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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Gore Vidal, R.I.P.

First edition, from Wikipedia
In the seventh grade, we were asked to give oral book reports.  Our teacher, a dear woman turned prematurely gray, would devote one entire class day each week to private interviews with each of her charges, listening to awkward descriptions of whatever book they had been reading.  We imagine that she went home each Friday and drank a triple martini, trying to forget whatever she had learned about the works of Judy Blume or Scholastic's Great Pitchers of the Minor Leagues.

"So, Little Middle Schooler Anonymous," she asked with a tired smile one afternoon, "What are you reporting on?"  She was no doubt bracing herself for yet another tedious summary of Hymns Ancient and Modern or The Ecclesiastical Hierarchies.

Her eyebrows shot up when we handed her a battered paperback copy of Myra Breckinridge, by Gore Vidal.  She failed to suppress a nervous laugh, and then said, in tone between shock and incredulity, "You ... read ... THAT?"

We had indeed.  It was borrowed, incidentally, from the bookshelf of our late grandfather -- a shelf which time and again belied the old man's pretense of stern conservatism by surrendering such dubious treasures as the complete Oscar Wilde and Frederick Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent.  (Grandpa A. was also standing by to translate the Latin bits the summer we spent reading Sade's Justine and Juliette.  To call him a corrupting influence is to go not nearly far enough.)

Anyway, we read Myra, a madcap Hollywood farce told by a transsexual. Much of the sociopolitical commentary was no doubt lost on us in those years of adolescent bliss.  Really, we just read the thing for its sex scenes, which were -- if memory serves -- insane.  And it is easy now to imagine why our teacher became so nervous as a little boy with cherubic cheeks and Sears Roebuck jeans prepared to deliver his book report.  (In the event, she interrupted us and did all the talking herself -- a curious sort of book report, but probably easier on everybody.)

We read Myra, and liked it so much that we went on to seek out more by the same author.  In the ninth grade, Burr made an enormous impression upon us, forever reshaping the way we read American history.  More than that, it probably shaped the way we would come to read theology as well, giving us both an abiding interest in the perspective of the underdog, and a proleptic sense of what is now called the hermeneutic of suspicion.  In college, we cackled wickedly over Vidal's collected essays, adopting as our own his many prejudices regarding the politics and literature of a generation that was even then passing out of relevance.   In the YouTube era, we have occasionally banished glum spirits by watching Vidal provoke William F. Buckley on television.  ("I'll sock you in your goddamned face and you'll stay plastered" has never sounded less threatening than when drawled by a man who can't seem to sit upright.)

All this was long ago.  Even then, Vidal wrote much for which we did not care, and in later years his work has left us cold.  We think of him, now, as one does of an adolescent crush -- the memories are happy but also a little embarrassing, and we're relieved that it did not end in marriage.  Still, we had some good times.

Vidal died this week, at the age of 86.  You can read an obit at the Guardian, or a love story at the Daily Beast.  Or wry commentary on the gawrshawful Myra movie, at Deadspin.


Anonymous said...

His best works? "Julian" and "Creation". His essays were a lot better than books like "Live from Golgotha".
I still don't understand why he called Richard Nixon "the greatest President of the last half of the 20th century".

Father Anonymous said...

I loved "Julian," although I no longer remember it well -- which is odd. The Nixon remark sounds like Vidal in aphoristic/gadfly mode, trying to shock his own troops.

Incidentally, several of my high school teachers had fond memories of working on his congressional campaign. Had been elected, he would have been my own representative.