Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

I think the first Gore Vidal novel I read was Washington, D. C. (1967), his story of political intrigue and sexual no-no.  I had been out of college only a year when that book arrived; I had been teaching a year in the Aurora Middle School and, of course, had not been able to teach a lot of contemporary literature for obvious reasons--though I did sneak in Bernard Malamud's "The Jewbird," which delighted my students and alarmed some of the parents.  So it goes.

I read Washington, D. C. the summer after my first year in the classroom, and it was one of those books that engaged me so entirely that I ignored the rest of my life while I was reading it.  Eating, socializing, sleeping, bathing--all became irrelevant until I finished it.  And for the rest of Vidal's life I was one of the reasons he could afford to live in a villa in Italy.  I bought--and read--everything: novels, plays, screenplays, essays.  I would have bought and read his shopping lists, his notes to the dry cleaner, his doodles on a doily.  I was hooked, and Vidal pulled me along, flopping like a flounder, behind his yacht for more than four decades.

Paul Newman as the Kid
After a few years, I did find some of his work I could sneak into the middle school curriculum.  For a period (mid-70s?) I was teaching a unit on Westerns, and I had my students read his TV play The Death of Billy the Kid.  The Kid was kind of an obsession for Vidal.  That TV script, presented on NBC's The Philco Television Playhouse, July 24, 1955, starred young Paul Newman as the Kid, a part Newman would re-create in the Arthur Penn film The Left Handed Gun (1958), a film based only loosely on Vidal's original script.  My seventh graders read the original Vidal script, then watched the film.  (Oh, those were the days!  The pre-standardized-testing days when teachers could be irresponsible!)  Later, by the way, Vidal returned to the subject in the 1989 TV film Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, with Val Kilmer as the Kid.  (Scene from film)

Later, in calmer times, I used with my eighth graders the Vidal play Visit to a Small Planet, originally another TV drama for NBC's The Goodyear Television Playhouse (May 8, 1955).  Vidal later expanded the play for stage productions--and it enjoyed a good run on Broadway in 1957-1958: 388 shows.  It's a play about an alien who arrives here with a sole purpose: to create a global war among us (he loves war!).  At the end, other aliens arrive to whisk him away before the holocaust erupts: It seems he was mad, was an escapee from an asylum.  War, you see, is madness ...

This is a theme that Vidal revisited throughout his long career.  Among his last publications were two nonfiction works, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to Be So Hated and Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (both in 2002).  By 2002, Vidal, a World War II veteran, had had enough.  He was angry, cynical, bitter--he, like Mark Twain before him (Twain and Vidal, by the way had many similarities)--had come to believe that there wasn't much hope for this wild-eyed species of ours.  Here's a typical Vidal sentence from Perpetual War: "Conspiracy theories now blossom in the wilderness like nightblooming dementia praecox and those in thrall to them are mocked invariably ... by the actual conspirators" (61).

Gore Vidal in younger days
Vidal could be outrageous (see: Myra Breckenridge!), but here's a funny thing: When the person being "outrageous" is on your side of the cultural/political fence, well, he's not outrageous; he's funny.  And I always thought Vidal was very funny.  I saw him on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was host--numerous times.  I saw on live TV the famous blow-up with William F. Buckley, Jr., the appearance when Buckley erupted in anger against Vidal in a televised "discussion" in 1968 about Vietnam and the violence during the Chicago Democratic Convention:

Vidal: The only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself...
Buckley: Now listen you queer, quit calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.

You can watch this exchange now, of course: Vidal v. Buckley.

Can you imagine calling someone "queer" on TV today?  It would be the end of a career.  But Buckley and Vidal both sailed on to very celebrated careers as public intellectuals.  Vidal, a gay man, wrote often about gay rights--especially in his powerful essay "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," a 1981 piece about the Nazi persecutions of gays during World War II.

The last time I saw Gore Vidal on TV was sort of sad.  He was appearing on the panel on Real Time with Bill Maher, and I can't find in my journal what the exact date was--though it may have been the March 19, 2004, show.  But I remember that he looked very old; he was not nearly so quick as he had been; he was a bulkier shadow of the slender young man whose silver tongue had a razor edge that could slice through others' arguments so cleanly and swiftly that even the blood did not seem to know it was time to flow.

Recently, I read the complete works of novelist and short story writer John O'Hara (1905-1970), and I came across a 1964 essay by Vidal about O'Hara.  Essay is hardly the word; evisceration is better.  How would you like to read this about yourself in The New York Review of Books (as O'Hara had to on April 16, 1964): "Lacking a moral imagination and not interested in the exercise of mind or in the exploration of what really goes on beneath that Harris tweed suit from J. Press, he is doomed to go on being a writer of gossip who is read with the same mechanical attention any newspaper column of familiar or near-familiar names and places is apt to evoke.  His work, finally, cannot be taken seriously as literature, but as an unconscious record of the superstitions and assumptions of his time ...."

As we say nowadays, BOOM!

I have an entire shelf of Vidal works.  But, sadly, as of today--August 1, 2012--that shelf will need no more room.  And that  I find is a sad, even desperate, thought.

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