Vital Vidal

How essential are the memories?

Gore Vidal's second memoir will make you laugh hard, even when — especially when — it shouldn't.

Vidal has had as many careers as any American pop-star intellectual might want: activist, novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, expat observer and all-around celebrity whore. In his prime, Vidal was known for his historical novels, such as Lincoln and Burr, and his steamy (by late-'60s standards) Hollywood send-up, Myra Breckenridge. He's revered for his critical essays on literature, which have appeared in The Nation and The New York Review of Books.

Nowadays, Vidal is lauded and loathed for his political writing. He's walked the plank with assessments that could be characterized as somewhere between far-left and far-nutty. (His Vanity Fair profile characterized Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a merely misunderstood victim of the system. Uh-huh.)

Point to Point Navigation, his second memoir, is flighty, hopping between whatever memories come across his mind. As such, it elicits a range of reactions, from irritation to incredulity, and however pompous and flip the tone, it's fun to dislike.

Vidal begins with the confession that he was once a famous novelist. It's an honest if sad admission. But let's face it: Today's fiction writer has neither the cultural capital of a clever comedic filmmaker nor the political clout of an A-list blogger.

Despite conceding this ground, Vidal's tone would suggest he still believes that's not the case. He'd like to imagine that America has merely been biding its time for the last 10 years since Palimpsest, a memoir about his early years in Washington, growing up as the grandson of former Sentator Thomas Pryor Gore and the son of a beautiful drunk, and then attempting a political career and failing. It's as if he thinks we've been waiting for the next installment — that we're dying to hear why he fell out with Tennessee Williams and what he really thinks of his three biographers. Which Ivy League institution does he send his fan mail to? Do tell. We're on the edge of our seats.

There are words to describe Vidal's breezy, self-important style, but none seem sufficiently potent. More to the point, Vidal manages to recall nearly everything related to himself, but then he simply can't be bothered with other details — like the names of Saul Bellow's wives. In fact, Point to Point is mired in score-settling with writers you've never heard of in magazines you didn't read. Sure, it's no fun to have misperceptions scribbled about you, but isn't there a statute of limitation on such internecine squabbling that runs out within a year or two?

What makes Point to Point readable is that it's easy to accept Vidal for who he is: an anachronistic dissident. Also, the graphs on the loneliness of watching so many contemporaries pass (the death of his longtime partner, Howard Auster, among them) redeem much of the book's ephemeral musings. His birthright and his divergent professional life have granted him access to the kind of people almost nobody (who's still writing) really knew (or knows). He's the grandson of a famous Oklahoma senator, related to Jackie Onassis and has had such friends as, oh, let's see, Paul Bowles, Johnny Carson ... the list goes on.

So the name-dropping isn't totally irrelevant. It's Gore Vidal, after all. When your family was on a first-name basis with Amelia Earhart and you've dined at the White House with Jack and Jackie, chilled with Princess Margaret and conferred with Eleanor Roosevelt and Greta Garbo, how can you not write about it? Besides, there's some great dish here, including Jackie O's response to her husband's assassination and the Queen of England's personal tics. Yet one may rightly wonder if Vidal has ever — even just once in his rich tenure — had a meaningful conversation with a person of no social consequence. Who knows what he might have learned?

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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