Gore Vidal's death came as a surprise, as if I believed that his supercilious, patrician intellect would even intimidate the Grim Reaper. Alas, Vidal died this week at age 86, showing that he, too, was mortal.
I agreed with the late Christopher Hitchens and others that Vidal's writing in later years spun off the rails into ravines of crankiness and absurdity. His contenton that George W. Bush knew in advance about Sept. 11, following his belief that FDR had advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor, was one example, as was his nutty admiration for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Vidal, though, will always live in my personal pantheon of literary stars and characters. When I was a young man, reading his essays revealed many of the negative aspects of American culture, politics and society. I'd suspected much of it previously, but Vidal gave me a language and framework for understanding the abuses of American power and the corruptions of our culture. Along with other radical writers I discovered at the time, he made a major contribution to my skeptical, critical outlook about our history, government, literature, economy, business and culture.
I made an attempt to read Vidal's historical novels, but I found his fiction artificial and stagy. His essays pulsed with energy, laced with satiric humor and a world-weary, cynical learning. With all of his erudition, he also had brilliant insight into American popular culture, particularly movies, TV and the theater. He championed writers like the neglected Dawn Powell and fired blasts at overly popular figures. Although I was too young to remember them, I enjoyed accounts of his TV feuds with William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer. I also found his late memoirs entertaining.
Another voice with whom I measured my life is gone. The decline of the American republic that Vidal accurately registered in his best work accelerates. Writers such as he appear more and more as sirens sounding without affect, lost in the cacophony of ignorance.