the end of an epic:
gore vidal rings down the curtain

 
The Golden Age
Gore Vidal
(Doubleday, 467 pages)
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the golden age cover
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Itís hard to imagine that Gore Vidal could have concluded this book with a more elegaic tone, short of ending it with the doctorís certificate of his death and instructions for the tombstone epitaph. Itís a shame, really, because the implication is that the author is unlikely to write another volume in his series of historical novels about American power and politics, doubly a shame because itís now, more than any other time, that we could really use his perspective.

Vidalís new novel is the latest, and last, installment in a series that begins chronologically with Burr, a re-creation of American political conflict around the time of Aaron Burrís fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton, the first of what Vidal regards as pivotal moments in the long devolution of America from democracy to oligarchy and empire. The Golden Age covers a period beginning at the start of World War Two and ends at the onset of the Eisenhower administration, with a final, summary flash forward to the present.

The fictional characters in the book - descendants of a bastard child of Burrís - mix with ďrealĒ characters like FDR and Truman, Harry Hopkins, William Randoph Hearst, Wendell Wilkie and Tennessee Williams, in Washington, New York and Hollywood. Itís the first of the series set during Vidalís lifetime, and the author, naturally, makes several appearances. The driving conflict of the story is Rooseveltís careful navigation of the country around isolationism and into the world war, through the strictly treasonous tactic of prodding Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor.

It was Vidal who first seriously discussed the family Thomas Jefferson fathered with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, and his vindication on that point has emboldened him to put this still-heretical explanation for the (admittedly unlikely) successful surprise attack in front of the public. In Vidalís view, American history is mostly a collection of convenient myths, and his novels are an attempt to peek behind the curtain at the likely truths. His motivation is mostly dismay at the way real democracy has been betrayed by money and a near-invisible ruling class obsessed with making America a global empire, though his cool rancour is blunted somewhat by his admiration for Rooseveltís social programs and the undeniable fact that Hitler had to be defeated.

The story is told with sometimes breathless prose - you get the impression early on that a less venerable writer might have had his run-on sentences edited more severely - and builds up a fantastic landscape of gossip that any political junkie will shoelessly wade through. A chapter devoted to the 1940 Republican convention is particularly gripping, and makes all the more bitter the unlikely chance that Vidal will ever turn his wicked eye on the real story of our own, insipid, political present.

POSTSCRIPT (2003): Three years after writing this, I've rather soured on Gore Vidal, not as a novelist - I still think books like The Golden Age and Hollywood are hugely enjoyable reading - but as a political thinker. Vidal has, though not in fiction, turned his "wicked eye" to the current political realities, and has come up wanting, as far as I can see, intoning tired broadsides against "American Empire", while knitting tendentious parallels between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, or rather his own, conspiracy-wrought take on Pearl Harbor.

His grudge against FDR has begun to feel obsessive and illogical, and the rant about empire like a broken record, the thinking man's version of witless slogans like "No Blood For Oil". Not surprisingly for a man who professes a fondness for the pagan, pre-Christian world, he seems unconcerned with the threat of crypto-fascist Islamic fundamentalism, and little concern for the fact of an attack on American soil, and the loss of American lives. No wonder, since the patrician Vidal has always lived a life far removed from mere Americans.

It's interesting what a watershed 9/11 feels like now, a line separating me from a time when I truly admired men like Gore Vidal and Lewis Lapham, and took people like Michael Moore and Tim Robbins seriously. The stakes, it seems, have just gotten much higher, and the world view of someone like Vidal has become, at least in my eyes, a sour and depthless thing. In retrospect, the elegaic tone of The Golden Age reads like the grouchy acknoledgment of an old man's budding irrelevance, a sort of abdication of the field.

©2000, 2003 Rick McGinnis
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