Reviewer Gordon Osmond : Gordon is a produced and award-winning playwright and author of: So You Think You Know English--A Guide to English for Those Who Think They Don't Need One, Wet Firecrackers--The Unauthorized Autobiography of Gordon Osmond and his debut novel Slipping on Stardust.
He has reviewed books and stageplays for http://CurtainUp.com and for the Bertha Klausner International Literary Agency. He is a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School and practiced law on Wall Street for many years before concentrating on writing fiction and non-fiction. You can find out more about Gordon by clicking HERE
The cheesy title of Tim Teeman’s first book is explained, and somewhat deflated for those hoping for first-person pillow talk, as follows:
“This is a book with sexuality at its heart; it is neither a general biography, nor evaluation of Vidal’s writing career.”
The unique aspect of Gore Vidal’s sex life, which is referenced again and again throughout this long book is not so much his partner “type”—young, good looking males—his preferred role—ungenerous and emotionally uninvolved “top”—or frequency—sybaritic to the point of wonderment that his literary output was so extensive, but rather his rhetorical construct positing a distinction between personality and activity. Briefly stated, here not there, he admitted to homosexual behavior (he hardly a choice) but denied to his death that he, or anyone else for that matter, should be labeled, classified, or categorized as gay or homosexual.
For some, repetition of the thesis will not convince. For these same some, separation between what a person is and how that person behaves is more precious than profound, springing more from pragmatism than philosophy. A convincing statement of this position is expressed in the book as follows:
“But, according to Benderson, Vidal used these “laudable cultural politics to get ahead and protect himself. I think he was boring, pretentious and shallow. I disliked him most for the society he inhabited, while poking fun at it—like trying to have his cake and eat it.”
It seems reasonable to conclude that Vidal, who had no chance of hiding his unrestrained homosexuality, was nevertheless making a real effort to qualify for certain life rewards, political and professional, oftimes reserved, particularly during Vidal’s prime years, for those conforming to certain minimum social mores. Indeed, it would be totally in character for one with Vidal’s elaborate sense of self-regard and justifiable appreciation of his own intellectual superiority to imagine that he could get away with this double-talk, more so when properly dressed up with sophisticated rhetoric, which, of course, was the “Master’s” stock in trade. Teeman wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide whether this fundamental hypocrisy concerning a central part of most lives and a quintessential element of Vidal’s may have contributed to Vidal’s prevailing sadness which progressed steadily as his life force ebbed. An additional explanation, which the book elucidates well, is Vidal’s largely but not completely unacknowledged feeling that he was a bit of a wet firecracker, never fully realizing his potential as he imagined it.
One is struck by similarities among three roughly contemporary American writers: Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. Each displayed extraordinary talent, malignant self-absorption, (“Mr. Me”) and chronic disregard for, and parasitic use of associates, both close and casual. Of the three, only Vidal had political aspirations, which may explain his greater reluctance to acknowledge the full extent and implications of his obvious homosexuality. Based on this book and others I’ve read about Williams and Capote, Vidal would probably be my last choice for tea.
Teeman does a journeyman’s job of presenting the good, bad, and ugly of Vidal’s persona. On the plus side is Vidal’s long and loyal association with Howard Austen, whom Vidal encouraged to change his name to one less Jewish, another example of Vidal’s hypocritical betrayal of his “I am what I am” mantra. Another plus is Vidal’s occasional generosity to friends and family members. Considerably less admirable is when he, like Rock Hudson, cared more about preserving his mainstream career than using his considerable media power to advance the cause of AIDS research and treatment. Also, his leaving nothing in his “will” (sic) to his loyal and longtime chief cook and bottle washer seems epically mean.
Like most biographies, focused or general, hearsay dominates the narrative and this one is certainly no exception. As a theme or topic is introduced, the principal sources of information and comment are lined up, credentialed as witnesses, and then quoted without much in the way of authorial reaction. This results in a fair amount of repetition, which gives the book a bloated quality.
Some of the best parts of the book are when the author “cheats” on his intention to stick to sex and discusses events of Vidal’s colorful life that occurred between orgasms. For example, I was stunned to learn that the super-sensual and uninhibited Susan Sarandon made her stage debut playing the icily introverted Tricia Nixon. And for years people have been dining out on a comment that Truman Capote’s death was a good career move and a response to the cheery and ubiquitous demand to “have a good day.” I’m grateful to Teeman for confirming that the bright and acerbic Vidal was the source of both gems.
When the author is speaking rather than quoting, his style could benefit from closer attention to some grammatical niceties, for example, the merit of placing a pronoun as proximately as possible to the host noun. Consider how clarity and punctuation correctness could be enhanced by rearranging this:
“When Strub met Vidal for the first time [missing comma] he was critically ill with AIDS.”
“Strub was critically ill with AIDS [no comma needed] when he met Vidal for the first time.”
At least we’d be clear about who was smitten.
These quibbles aside, those interested in an exhaustive examination of Gore Vidal’s sex life and his gyrational efforts to explain/defend it and those who find titillation in breaking through the bedroom doors of the almost universally deceased rich and famous to discover a degree of detail that even TMZ would consider unsavory will find in this book what they are looking for, probably more.