Gore Vidal’s “American chronicle” is a roman fleuve that looks beyond Powell’s The Music of Time to Roger Martin du Card’s Les Thibaults series of the 1920’s and 30’s, and what it demonstrates is that our assumptions about popular culture are incomplete, if not actually wrong. The notion that commercial success varies inversely with quality may smack of smartness and cynicism, but how else can we account for what we see even in a cursory glance at the best-seller lists? Week after week, the message is clear that universal literacy may not, after all, have been such a good idea.

There are occasional exceptions, odd and quirky careers of good writers who beat the odds (and set up all those innocents in writing programs for a lifetime of heartbreak). It isn’t all Danielle Steel and Robin Cook and Robert Ludlum, after all. John Updike makes a good living; Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer prove that, with a little help from the Swedes, one can command a certain degree of attention; Umberto Eco has shown us that, if the stars are in the right conjunctions, one can even force-feed a fair amount of untranslated Latin down the gagging throats of the book-buying public. But the canny publishers prefer the probabilities and go with what works: the tried and true falsities and tripe of Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon.

Vidal doesn’t go that way, but he has been flying high as a popular writer. A million five, which I’m told was his advance on Hollywood, may not be a record, but it’s nothing to sniffs at, particularly when the performance is as consistent and reliable as his has been. “I am,” he likes to say, “the secondrichest serious writer in the world.” This sets the listener up so that those who are lively enough to have elicited the performance generally ask who, then, is the richest. (It’s Edward Albee, but only because Albee bought a lot of Jasper Johns’ paintings back when they were in the lower six figures, and they have appreciated and are in the lower seven now.) After him, it’s Vidal—and with books that are not deplorable. He’s always good for fun, and there’s always wit in evidence, an actual liveliness to the sentences, a syntactical snap that is admirable and winning.

I don’t mean this to sound like faint praise. To get away with well-made sentences in that kind of book is already an amazing feat. A friend of mine was once told by an editor to remove from his chapter headings the epigraphs he’d spent much time in hunting down. Why? Because they reminded people that they were reading a book! This editor’s view was that people prefer the mental movie to the actual text on the page, which ideally should be totally transparent. It is not an idea shared by Vidal, who delights in the tricks and turns of the English sentence. It is amazing that he gets away with this, but he has done so, over and over again.

Better, he has written other kinds of books. He has collections of essays, many of which have appeared along the way in the New York Review of Books. And he has his “serious” fiction, which is to say his seriously frivolous novels (the lower-middle- and middle-middle-brow reader can forgive well-turned phrases but not outrageous jokes and camp): Two Sisters, Myra Breckinridge, and Duluth are wonderfully funny, impishly intelligent books his publisher would prefer not to touch because they are only likely to puzzle and therefore enrage the readers he has attracted by the “American chronicle,” and the risk is that they will reduce revenues. Still, for fear that Vidal will take his herd of literary cash cows into other pastures, they do what they have to (but without advertising these titles).

How does he manage this double life? I honestly wish I knew. My best guess is that by focusing his attention on the prose he is able to operate like a good craftsman and not worry too much about the blueprint, which is conventional, conservative, and even retrograde. His appeal, furthermore, is to a truth beyond the text—which is what the readers in the slower group much prefer. This is America he’s talking about, after all. If it is true, as I believe it to be, that the most solemn books any of us ever encountered were junior high school social studies texts, then Vidal has the authority of those double-columned pages working for him as he assures us that we’re not wasting our time and that this is somehow good for us, even while it entertains. He is like the kid in the classroom who could make us laugh, rolling his eyes and making faces while the teacher droned on about boring things like the Zimmerman telegram and its effect on Wilson’s neutrality policy (with which Hollywood actually begins).

Vidal avoids condescension. He has his views about Burr and Lincoln and Hearst and Warren G. Harding—whose personal style he finds piquant but whom he regards nonetheless as a shrewd politician—and it must be pleasing to him to create, more or less ex nihilo, impressions of these historical figures in the minds of many of his fans. It is perhaps for that reason that he is so patient of the constraints of the popular novel, accepting the limitations of the form the way he accepted the limitations of screenwriting and television script-making. It is not just intelligence that allows him to do this but a sure sense of who he is. His own reading—as set forth in Views from a Window: Conversations with Gore Vidal (published ten years ago)—runs to Flaubert, Proust, James, Meredith, George Eliot, and Thomas Love Peacock. And he has suggested that Gibbon “has had as profound an effect on me as any writer. I don’t mean stylistically so much as the effect of his attitude.”

The attitude is that of amused tolerance that is nonetheless proud of what it can tolerate. Early on, there is a reference to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels as “an amiable Southern newspaper editor, who hated war and alcohol and so had been entrusted with the American Navy.” The contempt for Daniels is evident in the joke, the machinery of which is in the “and so.”

That’s a characteristic flick, and what makes Vidal worth reading. It’s heady stuff for best-sellerdom.


[Hollywood, by Gore Vidal (New York: Random House) 437 pp., $19.95]