After a long hiatus, the Wednesday mini book review is back. It may or may not appear more regularly from now on. Here be links to all the past mini book reviews.
Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir by Gore Vidal (Doubleday, 2006). Vidal's character as a public intellectual--knowing, superior, ironic, supercilious--rubs many the wrong way, and he has that aggravating quality of being very hard to enjoy as an author if one disagrees with him on his judgments about history and politics. That said, I've always loved him, particularly his novels of American history (a series he calls his "Narratives of Empire") and his essays of literary criticism. Politically, he's an astute and passionate critic of imperial and expansionist foreign policy, and except for what seems like a reflexive dislike of wealth accumulated through business he'd be a likely Ron Paul supporter. (When I saw Vidal speak back in what I recall was 2000, he did admit to being "partial to the Libertarians" when asked to express an opinion on electoral politics.)
This book is a loose ostensible sequel to his first, more thorough memoir, Palimpsest. While the title page of this one promises it covers 1964-2006, in fact it covers those years very scantly and traipses back far earlier as well, going back to his primary obsessions of memory: his father and his father's role in the early days of commercial and governmental aeronautics; his beloved maternal grandfather the blind Oklahoma Sen. Thomas Gore; the films he worked on and that formed him; and the kind of gossip in all the famous people he's known and loved and feuded with that you can tell is all the more important to him for how restrained he delivers it, with special emphasis here (as in earlier writings) on Tennessee Williams--a figure little gossiped about nowadays.
Also in close focus are Princess Margaret and the decline and death of his longtime companion Howard Auster, with sad side glances at the other friends who passed while he wrote this book. Garbo and Grace Kelly walk through elegantly and get some good lines; Paul Bowles is lionized, Fellini is made a clown, and casual barbs get tossed at Saul Bellow's wives, Dalton Trumbo, and his unnamed and unrespected biographer Fred Kaplan. His respect for Johnny Carson might passeth all understanding, but he was there across the table doing literate bookchat with him on network TV back when that meant something.
But there is more here than secondary additions to Vidal's sprawling collection of anecdotes of the famous to dine out on. He also chronicles, briefly, his two political campaigns, for the House from New York in 1960 and for the Senate from California in 1982; credits himself with the space program (via advice given to his pal, and don't you forget it, John F. Kennedy); laments the passing of the novel and the novel writer from prominence in the American mind; rides again his hobbyhorse and aims his lance at the auteur theory of cinema (in the classic days, he maintains, the writer and the producer were far more important than the hired-hand director); relates his curious last encounter with old friend and quasi-relative Jackie O; and blames Barry Goldwater, who he liked when he met, for everything he hates about the Bush era--alas, a sign of his unsubtle and unthoughtful approach to any matter involving the Republican Party. While he jokes, when accused of not doing enough about AIDS, about his lamentable weakness in virology, he appears to think of himself as a climatologist when it comes to global warming.
This sort of restrained sneering is a bit infectious when reading too much of Vidal in critical mode, but in fact I loved pretty much every sentence of this book, while understanding why many wouldn't. Throughout, when he isn't being (successfully) elegaic about the passing of times, worlds, and friends, he maintains that archly bitchy tone, especially when indulging in pure gossip about people of whom having gossip to tell clearly means a lot to him. That tone turns some off but I always find it fun; and an apt and even winning part of a literary mind entire.
I can see all the complaints: the tone is too often bitchy about matters that make him seem like a highflown gossip columnist with bad intentions; the economic leftism unthought and unconsidered in a man with an otherwise clear vision of what we lost when we lost the American republic as originally conceived. And the book is decidedly scattered and impressionistic. For all that, this is a winning glimpse at a unique American character and mind.
I will end in Vidalian style with a namedrop anecdote: a few years back I tried to interview him for reason regarding two books on politics he had just issued. As per his request, I faxed him a list of questions--although we both lived in LA, he preferred that to meeting. He called to inform me, upon receipt, that he found the list of questions overly long and, in my attempt to capture the various possibilities of where his answers might go in a situation where followups would be difficult, "tautologous."
Caught off guard with the mighty Vidal suddenly on the other end of the line, I failed to reel him in, though his publicist later told me the very fact of the call might have meant that he intended for me to try to do so. Well, I failed. Perhaps, like some friends have, I shall run into him at Musso and Frank's on Hollywood Blvd. and we can have a laugh over that and over republics faded and moments lost. I'll be sure to ask him what he thinks, or thought, of Ron Paul.