Prime cuts of unpatriotic Gore

<i>The Golden Age</i> by Gore Vidal (Little, Brown, &pound;16.99, 467pp)
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The Independent Culture

From his Italian eyrie, Gore Vidal has thrown out a clawful of antique American tesserae from the nest. Each tile bears further fragments of the story covered by the novels in his sequence of "American Chronicles". They began in 1967 with Washington DC and now end with an ironically-titled work - the very title chosen by Vidal for his unproduced early-Sixties film treatment about fifth-century BC Athens and the trial of Socrates.

From his Italian eyrie, Gore Vidal has thrown out a clawful of antique American tesserae from the nest. Each tile bears further fragments of the story covered by the novels in his sequence of "American Chronicles". They began in 1967 with Washington DC and now end with an ironically-titled work - the very title chosen by Vidal for his unproduced early-Sixties film treatment about fifth-century BC Athens and the trial of Socrates.

Vidal is full of his usual genial tricks. But it's maybe confusing that much of the same ground was covered in that first novel of the sequence (still, unassailably, the best of the bunch) - American politics on Capitol Hill between 1937 and 1953. Even more confusingly, the novels have been trenchantly out-ofsequence all along, questing as far back as the life of Jefferson and Lincoln to try to crack the origins of modern, imperial America.

Needless to say, Vidal's family has always played an important part in all this. And, on the eve of his cousin Al possibly becoming the first of the clan to have a shot at the Presidency, it's hard to think of a much more Vidalian situation than the Gore-Bush contest: one that confirms every prejudice he has ever held about the power-broking of a few dynastically-inclined families. I suppose the equivalent here would be a descendant of Lloyd George taking on a son of Harold Macmillan in a general election.

Of course, this instalment concerns the period where the good-looking young Vidal was actually in contact with many of the people mentioned. There's an extra frisson in the knowledge that tittle-tattle about Eleanor Roosevelt's tendency to "rub the bean-curd" (as they say in China about Lesbians), for example, comes from the horse's mouth. His portrait of F D Roosevelt dominates the book, which opens with the British and French running a poker-faced campaign to overcome the overwhelming desire in the US to stay out of war with Hitler. It's worth bearing such things in mind amid the flood of Hollywood war movies professing to tell the history of the period.

Vidal's portrait of the disabled wartime president seems cold-hearted and scheming (though nothing near as bad as the lunatic Truman who followed). Vidal claims he did nothing to avoid the attack on Pearl Harbour, for example, and in fact manipulated the Japanese to deliver the blow that was needed to get the US quickly into the war. This idea - as Vidal points out - is hardly new, but it's likely to be as contentious as Vidal's now proven assertion, in his 1973 novel Burr, that Thomas Jefferson had children with a black slave, Sally Hemings.

Vidal has always felt strongly about the "amnesia" of America when it comes to history lessons. How interesting to note that the next big movie blockbuster happens to be called Pearl Harbour (already one of the most expensive movies ever made). And how immaculately sybilline of Vidal to have pre-empted its doubtless shallow heroics. Yet it's curious that Vidal doesn't mention that it was Roosevelt who installed the White House private cinema, something that Hollywood-bound Clinton has since turned into a political tool to endorse certain anodyne or jingoistic movies. The Faustian pact between Hollywood and Capitol Hill continues.

The Golden Age fairly rushes along with a terrific amount of dialogue, mainly concerning a fictional political family of newspaper owners, the Sandfords. (The main character, Caroline, incidentally has her stage name "Traxler" borrowed from Vidal's great-grandmother Caroline, born in Spain and buried in Wisconsin). There's a huge amount of ferociously cynical realpolitik on show here: brutal words about the bankrupt, indigent English forever wanting help, for example. Yes, you think, this must be exactly the way these cold hard people carve out their little careers and their hideously racist wars.

It all ends very curiously. Vidal has appeared in person in his other novels, including his last one, the splendidly mad and homoerotic The Smithsonian Institute. There are several mentions of the novelist towards the end of this one, slightly but not excessively self-mocking. They produce the feeling of someone inescapably grand writing about themselves in the third person.

Finally, the narrator morphs into Vidal himself. The voice of his autobiographical Palimpsest re-asserts itself and closes the whole diorama. It's a bit of a treat to meet him at the end, almost as if he has appeared for a votive moment, when you are free to worship his image. Gore Vidal is lofty, repeats himself, and is probably infuriating. I don't care. A few hours in his company is still a panacea for all ills.

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