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Friday, December 22nd, 2006
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Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964 to 2006

by Gore Vidal

The Great Gadfly

A review by Louis Bayard

When I was growing up in Washington, WDCA-TV ran a weekly horror-flick showcase called "Creature Feature," hosted by Count Gore de Vol. The count was suave, fond of cheesy movies and inclined to plant his teeth in the nearest neck. In all these respects, he was the double of Gore Vidal, whose vampiric sang-froid has seen him through a long and bustling career of pamphleteerism and historical revisionism -- with plays, novels and screenplays thrown in for ballast. And if Vidal isn't technically speaking undead, there has always been something about his tireless stream of prose that seems unruffled by mortality.

The biggest surprise, then, of Vidal's latest memoir -- more surprising than Eleanor Roosevelt's (allegedly) sapphic passion for Amelia Earhart, more surprising than Jeanette MacDonald (allegedly) groping a strange man, more surprising even than the young Gore's hero-worship of Mickey Rooney -- is the sight of America's iciest provocateur thawing at the prospect of his own endgame. Bereaved, unmoored, hobbled by an artificial knee and ruptured spinal disks, the Vidal of Point to Point Navigation is reduced, like the hero of Samuel Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape, to a conversation with old selves.

And what glamorous selves they were. Vidal may be a populist on paper, but he has managed to spend a large part of his life standing on Aubusson rugs. (A typical sentence begins, "One evening as I was dressing to go out to dinner at Mimi Pecci-Blunt's palace outside the Campidoglio....") If he has any veterinarians or accountants among his friends or enemies, they have yet to be revealed. His 50th-birthday party attracted the likes of Princess Margaret and Lady Diana Cooper; while in London for the event, he bumped into Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a relation-by-marriage whom Vidal, still seething over old slights, ignored. "Bye-bye," she murmured.

Vidal contains multitudes, yes, and at times the names pile up in associative train wrecks: Saul Bellow triggers Mary McCarthy, who sets off Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell. The celebrity-juggling, time-skipping structure that proved so effective in Vidal's earlier memoir, Palimpsest, registers now as a helpless subservience to age. Old hates -- Truman Capote, Vidal's own mother -- are brought back for fresh savaging; old anecdotes about Jane Bowles and Tennessee Williams are recycled; and large chunks of the life go missing. To cite one gap, why is there no full account of Vidal's notorious 1968 televised run-in with William F. Buckley Jr.? (For those who think politics was a gentler business in those pre-Rove days, Buckley's ad homo-nem snarl is just the corrective: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I'll sock you in your goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.")

By book's end, Vidal has dragged us perhaps to a few too many dinners, but he remains a peerlessly entertaining companion, especially when he's working in miniature. His snapshot of Orson Welles: "When he laughed, which was often, his face, starting at the lower lip, would turn scarlet while sweat formed on his brow like a sudden spring rain." Jacqueline Susann had "large dark eyes whose thick false lashes resembled a pair of tarantulas in a postcoital state." Compare them with Graham Greene's eyes, which were "curiously glazed, like mica," and Eleanor Roosevelt's "tombstone teeth." Here's Rudolf Nureyev, raging at the president of the United States for refusing to bring over Nureyev's mother: "I told this Carter he would be punished for not allowing an old woman to come visit her son, for his cruelty and his rudeness and then I said that because of this behavior he would lose the coming election, which he did and all thanks to my curse. Very powerful, these Russian curses."

Vidal himself is not above cursing, but readers of Palimpsest were startled to find him doing something quite opposite: holding a torch for a childhood sweetheart named Jimmie Trimble, "the unfinished business of my life," killed on Iwo Jima at the age of 18. (Don't get the author started on "good wars.") From the evidence, one could believe that Vidal's heart was killed off in the same instant -- were it not for this second volume's moving testament to the late Howard Auster, Vidal's companion for more than half a century. They met on Labor Day 1950. Years later, Auster told Vidal "that he thought he was just passing through my life and was surprised as the decades began to stack up and we were still together. But then it is easy to sustain a relationship when sex plays no part and impossible, I have observed, when it does. Each had a sex life apart from the other: all else including our sovereign, Time, was shared."

Until lung and brain cancer began to do their work. Heading into surgery, Auster asked Vidal, out of the blue, to kiss him. "I did. On the lips, something we'd not done for fifty years." The end came not long after. "I passed a hand in front of his mouth and nose. Nothing stirred....The eyes were open and very clear. I'd forgotten what a beautiful gray they were -- illness and medicine had regularly glazed them over; now they were bright and attentive and he was watching me, consciously, through long lashes. Lungs, heart may have stopped but the optic nerves were still sending messages to a brain which, those who should know tell us, does not immediately shut down. So we stared at each other at the end."

Vidal soon scurries back inside his "WASP glacier," but the spectacle of an intellectual carapace cracking under the weight of grief is as affecting here as it was in Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Nothing in the above should suggest that Gore Vidal has gone "soft." (Donald Rumsfeld would be well-advised not to turn his back on him.) But for a few pages, he hammers his stake into his own heart, and something discombobulatingly sweet comes pouring out. Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.

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