I talking about? Let me explain"; " . . . the penultimate Dispensation? The what? Let me explain." In "The State of the Union: 1975" he regaled the readers of Esquire with his state-of-the-union address for 1974, interleaved with notes on its reception by the various women's luncheon clubs at which it was delivered. " . . . Nervous intake of breath on this among women's groups . . . . " " Sodomy gets them. For elderly, good-hearted audiences I paraphrase, the word is not used." To the Esquire sophisticates, Vidal confided that he tried to speak wherever possible to "conservative middle-class audiences off the beaten track--Parkersburg, West Virginia; Medford, Oregon; Longview, Washington."

Irony, as Fowler nicely explains in "Modern English Usage," is a form that always requires two audiences: one that gets it, and one that doesn't (though Fowler puts it more prettily than that); or that enlightened legion of subscribers to Esquire (Esquire?) and the flag-waving, church-supper blue-rinse crowd. Getting the one to laugh at the reactionary naivete of the other is a standard Vidal tactic. So is his trick of seeming condemned to fight Reason's lonely corner in venues like Longview, Wash. and Medford, Ore. Like St. Stephen, Vidal needs the stones to keep coming.

There is another sort of irony here. The appearance of Olympian solitude is a necessary part of Vidal's pitch as the unregarded wise man in a crass, uneducated world. Yet the world is constantly regarding him: he's on Larry King, Barbara Walters, Dick Cavett; he's playing himself in the movies; 14 months ago (let's say), the views of Gore Vidal were a good deal better known than those of the current President of the United States. Nor are his views so shockingly heterodox (and I write as someone who lives within spitting distance, more or less, of Longview, Wash.): cut the defense budget and put an end to the "garrison state"; tax the profits of churches like those of other businesses; restore literacy; cure society of its superstitious homophobia; limit campaign spending; stop state interference in matters of private morality; discourage "schoolteachers" from writing "R&D" novels (John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor," the later Pynchon) whose chief function is to be taught in class; give thanks for "R&R" writers like Louis Auchincloss and Dawn Powell (a writer new to me, who turns out to be much funnier and more vivid about New York life in the 1940s and '50s than her British namesake, Anthony, is about London life in the same period); undermine the complacent hegemony of the New York Times.

Vidal the controversialist has a genius for making his least controversial thoughts take on the dangerous glitter of sedition. In 1986 he addressed the question of the American deficit vis-a-vis the growing economic dominance of Japan. That topic. It was less frequently spoken of then than now, but Vidal was hardly breaking new ground--except in his phrasing of the problem.

" . . . last summer (not suddenly, I fear) we found ourselves close to $2 trillion in debt. Then, in the fall, the money power shifted from New York to Tokyo, and that was the end of our empire. Now the long-feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as world leader, and we--the white race--have become the yellow man's burden. Let us hope that he will treat us more kindly than we have treated him. . . "

In a footnote ("Believe it or not . . . ") Vidal feigns innocent astonishment at the furor created by this passage, in which every word is teasingly trailed under the noses of the PC crowd, as sodomite was trailed under the noses of the blue-rinses. Bite, suckers! They bit.

His taste for schoolboy hazing, his love of the swash and buckle of debate ("It's savory scholar-squirrel stew time again!" he announces with horrid relish, as he prepares to boil alive a brace of historians who have found fault with his novel, "Lincoln"), have tended to marginalize Vidal as merely outrageous --the word that has come to haunt him. "He can't be serious . . . " says the luncheon clubber with a pleasurably appalled giggle--and those who treasure Vidal for his sanity in a silly world may wish that his high spirits were sometimes a little more repressible.

For he is at heart a more serious writer than the dozens of solemn preachers and tipsters whose work is discussed across the nation with an earnestness never accorded to that of Gore Vidal. His gloriously funny tirades against the various hacks of academe spring from the conviction that there has been a shameful treason-of-the-clerks by literary intellectuals in the United States. He stands for the proud tradition in which the imaginative writer has a place of honor at the table of the big bad world of politics, money, manners and morals. In Vidal's work, cultivated worldliness is the order of the day, and he is our best example of the chastening power of a truly free-lance intelligence on the loose among the specialists.

Defending the novel as the civilized and civilizing secular entertainment, wrangling with Jefferson, the Adamses, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, as if they were his obstreperous contemporaries, speaking out for the right of the individual to share his or her bed with whomsoever he or she pleases, damning religion ("The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism . . . "), Vidal is fearless and cogent. He writes of himself as a "born-again atheist." It's a telling phrase, for he believes in reason (and reason's bright child, wit) with something closely akin to religious fervor: denouncing the Puritan sky-god, he sounds eerily like Cotton Mather reincarnated with a magnificently un-Puritan sense of humor.