The Boston Globe, October 29, 2000
Nuggets fuel Vidal's 'Golden Age
The Golden Age
467 pp. $27.50
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
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.