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Thank You, Gore Vidal, from an Oregon Writer

My great political and literary mentor died on July 31.

His name was Gore Vidal, and I read all but one of his 30-something books. I own 18.

I remember exactly when I discovered him: it was 1988 and I inhabited a spacious two-bedroom Portland apartment on SE Belmont.I remember exactly when I discovered him: it was 1988 and I inhabited a spacious two-bedroom Portland apartment on SE Belmont. It had a fireplace and a balcony that overlooked a dilapidated phone booth, a former crack house, a Thai restaurant managed by a young lunatic, and a convenience store owned by a Vietnamese man who worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. I paid $350 a month in rent, and old, gray Portland didn't have a shred of irony then.

Cindy, who became my wife a decade later, lived with me that first year. Then we broke up and I lived there until the winter of 1990.

Speaking of winter, that one in Portland in 1988 was brutal. The oil for the furnace ran out one weekend and it got so cold the water in the toilet bowl froze. I heated the living room by burning my least favorite paperback novels. I distinctly remember enjoying watching all the books by Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, and Jay McInerney go up in smoke. They provided very little warmth, though. Not much in those pages.

I no longer recall how I came to discover Vidal. I had probably heard of him through reading the Nation. Beginning with Burr, I read all his novels on American history in a row. They provided me with a richly imagined and distinctly contrarian narrative of this country's past. In a way that I can't explain, Gore's version of American history proved much more useful to me as a writer than Zinn or Chomsky's.

Then I found his essays and received the best political and literary education any free-thinking American citizen can receive. Anyone who has read them and my writing on politics in Let it Pour, Grasping Wastrels, Super Sunday in Newport and Love and the Green Lady can easily detect his influence in both my content and style.

Some of my favorite things about Vidal:

His statement that, "Proof of the failure of the American education system is that Ronald Reagan was elected twice in landslides."

He loathed academic priesthoods who sanctimoniously guarded their turf — for example, the cults of Abe Lincoln and the Kennedys.

He always described American politics as a one-party system — the Property Party with its two wings, the Democrats being the conservatives and the Republicans the reactionaries.

His notion that a person has sex with the gender they prefer having sex with and it has nothing to do with terms such as "straight" or "gay."

He wasn't afraid to wade into the political arena and fight.He wasn't afraid to wade into the political arena and fight.

He couldn't stand metafiction.

He never attended college; he never got an MFA.

I could go on and on. I only wish I had annotated all the books of his I read. I guess I'll have to read them all again.

Thank you, Gore Vidal, for demolishing the myths of American politics and history. And you did it with such humor! I will always aspire to do the same with my writing about history and politics.

÷ ÷ ÷

Matt Love is the author/editor of 10 books about Oregon. He lives in South Beach and teaches creative writing and journalism at Newport High School. His latest book is Of Walking in Rain.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Super Sunday in Newport: Notes from...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50
  2. Love and the Green Lady: Meditations...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. Burr (American Chronicle)
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. Sometimes a Great Movie: Paul...
    New Trade Paper $30.00
  5. Of Walking in Rain
    Used Trade Paper $10.95

Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain

4 Responses to "Thank You, Gore Vidal, from an Oregon Writer"

    Misty August 21st, 2012 at 5:06 am

    how sad that you are still ranting about some books you didn't like twenty-five years ago so you burnt them.
    perhaps other people would have liked those books. perhaps you could have donated them to a library booksale, or sold them at a used bookshop.
    i am sitting in a house of my mother's books; she has had to go to a nursing home - there are many books i don't like among them, but burn them? shades of farenheit 451.
    do you really think that - whether you personally like a book or not -- anyone who writes a book didn't struggle with each and every word? does writing come so simply and easily for you you have no qualms about destroying the work of others, and so casually?

    Raintree August 22nd, 2012 at 5:57 am

    I suspect you missed the tongue and cheek aspect of the "book burning" and the fact that it had an unusual but practical purpose. How about reading what is presented and not imposing on the story a false moralizing?

    Becky August 22nd, 2012 at 6:53 am

    MISTY, he was cold. He was trying to keep warm. He wasn't burning books because he didn't like them but because it was so cold the water in his toilet bowl froze.

    Mike August 22nd, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    On a camping trip several years back, I had somehow forgotten to bring firestarters. Things were damp enough around our campsite that we couldn't use native material. But I had a copy of Herodotus... my three sons, all under 13 at the time, watched with mouths agape, as I carefully tore out several pages from the front to start the fire. "Dad, you're tearing up a book!"
    I am always careful to bring 'disposable' books camping; worn, underlined, pages loose. That way I don't have to worry about dirt, bugs, or accidental immersion in the lake. Books I would recycle after reading anyway due to the condition. I had not got to far into Herodotus at the time, so was glad it had a long introduction. I did not get close to the story itself.

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