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Gore Vidal Revisited: Jay Parini’s Empire of Self

A veteran biographer and longtime friend offers a buoyant account of a major figure in American letters.

From the outset of this major life story of American novelist and essayist Gore Vidal, Parini, highly regarded novelist, poet, and biographer (John Steinbeck, 1995; Robert Frost, 1999), does not hide his friendship with the great and greatly provocative and ever-difficult Vidal. That means, too, that he does not disguise his exasperation and even annoyance with Vidal while at the same time appreciating his writerly accomplishments.The outstanding quality—no, just one of the outstanding qualities—of this tour de force of effective biography is the dexterity, the balance with which Parini handles the two acute sides of his subject, Vidal the “angel” and Vidal the “monster.”

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal. By Jay Parini. Oct. 2015. 480p. Doubleday, $35 (9780385537568).

Gore had an arrangement with critic Walter Clemons to write a biography, giving Clemons the access that that assignment would require; but Clemons could not fulfill the obligation, and Vidal then asked his friend Parini to step in. Acknowledging that Vidal’s “flame was very bright and warm, and I was drawn to it,” Parini spent considerable time, energy, and expense as he followed Vidal all over the world. But understanding that Vidal’s intense narcissism would create problems for Parini’s freedom to be objective, he “decided then to write a book that could only be published after [Vidal’s] death, a frank yet fond look at a man I admired, even loved, and who had preoccupied me for such a long time.”

Now, make no mistake; the resultant book is by no means a “trash job.” As Parini says, it’s not a “memoir of friendship, . . . It’s the story of Gore Vidal’s extraordinary life and writing.” It is a book of greatly astute literary understanding, prepared with a vitality that perfectly suits Vidal’s fast-paced, vivid life. (But lest anyone believe he was a lightweight writer of a less-than-serious level, what comes to the fore in this book is Gore’s dedication to writing, which he spent hours at every day, no matter where he happened to be hanging his hat, which eventually became Rome for a number of years and then a villa on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.)

With no judgement or prurience, Parini lends Vidal’s sexuality
its full and undisguised freedom in these pages.

In his intense but always buoyant narrative, which brings us rich detail about Vidal’s personal life (including a sensitive portrait of Vidal’s longtime and often-suffering companion, Howard Austen), Parini examines and extols Vidal’s work in three major areas: the political novel, which Vidal saw taking the form of family sagas (his American Chronicle series is remarkably intelligent and absorbing); the biographical novel, a form which Vidal “redefined,” “shaping its texture and direction” and exemplified by Lincoln (1984), which was part of the American Chronicle series but an eminent solo performance in its own right; and the essay, which Parini posits “contain[s] his central work.”

With no judgement or prurience, Parini lends Vidal’s sexuality its full and undisguised freedom in these pages; a handsome man, Vidal had no problems attracting male lovers, especially in Italy, where he found the young men exceptionally beautiful. His television appearances—notably his debates with William F. Buckley during the 1968 presidential election—capped the fame he so desired, and his death in 2012 left Parini feeling that the “American scene is poorer without him.”

This review was first published in the August 2015 issue of Booklist.



About the Author:

Former Adult Books Editor, Brad Hooper is the recipient of the 2015 Louis Shores Award and is the author of Writing Reviews for Readers' Advisory (2010), Read On . . . Historical Fiction (2005), and other books. He is Booklist's expert on history, geography, royalty, and the art of the short story.

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