'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Globe, October 29, 2000

Nuggets fuel Vidal's 'Golden Age

The Golden Age
Gore Vidal
Doubleday
467 pp. $27.50


ore Vidal's "The Golden Age" lasts a mere fourteen years. It opens with the Roosevelt-Willkie election of 1940 and ends just after the Korean War (a brief coda brings us up to the millennium celebrations). In between we have Eleanor and Franklin, the Second World War, a much-abused Harry Truman, the rise and instantaneous fall of the 1950s, and a plot so thin it could be told on a Post-it. The book's strength is Vidal's grasp of American history, while its limitation is his familiar habit of putting his opinions into the mouth of any passing character. But as Oscar Wilde said when similarly criticized, "What does it matter when the talk is so good?"

The seventh and concluding volume in Vidal's fictional history of the United States, which began with "Burr" in 1973, "The Golden Age" is evenly divided between Roosevelt's war and Truman's peace. While uncertain what to make of FDR, Vidal jumps with both feet on poor Harry S. His Truman is a muddler, a weak man whose need to swagger gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the face of Japanese motions to surrender, and whose misreading of the Soviet threat led to the Korean War, the McCarthy era, the Loyalty Review Board of 1947, and the militarization of American society, still in effect.

One of Vidal's peculiarities, given the scathing things he says about his historical figures when they're not in the room, is his skill at drawing them when they are. Seen up close, his FDR is effortlessly charming, sharp-eyed, in full command of events. Behind his back Vidal argues that Roosevelt manipulated the Japanese into bombing Pearl Harbor (right up until the bombs fell, 80 percent of the US population opposed entering the war). For Vidal, Roosevelt's unilateral, unconstitutional decision to bring the United States into the war had little to do with saving France or England, and nothing to do with crushing Germany, but rather was an opportunity to seize from all three control of world affairs.

It is often said that Vidal's essays are better than his novels, and certainly the first half of "The Golden Age" makes every effort to drive that argument home. His writing can be startlingly Dick-and-Jane-like ("There was a rap at the door. It was Mrs. Roosevelt. Caroline and Tim rose."). But the charming portraits are sprinkled throughout like raisins in the bran. (Eleanor has been to see a doctor about her blood. Franklin asks, "But what did he have to say about that big fat ass of yours?" Eleanor replies, "I'm afraid, dear, you were never mentioned.") More to the point, a great deal of good history is conveyed, particularly Vidal's dramatic account of the 1940 and 1944 conventions and Roosevelt's Fourth Inaugural Address.

"The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward. . . ."

After a brief interval during which Vidal's fictional characters are asked to carry the plot a short but exhausting distance forward, we return to history to find FDR dead, the war over, and Truman already bungling the peace. Though the second half of the book has less action than the first, and no FDR, it gains from Vidal himself having been on hand for the events he describes (or at least in their neighborhood).

In many ways, the Cold War is Vidal's great subject. It coincides with his own coming of age, and suits his pugnacious, determined, unshakably cranky spirit.

He is at the top of his talent in describing how American imperialists have exploited the bogey of communism as a means to building the empire. One character obligingly sums up Vidal's position: "The real struggle in the United States, since the Civil War, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the nation with their generally representative congresses and a small professional elite totally split off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in."

Vidal tells many stories through the course of the novel, but one is particularly mischievous. This concerns a rivalry that he sets up between himself and his former friend and Camelot neighbor, Jack Kennedy. Vidal is Peter Sanford, a Washington insider who trades in his silver spoon for a pen and byline, and the Kennedy character is Clay Overbury, a smooth, sex-soaked congressman. On the home front, Overbury seduces Sanford's wealthy father for the money to finance his Senate campaign, then steals the woman Sanford loves, for her upper-crust connections. Though it might seem surprising that Vidal concludes his American history with the Korean War, when the glorious and golden turrets of Camelot are within walking distance, one senses that he has said here all he cares to say about the Brothers Kennedy and their golden age.

Good as "The Golden Age" is, it has peculiar flaws. Though Vidal's historical sketches bring out his warmest, most imaginative writing, their subjects are glimpsed too briefly, and never in action, only in repose. His fictional characters, meanwhile, are interesting only as bugs on the walls of history, and too often they're not in the room when history is. Vidal advances his story most often by bringing on a celebrity sage, such as Herbert Hoover or Henry Wallace or William Randolph Hearst, all sounding remarkably like Gore Vidal, to tell us what has happened and why it was a mistake. Though it may be good history, this makes for weak fiction, in that we are always at a remove from the action, and their withering hindsight lends the narrative an "I told you so" quality.

Vidal has frequently said Americans are frogs in a pan of water being brought slowly to the boil. To continue the metaphor, Vidal's long-running series is a thermometer growing redder and redder. If the nation's fate should prove dire, Vidal will have the satisfaction of being able to say that he has patiently, intelligently, and entertainingly told us so.