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Lively Reading Adds Credibility to Mix of Historical Fact and Fiction

November 12, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Golden Age" is the seventh and final book in Gore Vidal's "American Chronicles," a series that began with the publication of "Washington, D.C." in 1967. In a sense, Vidal has come full circle, as the first book covered the years 1937 to 1952 and the last returns to that same era, 1939 to 1954. Others in the series touched upon nearly every major social and historical event in our country.

"The Golden Age" (Bantam Doubleday Audio; unabridged fiction; 10 cassettes; 17 hours, 30 minutes; $39.95; read by Anne Twomey) focuses on the thought processes of a ruling class that controls the country. The story is set in Washington, D.C., although Hollywood and the fictional character of Caroline Sanford figure into the mix. An actress who became a publisher (shades of Clare Boothe Luce), Sanford hobnobs with powerful men who, for the most part, are fascinated by her.

Vidal blurs the line between fact and fiction. Historical figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, Harry Truman, legal eagle Dean Acheson and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, drink cocktails while scheming with the fictional folk who provide the back story.

The story begins as an uneasy America decides whether to aid the Allies in the European war, then continues through FDR's unprecedented second and third terms. Though this is one man's view of history, Vidal paints a fascinating picture, bringing to the forefront rumors known only to the "whispering galleries" of yore.

The audio has some dull moments, such as when Vidal summarizes history or makes rather labored connections to past novels. There are also lots of characters to keep track of, a feat sometimes easier when reading a book. Also, Vidal barely covers the war and spends little time on the Communist-baiting or the Cold War that followed.

But the very lines the author blurs between truth and imagination are what fascinate the listener. Not only are Vidal and his real-life politician grandfather, Sen. Thomas Pryor Gore, characters in his novel, but the author recorded the final chapter from his home in Italy.

This cameo appearance is startling, as he is not credited as a narrator on the package. Vidal, however, is a fine reader with a deep voice. His performance brings the production some added depth, causing us to wonder just how much of his story is true, and how much made up.

Narrator Anne Twomey quite capably handles this lengthy audio book, maintaining an energetic level even when the text becomes didactic. She does a fine job with the dialogue, giving each character a distinctive voice and vocal personality.

Her French accent is serviceable, and she noticeably changes her pace and timbre for men. This works better at some times than others. Her Cary Grant is not wonderful, but she does impart FDR with that unusual timing for which he was known.

*

Another best-selling author with a recent audio book is Phillip Margolin, whose latest thriller, "Wild Justice," brings us from the operating room to the courtroom. (Harper Audio; abridged fiction; four cassettes; six hours; $25.95; read by Margaret Whitton.)

When a mass grave is uncovered in the Oregon woods, a surgeon known for his erratic and aggressive behavior is indicted for the killings. Dr. Vincent Cardoni hires defense attorney Frank Jaffe and the man's daughter, Amanda, to represent him. The legal duo get him off the hook on a technicality, then wonder if they made an ethical mistake.

The tale is told in two parts, picking up four years after Cardoni has disappeared, leaving behind only his severed hand. When similar murders occur, Cardoni's ex-wife, Justine, is implicated. Amanda must determine if Justine has been framed and if Cardoni is dead.

Although those of us familiar with the genre can spot the ending about midway through the story, it is still a scary ride, though not one for listeners with weak stomachs. The text can be gory, especially when entries from a "pain diary" are read. Torture and violence always seem more vivid when spoken aloud instead of lying flatly on a page.

Even if you can figure it out, Margolin writes a complex tale populated by realistically flawed characters. Cardoni is a cocaine addict with an angry streak; his soon-to-be ex-wife is a surgeon with a questionable past. The deceased Dr. Clifford Grant harvested organs from unwilling victims and is suspected to have had a partner. They are engrossing creations in a story that plays out surprisingly fast.

Actress Margaret Whitton is a decent reader, creating different voices for each character. Though she does not exactly sound masculine when she lowers her voice, she does produce enough mannish qualities for the listener to distinguish the male characters. Her strong point, however, is a lovely low voice and the ability to evoke the frightening aspects of the story through her dramatic training.

The production could have used longer breaks between some segments. It is, however, enhanced by energetic music with a menacing edge that bookmarks each tape.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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