Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Whom No Man Will Ever Possess

Gore Vidal taught me how to write a sentence. Not through diagrams or how-to manuals, but through his voluminous work.

Many samples exist; but for me the opening chapters of Myra Breckinridge are about as perfect as one can get. Sharp. Precise. Vivid. Myra still inspires.

At the height of Vidal's influence I scored Mr. Mike, which owes much to his example. Perhaps too much. I took a literary approach to what most comedy fans view as passing entertainment. A friend suggested I go more in a Nick Tosches direction. Maybe he was right.

Vidal introduced me to writers like Dawn Powell, Montaigne, Logan Pearsall Smith, William Dean Howells, Elaine Dundy, George Meredith, George Saintsbury, and V.S. Pritchett. If Vidal liked them, then they must be good. And they are.

Politically, Vidal was more gadfly than activist or philosopher, but he made a mark. Sometimes in TV spats with William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan. Sometimes as an acerbic guest on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin's shows. Sometimes by saying quizzical, if not deplorable, things.

His appeal to the Caucasian race to unify against the rising Asian hegemon seemed bizarre. He said it was a satirical critique of white people, but it didn't read that way. His coarse attack on Roman Polanski's rape victim was morally tone deaf.

On the positive side, Vidal took on the Israel Firsters at a time when few dared engage them. Some of Vidal's fans winced, worried that he slid into anti-Semitism. I never got that impression.

If he was a Jew hater, then his longtime partner Howard Austen, his close friends Jason and Barbara Epstein, and his Nation editor Victor Navasky had serious self-image problems. He tweaked Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter by using their polemical style against them. Poddy and Midge weren't amused, but they weren't known for their sense of humor.

As a prognosticator, Vidal was more miss than hit. Mercifully, many of his predictions did not come true, save for the decline of the American empire and our expanding police state. That's so obvious it's boring. Still, whenever Vidal mentioned this to TV interviewers, they invariably scratched their heads, as if wondering just how insane Vidal was.

In the end, it's about the work. Vidal left us with plenty. I own 30 of his collections, memoirs, novels, pamphlets, inventions. More than any other writer on my shelves. My one regret is that I never met him.

I came close twice, through friends with access. Neither opportunity panned out. I did meet and talk briefly with Norman Mailer, who had no influence on me whatsoever. Mailer was nice, but I would have preferred to shake hands with his friend and sometime nemesis.

So this will have to do. Thanks, Gore. They don't write like you anymore. Perhaps they never did.