By John Dicker
to Point Navigation
Doubleday, 272 pages, $26
If you’ve ever suffered through a movie so bad that inappropriate
laughter becomes a necessary form of stress relief and the
most allegedly climactic moments trigger giggle fits worthy
of a 10-year-old’s sleepover party, be warned: Gore Vidal’s
second memoir will make you laugh hard, especially when it’s
not supposed to.
Gore Vidal has had as many careers as any American public
intellectual might want: activist, novelist, essayist, playwright,
screenwriter, expatriate observer, and all-around celebrity
whore. In his prime, he was known for his historical novels
like Lincoln and Burr and his literary criticism
that has appeared everywhere from The Nation to The
New York Review of Books.
Nowadays he’s known for his political writing, which could
be characterized as somewhere between far-left and far-nutty.
(To wit: His Vanity Fair profile characterized Oklahoma
City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a mostly misunderstood victim
of the system. Uh huh.)
to Point Navigation is a flighty book, hopping between
whatever memories come across Vidal’s mind, and elicits a
range of reactions, from irritation to incredulity. Yet however
pompous and flip the tone, it’s a very fun book to dislike.
It starts with the confession that our author was once a famous
novelist, but such a thing no longer exists in American life.
This is an honest, if sad, admission. But let’s face it, today’s
producer of literary fiction has neither the cultural capital
of a clever comedic filmmaker or the political clout of an
Despite conceding this ground, Vidal’s tone would suggest
he doesn’t really believe it: that all of America, if not
the western world, has been doing little else these 10 years
since his first memoir Palimpsest but biding time for
the next one. What, the nation frets, does Vidal really think
of his many biographers? To what Ivy League institution does
he send his fan mail? And so on.
There are words to describe Vidal’s self-important style,
but none seem nearly potent enough. Maybe if one put “self-
infatuated” or “indulgent” on a Jason Giambi prescription
diet, it might begin to suggest what he’s capable of.
So many of the sentences that inaugurate each short chapter
(there are 56 in 272 pages) border on self parody making the
satirist Neal Pollack’s “Greatest American Writer” shtick
Witness a few cuts:
have now had a researcher prepare an outline of what I was
writing and sometimes doing over the last forty years . .
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. . . . I’ve always kept just about everything that
comes my way as did Lord Byron, Thomas Wolfe and not many
others, or so I’m told by university archivists.”
More to the point, Vidal manages to recall nearly everything
related to himself, but then he simply can’t be bothered with
other details. Like the names of Saul Bellow’s wife(s).
In fact, much of Point to Point is mired in score-settling
with writers you’ve never heard of from magazines you didn’t
read. While it’s surely not fun to have misperceptions scribbled
about you floated in major publications, surely there’s a
statute of limitations on such squabbling. One that expires
within a few months of publication, perhaps?
What makes Point to Point readable is more complicated
than what makes it cringe-worthy. Perhaps it’s that Vidal
doesn’t have to prove anything, so it’s easy to accept him
for who he is: a dissident, an anachronism, and a font of
the rare sort of celebrity gossip that contains tracings of
profundity. There are also bits on the death of his longtime
partner, Howard Auster, and the lonely sensation of watching
so many contemporaries pass, that redeem much of the book’s
His professional life and the accident of his birth have granted
Vidal access to the sort of people nobody who’s still writing
really knows. The fact that he’s the grandson of a famous
Oklahoma senator; related to Jackie Onassis; and friends with
Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, Johnny Carson, (the list
continues); renders the etiquette of name-dropping somewhat—but
When your family was on a first-name basis with Amelia Earhart
and you’ve dined at the White House with Jack and Jackie,
chilled with Princess Margaret and Greta Garbo, how can you
not mention it? And let’s face it, there’s some great dish
here—about Jackie O’s response to her husband’s assassination,
about the Queen of England’s personal ticks, and more.
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.