Books

Point to Point Navigation

by Gore Vidal

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Gore Vidal has had as many lives as any public intellectual might want: activist, novelist, expatriate observer, and celebrity whore. In his prime, he was celebrated for his historical novels and his literary criticism. Today he's known for his political writing, which falls somewhere between far left and far nutty.

Point to Point Navigation is a flighty book that elicits a range of reactions, from irritation to incredulity to howls of laughter clearly unintended by its author. Yet however pompous Vidal's voice—imagine Montgomery Burns in a personal essay workshop—this is a fun book to dislike. It starts with the confession that our author used to be a famous novelist, but that such a thing no longer exists in American life. Vidal might know that novelists are not rock stars, but he still seems to believe he's an exception.

So many of the sentences that inaugurate each short chapter (there are 56 in 272 pages) border on self-parody:

"I have now had a researcher prepare an outline of what I was writing and sometimes doing over the last 40 years....

"Although I answer letters from friends and even interesting requests for information, most of the fan mail goes into a large box which is eventually shipped off to the Houghton Library at Harvard...."

What makes Point to Point readable is more complicated than that which makes it cringe-worthy. Perhaps it's that Vidal doesn't write like he has to prove anything, so it's easy to accept him for what he is: a dissident, an anachronism, and a font of celebrity gossip.

His professional life and the accident of birth have granted Vidal access to the sort of people nobody really knows. The fact that he's the son of a famous senator, related to Jackie Onasis, and friends with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and Johnny Carson renders the etiquette of name-dropping somewhat, but not totally irrelevant.

And yet, one has to wonder if Vidal has ever, even once in his rich tenure, had a meaningful conversation with a person of no social consequence. Who knows what he might have learned?

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