Wednesday, August 01, 2012

'Not Good But Great'

"American writers want to be not good but great; and so are neither."

Gore Vidal

Two Sisters: A Memoir in the Form of a Novel (1970)

The death yesterday of writer Gore Vidal cannot reasonably be seen as unexpected.

He was, after all, 86 years old, and when one has reached that age, even if one has been in apparently good health, things can change quickly.

I can't honestly say that I know what the state of Vidal's health had been. His nephew said his death was caused by complications from pneumonia, which may or may not have been a long–term condition.

But one thing I can say is that his death — at any age and regardless of the circumstances — is an unexpected blow for anyone who appreciates good writing and independent thinking.

And writers who survive him are heaping praise upon him at the time of his death — even if they didn't always agree with what he said or wrote during his life.

Vidal was an "elegant, acerbic all–around man of letters," writes Charles McGrath in the New York Times.

He "was impossible to categorize," says Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times, "which was exactly the way he liked it."

He always seemed to be around in one form or another, whether it was in person (i.e., his regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) or through the mere mention of his name.

I recall once on one of my favorite TV shows, Frasier, Roz was trying to persuade Frasier to agree to be a celebrity host of a cruise in exchange for a trip to Alaska. Frasier was reluctant to, as he put it, "trade on one's good name," but he had second thoughts when Roz told him Gore Vidal had gone on two such cruises in the preceding year.

"Gore Vidal?" Frasier asked incredulously. "He hates everything!"

Maybe he didn't hate everything. But if he didn't, he did seem to make an effort to be even–handed with things and people that most of the rest of us do not like.

His career spanned parts of six decades, but it was early in Vidal's career when his novel "The City and the Pillar," made him a literary outcast because of its treatment of homosexuality.

One could say he made a career of being the devil's advocate.

He corresponded with convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and wrote an extensive defense of McVeigh for Vanity Fair. McVeigh initiated the correspondence after reading an article Vidal wrote about the erosion of the Bill of Rights in the raid of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

And he alienated many with his insistence that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were inside jobs.

But no matter what kind of reaction his words and writings received, he remained convinced of the rightness of his views.

"There is not one human problem," he said, "that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise."

One of the things I admired about Vidal was his passion for history and politics. His book about Lincoln was and still is, in my opinion, one of the best historical novels ever written — and I minored in history in college. History has always been one of my passions, too.

Vidal knew, though, that his wasn't exactly a warm and fuzzy personality.

"I'm exactly as I appear," he said. "There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."

It's been my experience that many writers are like that. But few are as honest about it as Gore Vidal.

And that, I suppose, is what I will miss the most about Vidal — the honesty of his words.

Even if you didn't agree with him, you could not help but appreciate his candor.