Gore Vidal romps through history, stirring up controversies along the way

June 06, 1993|By Jonathan Raban | Jonathan Raban,Los Angeles Times

UNITED STATES: ESSAYS,

1952-1992.

Gore Vidal.

Random House.

$ 1,312 pages. $37.50. 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 Bill Clinton (sobriquet still to come), he grows steadily cleverer, funnier, more indignant and less amenable to compromise. At 66, Mr. 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 Mr. 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; he 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 Mr. Vidal a vicarious intimate of FDR (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. (Mr. Vidal, like Lincoln's son, Robert, went to school at Exeter, where, circa 1940, "memories of Lincoln were still vivid." He 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 Mr. Vidal's literary method. Seen from this quasi-Roman perspective, everything from Christianity to televisionpresents itself as a vulgar abomination. For Mr. 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.

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; 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 in Reason's lonely corner in venues like Longview, Wash.

There is another sort of irony here. The appearance of Olympian solitude is a necessary part of Mr. 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; undermine the complacent hegemony of the New York Times.

Gore 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 Mr. Vidal was hardly breaking new ground -- except in his phrasing of the problem.

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