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Sunday, October 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vidal revives old characters, setting for `Golden Age'

Special to The Seattle Times

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"The Golden Age"

by Gore Vidal

Doubleday, $27.50

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Gore Vidal's 1960 play, "The Best Man," about the behind-the-scenes wrangling at a political convention, is enjoying a well-deserved revival on Broadway this season. Vidal's 1967 novel, "Washington D.C.," is also enjoying a revival of sorts. Its characters and time period have been co-opted in Vidal's latest novel, "The Golden Age."

"Washington D.C.," which took place in the nation's capital from 1938 to 1954, was a character-driven novel whose concerns were more psychological than historical. It was also the first in what is now called "The American Chronicles" - Vidal's series of seven historical novels encompassing the entire history of the United States: from the revolutionary war-era "Burr" (1973), through "1876" (1976), to the Spanish-American war-era "Empire" (1987). With "The Golden Age," Vidal returns to the characters and time period of this first-written book in the series. To what end?

If we've read "D.C.," we already know what happens to Blaise and Peter and Enid Sanford. In fact, Vidal assumes we've read "D.C.," so the conflicts in that novel - the monumental events in the lives of its characters - occur, as it were, offstage in "The Golden Age." Instead, Vidal's fictional characters comment upon, and intermingle with, real historical figures, who were more or less muzzled in "D.C."

Caroline Sanford has dinner at the White House with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Peter Sanford meets Harry S Truman, who charms before the 1948 Democratic Convention, and then, during the Korean conflict, chills with his confident misreading of the lessons of history.

Herbert Hoover, Wendell Wilke, Thomas Dewey, William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, even Gore Vidal himself: They all come and go, as if at one giant, aristocratic cocktail party. The point of all this is two-fold and provides "The Golden Age" with its double meaning.

For Vidal himself, who was a young, successful novelist in the '40s, this period probably was a golden age, and he enjoys nostalgically resurrecting it. Yet the title is also ironic.

Throughout the American Chronicles series, Vidal has been less historian than revisionist, and "The Golden Age" continues this tradition. FDR provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Truman provoked the Cold War (Stalin was an innocent). What could have been a golden age for the American people and their arts became a repressive, bullying age. We witness the birth - through restaurant and cocktail-party conversations - of the NSA, CIA, loyalty oaths, censorship and television. It is the crowning achievement of a governing class that has always kept the American people in the dark.

Vidal was born into this class - his grandfather, T.P. Gore, was a senator, and his father, Eugene Vidal, was the director of Air Commerce under FDR - but he has always been his class' biggest betrayer.

As Sen. James Burden Day writes in "The Golden Age," "The real political struggle in The United States, since the Civil war, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the nation with their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally split off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in." This is Vidal's main point, and he hammers it home again and again.

Nor is it an anachronistic point. He invents a word, "Porphyrogenitism," to describe "those political dynasties that had decorated or degraded the American republic from the splendid Adams family down to the merry Roosevelts." The astute reader can add more recent entries: Kennedys, Bushes, Gores. (Vidal is even related to, as he refers to him, "Cousin Al.")

Yet as a novel, "The Golden Age" is a mess. Its protagonist, Peter Sanford, doesn't show up for nearly 100 pages. There is no story arch for the characters, only for the country. In the end, we zip from 1954 to 2000, and a debate between Peter Sanford and Gore Vidal, who acknowledges, in an odd post-modern moment, actual authorship of Peter Sanford. A look-alike descendant of Aaron Burr is introduced as a means for the series to come full circle. Hopefully, this means closure. Despite his wit and intelligence, the last thing we need from Gore Vidal is another historical novel about cocktail parties.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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