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. 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 couldn't stand metafiction.
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.
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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
Matt Love is the author of Of Walking in Rain