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Isn't It Romantic? : The memoir of a man who knows everyone and likes almost no one : PALIMPSEST: A Memoir, By Gore Vidal (Random House: $27.50; 435 pp.)

October 01, 1995|James McCourt | James McCourt is the author, most recently, of "Time Remaining: Stories" (Alfred A. Knopf)

Gore Vidal, author of this long memoir, of many novels, including the groundbreaking "The City and the Pillar" and the comic masterpiece "Myra Breckenridge," of a clutch of hit plays for early television and high-tide Broadway, and of such film scripts as "Ben Hur," "Suddenly Last Summer" and "The Best Man," is the child of the broken home called America, of which he has made himself, in dozens of splendid essays, the preeminent public scold.

At age 14 he shortened his name, lopping off Eugene and Luther . I regret the loss of the appropriate Eugene (he was well born into the American sociopolitical aristocracy) and only somewhat less the Luther (it seems to fit one who was nailed any number of authoritative personalist theses on any number of church doors). Gore is a smart first name, but Gore Vidal is two of his mother's names, and his mother wasn't at all good to him.

Like his grandfather, T.P. Gore, the first Oklahoman senator, he comes from a border world--his is that of the "straight" queer--and what the Saturday Review critic of "The City and the Pillar" wrote nearly 50 years ago still applies to his best work: "When one considers that Vidal has succeeded not merely in putting futility behind him but in making a tragic affirmation in the midst of futility, his achievement becomes impressive indeed." Put next to his own words--"One reason I didn't like football was the boredom of putting on and taking off all that gear. Even so, at an early school, I made what I thought was an unusually brilliant touchdown against what proved to be, on closer analysis, my own team"--it says more than I can in the space provided here.

Perhaps because I dislike most of "Palimpsest's" cast of "power people" (a race that, for it to rule, must renounce love), I am riveted by the great romance of his life, with Jimmie Trimble, a golden beauty met at prep school and killed on Iwo Jima in 1945. "At 13 we talked about girls less than we did about each other. This was a sign, though I was hardly adept at signs then. Why should anyone happy ever note a sign?" That's bewitching, faltering pitch and all--and having reservations about "Palimpsest's" pitch is rather like going to a favorite singer's recital and carping: "But why that song?" (There were even songs Judy Garland sang that I could do without, although her anthem too was "The Man that Got Away.")

The author of "Palimpsest" is certainly entitled to speak about some of the most important, or self-important of the century's Americans. (He says, assuredly, "Look, I know these people.") He is brilliant on the Kennedy myth and unassailable in his appraisal of the way "power" women campaign for and attain alternate office.

Early ripe, he has met all the principals in his story before age 25, and presumably unlike the people in novels, he's grown tired of them all ("once-famous people who mean nothing, by and large, to people now"), except for dead Jimmie, whose nimbus has a long half-life, and his longtime companion, Harold Austen, barely glimpsed. ("I have now lived a half century with a man, but sex has played no part in the relationship and so where there is no desire or pursuit, there is no wholeness. But there are satisfying lesser states, fragments." I infer some kind of love; as to its type, it did for the Lunts--and as was written elsewhere, I reckon if it's love, the Lord won't mind.)

Quoting the American essayist John Jay Chapman, he writes, "The thing that stirs us in any man's writing is the man himself--a thing quite outside the page, and for which the man is not responsible." Yes, the man is outside the page, just as the singer's voice is in the mask, but there's some responsibility, I think, and shouldering it is a component of the art.

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