“Anarcissist is someone better looking than you are”: Gore Vidal, who made many such wicked formulations, died in 2012 at the age of 86, but this wholly readable biography by Jay Parini was in the works much earlier. Parini is a veteran biographer (Robert Frost, John Steinbeck) and shows it in the seemingly effortless way he unfolds Vidal’s life and works before us.
Parini was friends with Vidal, who had suggested in the 1990s that Parini write his biography. Wisely, the younger man declined, figuring that this could lead to trouble — as it had with an earlier biographer, Fred Kaplan, who wrote what Parini generously calls a “sturdy and intelligent’’ book, which, predictably, Vidal was not pleased with. (He also would not have been amused by a recent tell-all book by journalist Tim Teeman titled, promisingly, “In Bed with Gore Vidal.’’) Parini ultimately decided to take up the project but not publish it while his friend was still alive.
Vidal was part “angel,’’ part “monster,’’ but Parini saw less of the latter, and without attempting to whitewash his subject, remains intelligently critical throughout, providing “a candid portrait of a gifted, difficult, influential man” who was in the forefront of American literary life for decades.
Vidal did his part, giving Parini full access to his letters and papers and advising him not to pull any punches. One of the most attractive things about this portrait is a number of italicized interpolations when the narrative is suspended in favor of showing biographer and subject interacting — sometimes in not the smoothest of ways. At one point, Parini tells Vidal he has a year’s fellowship at All Soul’s College at Oxford, to which Vidal ripostes that he didn’t know they let “wops” in there.
Born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal (he dispensed with the first two names), the writer was close with his father, Eugene, not so with his flighty alcoholic mother, Nina, and especially close with his grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma. These relationships, chronicled by Parini, were also fully treated in Vidal’s memoir, “Palimpsest’’ — as was his unrequited love for Jimmie Trimble, a soldier killed on Iwo Jima while Gore was doing Army service in the Aleutians.
Vidal would insist frequently that there was no such thing as a homosexual or heterosexual person, that those adjectives could only be applied to acts. He described himself as “bisexual,” although his lifelong partner, Howard Austen, said in a conversation with Parini, “It was an idea he held on to dearly . . . But if he’s straight or even bisexual, I’m Genghis Khan.”
Novelist, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, political analyst, and twice candidate (unsuccessfully) for public office, Vidal in the variety and ambition of his roles is comparable only to Norman Mailer (who headbutted him on “The Dick Cavett Show’’). Such variety makes anything like “coverage” of his activities virtually impossible.
Parini works hard to say something of relevance about most of the novels and many of the essays, singling out Vidal’s fine essay on William Dean Howells for special notice. He locates the beginning of Vidal’s career as a historical and biographical novelist in “Julian’’ (1964), a prefiguring of a new “radically subjective’’ genre. Books like “Julian’’ and Vidal’s six American political novels, beginning with “Washington’’ (1976), mixed the fictive with the real. In preparing to write “Julian,’’ Parini notes, Vidal consulted works of historical fiction he admired, studying them “carefully, noting their use of historical sources, their narrative strategies . . . His apposite but sometimes contradictory narratives remind us that history is fiction (i.e. a narrative that is shaped), and that the truth is invariably difficult to access.”
But it is in the essays where Vidal lives on. No one who reads the larger-than-enormous volume of them collected in “United States’’ (1995) can be other than delighted by their dazzling combination of acerbic wit and sense. Occasionally, as with the attempted evisceration of John Updike and his reputation, a distinct, even envious sneer vitiates the essay. (I admit to being an Updike partisan.) One feels that simply by dint of being a practicing Christian, a somewhat patriotic American, and a heterosexual, Updike sealed his doom. Speaking of the essay “Rabbit’s Own Burrow,” Parini admits that Vidal was “unfair” to Updike, ignoring the many virtues of his multidirected work; but then goes on to call the essay “devastating.” Sometimes Vidal’s impulse to be “devastating” rather than complicatedly truthful brings out an unattractive side of a critical voice that is otherwise mainly, in Parini’s words, “knowing, urbane, and wryly bemused.”
EMPIRE OF SELF: A Life of Gore Vidal
By Jay Parini
Doubleday, 464 pp., illustrated, $35
William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.