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The World According to Gore

THE GOLDEN AGE A Novel By Gore Vidal; Doubleday: 448 pp., $27.50

September 17, 2000|KEVIN BAKER | Kevin Baker is the author of "Dreamland."

For years now, the promise of a new Gore Vidal book has been something to get the blood running or boiling. No other American writer has maintained quite such a radical, iconoclastic vision of his nation's past, and nowhere has Vidal been more provocative than in what he calls his "narratives of empire," a series of historical novels tracing the American republic from its beginnings to what he sees as its degeneration into a global, quasi-totalitarian behemoth. Throughout these books, which include "Washington, D.C.," "Burr," "Lincoln" and "1876," Vidal punctured our every national pretension. At his best, he has pressed useful troubling questions about our imperial ambitions and the anti-democratic tendencies of our national security state. No approach could be more welcome in this, our season of mindless triumphalism.

"The Golden Age," which takes place from 1939 to 1954, is Vidal's seventh and last novel in the series. "The Golden Age" completes the story of the Sanfords, fictional descendants of Aaron Burr, and their friends, lovers and nemeses. Half siblings Caroline and Blaise Sanford, once competing newspaper publishers, are leading lights in Washington high society. Blaise's son, Peter, is an independent-minded young man and professional skeptic. He is in love with Diana, the daughter of upstanding, old-fashioned Sen. Burden Day. The trouble is that Diana is in love with Clay Overbury, Sen. Day's unscrupulous aide, and Overbury is pursuing Peter's beautiful but mercurial sister, Enid.

This may sound like a soap opera, but in fact it works well as a story of love, betrayal and overweening ambition. Or rather, it did work very well, in "Washington, D.C.," the first and best-written book in this series. Those who have read the earlier book will find it annoying that Vidal tells the same story here, and those who haven't read "Washington, D.C." will find this recounting incomprehensible for its hurried and slapdash manner.

Vidal muddies the waters of his plot still further when, more than halfway through the novel, he begins mixing in a curiously flat memoir of New York's splendid cultural scene in the years immediately following World War II. This is the golden age of the title, when, at last, he informs us, "the United States is going to have a civilization." The sketchy, distracted quality of both Vidal's fiction and his quasi-fictional memoir are the product of a greater problem with "The Golden Age": his decision to subordinate everything to a dubious political polemic.

Every golden age has its price--or rather, as Balzac put it, behind every great fortune lies a great crime. For Vidal, the crime was the usurpation of world power by the United States, which, he maintains, most of the American people did not want but which was foisted upon them through the secret, illegal, even murderous machinations of our leaders, laboring enthusiastically on behalf of "the international banks and their lawyer-lobbyists."

It is this sort of dogma that has led Vidal into that Great Dismal Swamp of American history, the conspiracy theory. There was some foreshadowing of this in the previous book of the series, "Hollywood," when he pulled out the hoariest old chestnut of the genre, suggesting that President Warren Harding did not die of a heart attack but was in fact poisoned by his wife. Vidal's recounting of the old Harding rumor seemed to be some subtle satire on what Richard Hofstadter so famously dubbed "the paranoid style" in American politics. But no, conspiracies cling to "The Golden Age" like tangler vines and squeeze all the life out of it.

Early on, Vidal spends a couple of chapters detailing a supposed plot to fix the 1940 Republican convention, one that hinges on the "suspicious" death of one Ralph E. Williams, the 70-year-old committeeman in charge of seating arrangements. After his death, Williams was replaced with a delegate loyal to none other than Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate whose foreign policy views most closely reflected those of Vidal's "international banks."

A grand plot to nominate Willkie? Even in the world of conspiracy theories, this one is a bit obscure. And Vidal himself soon moves on to his charge that President Franklin D. Roosevelt betrayed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor by withholding information about an imminent Japanese attack.

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