Gore Vidal's Conquest of Everything, or Not Quite

This week's fall fund drive at KPFK 90.7 FM arrives as the only real non-commercial people's alternative media station struggles to make the case for what should be wildly self-evident, which made my taped interview with novelist, poet, essayist, editor and, now, biographer Jay Parini so further ironic, if also encouraging. Parini was a close friend of the late Gore Vidal, who of course lived in So Cal and could often be heard on KPFK, which is to say that he appreciated one of the few regular, consistent, available venues for his kind of historical revisionism. I miss Vidal.  Parini's terrific, difficult, honest and yet celebratory telling of the life of one of the American Century's (yikes!) great, self-esteeming, provocative, witty and cringingly contradictory critics has a lot to recommend it, not the least of which the short vignettes Parini shares, moments of pathos, humor and intimacy. It's a fast read for a 400-plus page biography and, of course, Parini could have done even more had he wanted, considering the material and Vidal's 85 years. Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, two-time (losing, of course) Senatorial candidate, media star, provocateur and, yes, the best actor ever at playing the role of one "Gore Vidal," this peripatetic and unceasingly productive, creative, engaged Man of Letters lived a full, frustrated and totally entertaining life.  Which is probably what he wanted, at least while he was living it. 

Another voice, of a slightly different timbre but whose critique of the American Empire matched Vidal's, is Noam Chomsky's. You might remember that in the early days of the latest war, the two were often paired up, as if the corporate media could, despite every search and research resource available, locate only two anti-imperialist anti-war public intellectuals, no Medea Benjamin or Norman Solomon or Cornell WestStill, it made for great fun, their pairing (an anti-Viet Nam War reunion), of which I was reminded when I heard the Chomster say something in a speech only last week exemplary of his own reliably deadpan wit:  "The Republican organization --- I hesitate to say party..." and I swore I heard Gore chuckling on the stage with him and then perhaps offering his own drollery and cleverness by way of organizations and parties. The two of them had, briefly, the entire Bush Administration as straight men, and if you went in for this sort of thing you could hear them plenty on Democracy Now! and Ian Masters' excellent Background Briefing

Which is my easy segue to Parini's excellent Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. Ian had Parini, a Vermonter, on the show recently to talk about Bernie Sanders' campaign and briefly mentioned the book in the way that careful and generous hosts do, and to apprise listeners of Parini's own impressive CV (fiction, poetry, nonfiction and criticism) and to remind us that Parini is featured in a lovely documentary titled The United States of Amnesia.  Sure, you should watch the film, but reading Parini's lovingly offered take on his famous literary pal and mentor features the construction of a story by a friend, another writer, a cultural and popular history critique carefully textured and layered less to lionize than to empathize. Just two organizing strategies that complement the otherwise straight narrative are the consideration of Vidal's eclectic writing by genre and the sweet, short vignettes culled from Parini's own time spent with Vidal over thirty years. The latter are lovely interruptions, emotionally rewarding footholds on the busy journey. They include conversations, dinners, reunions and telling anecdotes, often displaying Vidal's wit (of course) but also his dissatisfaction, unhappiness, grief and enduring competitiveness. He always had something to prove, and made him tetchy and petty, if reliably entertaining, his obvious short-term goal. "Whenever a friend succeeds, something in me dies," is a hilarious and enviably Wildean line but it also betrays something awful.  Indeed, that last characteristic would seem to suggest, almost unbelievably, an insecurity, this from the most wonderfully arrogant, cocksure, charmingly obnoxious public figure you could invent or, in Vidal's case, self-invent. 
Of course, the writing --- from novels and stories to teleplays and screenplays, the historical fiction and the wacky social satires, to the memoirs and the essays and, finally, in his later, latest years, the pamphlets (a la Tom Paine, he liked to say) --- are the real measure of this man of letters.    
Parini's consideration of all the major work (and a lot of the minor) is a reminder of Vidal's ambition and successes, those essays arguably being his most significant and enduring. Failing at becoming his old, blind Senator grandpa, he took to looking like and acting like a type of ambassador without portfolio, wrote and rewrote that script, offering some of the best prose ever written about our benighted republic over decades of war, material and cultural impoverishment and the alarming decline (still!) into our permanent post-Reagan ghetto of the unimagination, with guns for all.  
Vidal famously never missed a chance to have sex or be on television, and for at least one of those we should be grateful. About the other he seems to have been deeply conflicted, no kidding, obsessing on a lost love, real or imagined, unable or unwilling to compromise with any of the expectations of romance, a selfish lout or just a driven, sexy dude. He made little time for thinking or moping, instead writing, writing, writing, and fitting in more sex, travel, television, politics, writing, acting into his big, rich, sometimes sad life than any dozen or even hundred people. In that way Vidal showed a kind of fabulous integrity, his egoistic empire and narcissism and flaunted contradictions giving Parini so much more to write about, not to mention giving Vidal so much to observe, joke about, complain about and also, yes, to celebrate. 
After reading Empire of Self I visited the big, full Vidal shelf here at Casa de Bibliofella, pulling a favorite out to affirm this week's other recommendation.  Yup, Screening History, a short volume of autobiography, film, politics and history all in one, is a great place to start reading, rereading Vidal, with photos and movie stills, too. You can hear his voice, strong and smart, and Vidal having fun being, and sharing the stories of his favorite character, one GV.

Parini, Jay, Empire of Self:  A Life of Gore Vidal, Doubleday, 480 pgs., $35.00

Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review and hosts the weekly Wednesday night books show Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.


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