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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “New Vidal looks back on a long, remarkable career”

    New Vidal looks back on a long, remarkable career

    He’s been insulted by William F. Buckley and head-butted by Norman Mailer. Al Gore is a cousin, Amelia Earhart a family friend, Jack Kennedy a relative by marriage. He’s written 25 novels and more than 200 essays.

    No doubt about it, Gore Vidal has one of the most dramatic lives in the history of literature. If anyone deserves the title of America’s greatest man of letters, it’s him. One can hear him caustically replying that he is America’s only man of letters, and he wouldn’t be half-wrong.

    Vidal’s latest (and, he claims, last) book, “”Point to Point Navigation,”” a sort-of memoir, is a wry, sweeping overview of his life. Vidal, who grew up in one of Washington’s oldest and most powerful political families, regards the history of his country as “”a family affair”” and is fond of speaking of Thomas Jefferson as if he knew the old boy personally.

    Vidal’s old-fashioned republican beliefs have brought him into conflict with what he calls America’s “”imperial”” tendencies, and most of his recent bestsellers – “”Imperial America,”” “”Dreaming War – are furious screeds denouncing the misdeeds of the Bush administration. While his memoir brushes against the subject from time to time, Vidal’s style is more relaxed here, and his glittering wit is flashing on every page.

    The pleasure of the book is in its free-flowing style. It’s like sitting next to Vidal for hours, listening to him wax eloquent on the likes of Richard Nixon (“”Nixon seemed to have no conscious mind. He said whatever was milling about in his overwrought subconscious. In speeches, he often turned to Pat, his wife, loyally seated nearby, and, shaking his finger at her, he would intone, ‘We here in America can no longer stand pat.'””) and Truman Capote (“”He lived for gossip. No fact ever gave him pause. When truly inspired, like Joan of Arc attending to her voices, he would half shut his eyes and start inventing stories about people whom he had often never known, or even heard of.””).

    If this book is about anything, it’s about death, though one can hardly imagine a more blasé, roundabout approach to the subject. Watching a movie he loved as a child, Vidal is suddenly struck by the incongruity of the movies, “”where now-dead people (are) unconscious of the screening camera as they go about their business, in the margins of a film where they are, forever, briefly alive.””

    One of the book’s strangely poignant chapters is about Johnny Carson, whose brisk, chilly wit bore more than a few similarities to Vidal’s. Vidal appeared on “”The Tonight Show”” many times, and when Carson died, Vidal clearly felt he had lost something of himself. In an inspired moment, Vidal imagines himself back on Carson’s show, trading quips about the failed Iraq War.

    “”Point to Point Navigation”” revolves, very loosely, around the death of Howard Austen, Vidal’s platonic partner of 50 years. Vidal was devastated by the loss, and it results in the most emotional writing he’s ever done.

    His loss comes home most vividly in a chapter where he describes sitting alone in his empty room and glancing around and looking for something to write about. He will be buried next to Austen, he casually writes, “”when I take time off from my busy schedule.””

    One hopes that Vidal will be kept busy here for some time to come. His voice isn’t one we’ll find easy to replace.

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