Gore Vidal

Pictured: A badass

He didn’t write about zombies, but–Egad!–I would be no kind of writer (or American) if I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge the passing of Gore Vidal.

When I was in graduate school for writing, I had a professor who began teaching Moby Dick by saying: “If there were an international literature competition where each country could send its greatest work, this is what we would send.”  I’ve always felt that if there were such a competition for “greatest living writer” America would send Gore Vidal.  Certainly,  he would have been my choice.

Gore Vidal’s novels are sweeping and sublime.  My favorites are Lincoln and Washington D.C.  His criticism is absolutely otherworldly.  Probably the best by anyone, ever.  (If most critics are airplane pilots, Vidal was an astronaut.)  It is through his unwavering criticism that I first came to respect Vidal so deeply.  Very simply, he was not afraid to make enemies by saying that terrible things were terrible.  As I get older– and move precariously up the rungs in my own writing career– I am more and more impressed by this.  It is easy to praise everything, to gushingly blurb every bad book you are asked to blurb, and to flatter people at cocktail parties whom you secretly think are bad writers.  Your writing life goes along smoothly and peacefully if you do this.  Vidal did not do this.  For him, no, obviously, you don’t say that a bad book is good just because it was written by a powerful person or a nice person.  Of course you don’t.  Of course not.  A bad book deserves to be called bad.  Always.  And Vidal could count the ways that a bad book was bad like no other.  His takedowns of works by Updike and Mailer are epic.  They are, themselves, works of art.  (I find that when they get bad reviews, boorish writers often say: “Well, at least I tried to make ART.  No kid ever says he wants to grow up to be a CRITIC.”  But I challenge you to read Vidal’s criticism and find no desire to take up the critic’s pen yourself.)  His criticism was astute, trenchant, and mean.  And thank God for that.   Vidal stood in stark contrast to the contemporary climate of discourse saturated by political correctness and a primacy on “sensitivity” and “being nice” whatever the cost.  Vidal’s criticism was about telling the truth, whether it was nice or not.  He talked the talk and walked the walk.  It cost him literary awards and inclusions in prestigious organizations of “nice” people who wanted to “play nice” together.  And he did not give a damn.  That’s pretty punk rock, if you ask me.  That’s straight-up inspiring.

Now…

Did grampa go a little crazy in his dotage?  Yes.  Did he, near the end of his life, refer to England as “an American aircraft carrier”?  Yes.  Did he take an inappropriately sympathetic interest in Timothy McVeigh?  Yes.  Did he jump, with unthinking alacrity, onto the “Worst President EVAR” bandwagon when Bush II was elected.  Yes.  But also, he was one of the greatest American writers– and greatest Americans– ever.  If these mistakes and missteps– which are attributable, I believe, largely to advanced age– are his worst sins, then he had nothing on our founding fathers.

If you’re new to Gore Vidal’s writing, I recommend starting with his autobiography Palimpsest.  It’s an inspiring account of his adventures and travails (and– for horror fans– includes at least one reference to H.P. Lovecraft that I remember).  But most importantly, you come away with the sense of a man who loved and understood America, warts and all, in a really brave and authentic and unique way.  I can’t think of a contemporary writer who makes me more happy and proud to be an American.

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