Books: Paperbacks - An American dream where anything goes

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Smithsonian Institution by Gore Vidal Abacus £6.99

The Smithsonian Institution by Gore Vidal Abacus £6.99

Gore Vidal has known everyone worth knowing in American public life. (Amelia Earhart was his father's lover; and his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelttook off when he opened a toilet door and found her arranging flowers in the cistern.) So it is hardly surprising he should choose to put them in his latestnovel. Vidal established himself as an enfant terrible with the publication of his first novel at the age of 20. He was writing about homosexuality longbefore Kathy Acker made it mainstream. But Vidal is not only a cultivated man of letters in the Jamesian mould; he has also stood - unsuccessfully - forCongress and the Senate. American politics are at the heart of his novels. But in what he calls his "inventions", which include Myra Breckenridge and thisone, politicians are lambasted with the outrageously surreal satire that is the best arena for Vidal's idiosyncratic literary wit.

When a 13-year-old maths prodigy and baseball star called "T" is called to the Smithsonian to help build an atom bomb, he engages in a spot of timetravel. He sees himself dying in the Second World War and so tries to change the course of history and keep America out of the war. As well as this, thedummies in the Smithsonian's exhibits come to life after hours, providing T with the opportunity for sex with President Cleveland's wife and a duskysquaw, as well as Vidal with the opportunity to molest the reputations of the Great Men and Women of American history. As a boy, Vidal read the classicsaloud to his blind grandfather, and that flair for rhetoric and a passion for history has never left him. But, here, history is an opiate for the masses, worldwars fought to distract them. Coupled with a savage disgust for the human state, contempt for academia and a loathing of hypocrisy, Vidal is an obliquelyhumorous polemicist whom critics find hard to stomach, but whom readers adore.

The story trades on comedic riffs; as T journeys deeper into the Smithsonian's maze, he finds himself eavesdropping on the American powers that be asthey plot to build the "realtor's dream bomb". Vidal's achievement is to make the inevitable full of suspense (as one character remarks, "Plainly, this is oneof those dreams where anything goes."). This is a jeu d'esprit rich in imaginative flights combined with incisive political know-how.

The Good TimesJames Kelman Vintage £6.99

Visiting Professor at the University of Texas and former Booker Prize winner, James Kelman is one of Scotland's most prestigious literary sons. Forthose put off by the expletive-drenched stream of consciousness that propels his novels, this collection of 20 short stories should supply proof as to whyhe has reached his current state of ascendancy. He is a man's man is James, and it's the kind of pasty-faced, beer-swilling type most broadsheet-readerswould cross the road to avoid (especially if they're bearing down on you in a white van). But Kelman gets under his characters' skin in such a way that wemarvel at the lyricism of their inarticulate attempts to deal with boredom, frustration and mystifying women.

Alfred C Kinsey: A Biography Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy Pimlico £14

A compelling account by the man who wrote The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (somehow, this seems oddly relevant) of the first scientificallyreputable and, ultimately the most influential, researcher into sex. As well as publishing the bestselling Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, Kinsey wasa bisexual experimenter, and G-H has tracked down his colleagues, lovers, as well as colleague-lovers, in his efforts to pay tribute to the pioneer wholiberated us all. This is a sympathetic study of a much-maligned man that reveals the obsessive personality necessary to undertake such controversialstudies. Some would say Kinsey took his job home with him, but I say, more power to his, ahem, elbow.

Women Traveledited by Natania Jansz et al Rough Guides £12.99

These first-hand accounts from more than 60 countries are by women of exem plary courage and fortitude. Sarah Beattie, a young wheelchair designer,typifies the kind of rugged traveller you will encounter in these pages. A month before she arrived in Jalalabad, the already war-torn city was seized by theTaliban. As the only female welder in her workshop she faced constant danger from the veil police, but stuck it out for six months. More stylisticallysatisfying contributions come from Kate Pullinger hitching through the Yukon, and Margaret Atwood cruising the Galapagos. Fun to dip into whilelanguishing on public transport; readers will be able to plot their own crusades into places where no woman has previously trod.

Hans HolbeinOskar Batschmann and Pascal Griener Reaktion £19.95

Holbein, the court portraitist for Henry VIII, had unusual ambitions for a man of his class; he aimed to elevate the status of painter beyond that of merecraftsman. Meanwhile, his friends Erasmus and Thomas More were encouraging his daring combination of religious themes with profane subject-matter.This is the first comprehensive monograph on the artist to appear in more than 40 years. In it, the authors, both glowing with academic worthiness, dissecthis work, and his flirtation with humanism. What the reproductions (excellent though they are) cannot convey, Batschmann and Griener earnestlyarticulate: the magical power of the artist as he not only imitates nature but sets about petrifying it with his gaze.

The Service of CloudsSusan Hill Vintage £6.99

Master storyteller Susan Hill offers a double-whammy of a narrative that allows her to penetrate various levels of one family's entanglements andunspoken desires, ie, what she does best. This is a somewhat studiously passionate account of Molloy, an ageing doctor who contemplates death on adaily basis. But, and here's the rub, he left his mother to die alone. Flora's story is the more moving for its portrayal of a woman who stands proudlyindependent within a claustrophobic community. Hill understands the travails and consolations of old age and death intimately. And her severelydisciplined prose allows episodes of truly profound wisdom.

Comments