I thank Gore Vidal
He had long been ill. We’ve known for some time that he would die soon. I never thought that “soon” would be so soon. Or that it would necessarily be ever. Imagined somehow that his remaining days would be spent quietly and invisibly in his Ravello villa, and that one day, years on, we’d hear of his passing in the night. Instead he cashed out now, declining to suffer any longer the physical pain and existential misery that were obviously his boon companions in old age. The last hills he saw were those of Hollywood, not Italy. There’s an appropriateness to the geography of his exit, since he spent many fruitful years as a screenwriter in Tinseltown and wrote about the place and the people as well as any memoirist ever has. But his death itself was inappropriate, as death is always inappropriate when it visits those who will not be replaced.
I was lucky enough to see him hold forth at the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway back around 1995, when his memoir Palimpsest was published. He fielded questions about public policy and private lives with equal aplomb, casually dropping the bomb that Bobby Kennedy may, may, you understand, have had a fling with Rudolf Nuryev. He was in fine fettle and pink health. But the last time I saw him, on Bill Maher’s show on April 10, 2009, he was clearly not just ill but ill at ease, crankier even than the Gore of old, mounting a perverse—surprise!—and not very interesting—surprise—defense of Bernie Madoff. Idea being, I think, that Gore liked Bernie because Bernie had made visible all the hidden motors and motives of the American empire instinct. He had shown us our secret selves, and was now being made the scapegoat for every capitalist’s unadmitted wish—to screw everyone in sight, reduce other lives to smoking ruin, and get away clean with the green. I got Vidal’s idea, but was turned off by his way of expressing it.
Like many, I looked to Vidal for clarity, critique, and a fearless (albeit biased) response to American madness. I never expected to agree with him on everything, never imagined I would want to be his friend. Yet even I was not so vaguely offended by that Madoff-praising TV appearance. As an actual friend of mine put it today, in the context of admiration, Vidal normally gave the impression of being “ragingly egotistical, entitled, miserable, [and] very angry.” No doubt he was all of those things, or was giving a phenomenal impression. But as I began to realize a little while back, when Christopher Hitchens died, it was never the role of the public intellectual to confirm anyone in his or her beliefs, or let anyone feel too comfortable for too long. And feeling that the intellectual himself is unassailable, unobjectionable, a guru, or even just a wonderful person is the first step in getting too comfortable—in ceasing to think critically.
So the great writer’s final gift to me, his fan, follower, and defender for many years, was to piss me off. Thanks, Gore, for never letting me feel too comfortable with you.
Charles McGrath in the New York Times writes the best summa I’ve seen on Vidal as writer and raconteur, intellect and irritant, performer and public figure. From the personal side, I add:
Read everything you can by him. Maybe start with his non-historical novels, for the fictional-dramatic is usually the easiest route into a writer’s private mechanism. Williwaw, The City and the Pillar (the first mainstream novel to take homosexuality as theme and subject), Dark Green, Bright Red (about a US fruit company—not the United Fruit Company, no!—working its mischief in Latin America), Messiah (which explored the fascist potential of TV years before A Face in the Crowd, let alone Network), Julian (scandalously readable epic of the Roman emperor who tried to banish Christianity), Myra Breckinridge (scandalously readable comedy of sex change and sex confusion and sex and sex and sex and sex).
The Narratives of Empire, seven in number, that amount to a biography of the United States: Burr, Lincoln, 1876, etc. This, for me, is the undiscovered country of Vidal’s work. I look forward to exploring it.
Vidal’s essays, though, are where you find the mind and matter of the man in most unmitigated form. He was one of the best-ever practitioners of that genre: caustic, deeply and broadly learned, hilarious. Self-deprecating, even, when the moment was right. Literature, politics, travel, war, the popular and the elitist, he traveled every terrain and made the obvious seem a little less so; he was on the inside of everything and he told on everyone. He took the broadest latitude to be the critic of America that our vaunted freedoms guarantee each of us the right to be. He filled your head with notions and, if you were a writer, inspired you to write the fastest, sharpest, most challenging sentences you could conjure. Rocking the Boat, Reflections on a Sinking Ship, Homage to Daniel Shays, Matters of Fact and of Fiction, The Last Empire. And especially United States, the collected cream of our country’s greatest essayist over the span of fifty years.
I’m driven to commemorate Vidal here partly because he is a strong phantom presence in The Man Who Saw a Ghost. His words kept surfacing and seeming essential as I made my way through Henry Fonda’s way through the American past and present, and so I quoted him many times in his capacity as a) a most acute, skeptical, and articulate observer of our history; b) an on-site participant in the Kennedy regime, in which Fonda also played a more than marginal role; and c) a colleague of Fonda’s, who starred in the film version of Vidal’s play The Best Man.
Speaking of which—I of course had no idea I was posting a blog entry about Vidal and The Best Man the day before he would die. Let it be my little fantasy that mine was the last piece of writing to appear on him while he was still here, that a tiny vibration of admiration went out and found him, that it joined all the others he had inspired and provoked in his life, and that he died smiling like the cat who had swallowed the canary—or, more impressively, the American writer who had left his mark on our time.