Gore Vidal's `The Golden Age': For all man's folly, here's hope

September 10, 2000|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Gore Vidal, long the naughtiest boy of American literature, has in his 75th year become an almost warmly wise man -- maybe even a grown-up. With "The Golden Age"(Doubleday, 467 pages, $27.50), he has completed "The American Chronicles," his seven-volume exploration of the character and history of two centuries of the United States, presented in historical novels. It is a splendid work.

With this publication by Doubleday, Vintage will release a paperback reissue of the preceding books: "Burr"(1973), "Lincoln" (1984), "1876" (1976) "Empire" (1987) "Hollywood" (1990) and "Washington, D.C." (1967). Taken as a whole, they sweep from the beginning of the 19th century to the immediate present -- though the principal actions of the final volume stop in 1954.

Vidal, who lives in Ravello, Italy, and Los Angeles, published the first of his 22 novels in 1946. He has written many plays, screenplays, essays and a memoir. He has been a Democratic political activist and sometime candidate -- an indefatigable player in a half century of the 200 years he has chronicled.

"The Golden Age's" cast of characters, as ever, is a mixture of real people and Vidal's inventions. Many of the inventions seem very close to identifiable people; many of the historical real people wander far from the historic record.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. You get what you pay for -- a historical novel. Vidal himself is among the historical characters. He turns up first at a literary party in New York City, a very young novelist, ironic beyond his years. At the book's end, he is both narrator and character, weaving fiction and reality in a delectable counterpoint.

The book begins, against the backdrop of the Depression, with the internal debates about the United States' possible involvement in World War II, just beginning in Europe. Much of the U.S. government and the vast majority of the American people were opposed to another European war.

It is vivid stuff -- and informative. Not revelatory in the sense of breaking news or constructing way-out fantasy so much as reviving awareness of issues: the often violent enthusiasm of many Irish Americans to have England defeated by Germany; the suspicion, combined with fear, that Washington insiders had of Master Schemer Franklin D. Roosevelt; the completeness of FDR's below-the-waist paralysis and the excruciating effort he made to disguise that from public recognition.

Roosevelt and those around him are presented as having been fully aware of the impending attack by the Japanese, and fairly well informed that it would be on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, Roosevelt and his collaborators in both political parties had elaborately and methodically pressed for an opportunity for the United States to join the war. The book covers the war itself in a skip and a jump.

In the post-WWII period, onward into the mid-1950s -- 1954 is the end of the "Golden Age" but not of the novel -- the book has fun with almost every member of the East and West coasts' literary and artistic communities. Socko anecdotes. Wacko relationships. Paranoid politics -- a very bitter reading of the propensity of even decent politicians to be morally compromised.

It is easy reading -- moving energetically, driven mainly by convincing dialogue. The style is largely invisible, as all fine style should be, though not entirely free of the occasional indulgence of cliche.

The vantage point is unpompously universal -- shifting from concentration on one character to another when the action shifts. There is little or no internal musing. Though Vidal's sympathies are clearly to the far liberal end of the spectrum or beyond, the book is never preachy -- though it is filled with people who, quite splendidly, are.

Certainly, the great figures at play in this book -- Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, a couple of dozen others -- are complex and intricate and brilliant and often devious. But as presented they are no more so than many of the people you meet at the office.

While thus demystifying the mighty, Vidal is often characteristically and exquisitely bitchy. He strings out in confectionary gossip Eleanor Roosevelt's lesbian legends and her detesting her husband, Sissy Patterson's predilection for boy toys, all sorts of matters that insiders perhaps regarded as truth in their time but were seldom written about. Vidal makes such stuff seem vital threads in the fabric of grand history.

There is a great deal of irony, some wise, almost all delightful.

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