Gore Vidal would have been very pleased by the response to his death. Newspapers, radio, television all mourned him and eulogized him for days following his passing. His acerbic wit was quoted and tweeted. His television appearances from the 1960s were edited down to the “crypto-Nazi” vs. the “queer” sound bites and dominated YouTube. Pundits proselytized 'for and against', for a week.
No recent author has garnished so much sustained attention from the modern media at their death as Gore Vidal. The one thing the media did not talk about, but I think the reason he was so well liked and well known, and therefore mourned in passing, was his novels. Over the last fifty years, people read them.
Burr, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, The Golden Age, Washington, D.C., Myra Breckinridge, Julian. They were popular novels and people, over different generations, talked about them and shared them with friends and relatives. They made great gifts.
He had multiple audiences for his writing, there were the historical novels, but then he had the odd, fantasy fiction: The Smithsonian Institution, Live from Golgotha: The Gospel according to Gore Vidal, Duluth.
There were his novels that prophesied, or should I say warned about false prophets: Kalki, Messiah, and Creation.
And all these various themes and styles threaded their way throughout his 25 novels.
Even his early books, written fast and furious after World War Two: Williwaw, In A Yellow Wood, Dark Green, Bright Red and The City and The Pillar were uniquely Gore Vidal novels, although I will admit, his lesser books. He seemed in such a hurry, some of these books are more novellas than novels. But he certainly was thinking and making his readers think. (Except for The City and The Pillar, they are all out of print in America. I bought them from Amazon UK.)
In A Yellow Wood is a slim, yet an interesting look at Post World War Two New York City, when the financial industry was getting back on its feet after the War and the Great Depression. It was America’s time and when offered choices of Old Europe, or lighting out for California, our hero decides to stray no further than Wall Street. People didn’t believe it.
Dark Green, Bright Red is the first novel to lift the rock on America’s illegal, illicit interventionist activities in Central America before anyone in post War America even knew we were still interested in the place, let alone active. People didn’t believe it.
The City and The Pillar is a much written and talked about novel about two young men and their homosexual relationship, such as it was, and what becomes of it as they grow past adolescence and begin to have adult lives. People didn’t believe it.
A few more ‘at bats’ (A Search For The King, The Season of Comfort, The Judgment of Paris) and Gore Vidal struck out at the plate and his novels were not reviewed nor sold much by the early 1950s.
He went into television writing and then Broadway and Hollywood. Places where people will believe anything. He was quite successful in all three areas of our mass, visual entertainment mediums. He had a hit revival of one of his plays on Broadway when he died.
Vidal stepped into the ring and ran for Congress in 1960, but lost. He was financially secure enough after 10 years of writing for TV and the movies to stop and pick up his career as a novelist… and thus in a short time gave us Julian, Washington, D.C., Myra Breckinridge, Burr… and we were off and running.
“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.” - Gore Vidal
When the “greatest novels of the century’ lists were written up in 1999… Gore Vidal did not appear on any of them. He noticed and was not happy about that. I have read most of his novels and I must admit I am not sure which Vidal novel would replace any of the books that made the lists.
He did not write a The Naked and The Dead, or a From Here To Eternity or a For Whom The Bell Tolls. But the totality of his Narratives of Empire books should stand tall on the serious reader’s bookshelf. Are they great literature? No. Are they interesting history? Yes. Are they good reads? You better believe it.