by Gore Vidal
Little, Brown, 377 pp., $6.95
When She Was Good
by Philip Roth
Random House, 306 pp., $5.95
Go to the Widow-Maker
by James Jones
Delacorte, 618 pp., $7.50
Washington, D.C. is Gore Vidal’s tenth novel. Go to the Widow-Maker is James Jones’s fifth. When She Was Good is only Philip Roth’s second, but he is young, and this book, with Letting Go and his volume of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, puts him in company with Jones and Vidal among the small group of novelists who are at once serious, prolific, and best sellers. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that novel writing is still a career that can be both honorable and profitable.
These three writers work largely within the long tradition of their profession. Their books have characters, settings, and plots. None of the three writers is much concerned with twentieth-century innovations in technique, or with experiments—although Jones in his reckless way is often out on a sort of adventure, or experiment, in this new book. They are not primarily engaged in recording sensibility, or in complexities of appearance and reality, or in fantasy, fable, symbolism, or other representations of the unconscious. As for style—well, except again for Jones, in his way, and with some tonal variations for Roth, they are content with the present conventions of standard English prose.
They tell stories. The stories are about people who cast shadows in a world we are supposed to take as real. To persuade us that these people and these worlds are real, they use the conventions we have learned to accept in novels as representing realities, as representing indeed for a time at least something like our total experience. They give us a mixture of what we might otherwise call history, psychology, morality, with a whole system of vocabulary—where did it come from?—of physical description, of states of feeling and how we learn of them, of what ought to be or what ought not to be: and we swallow it whole. For a few pages we may notice these conventions as the author gets us started, but then, if he knows his business at all, we are inside his vision and we experience the story, not the telling of it. These three men are masters of this accepted method, although, as I have said, Jones exceeds the careful bounds of its requirements.
Thus, in a journalist’s shorthand version of its own assumptions and vocabularies, a reviewer can attempt to tell what a novel is like by saying who is in it, where they are, what they do, and which of their acts are good and which bad, almost as if we were talking about real people. Gore Vidal’s Washington, D.C. is about “American imperial politics,” about the inner workings of our government, especially in the Senate, from New Deal days to Eisenhower’s advent. Senator Burden Day, a conservative old-school border-state Democrat, sinks Roosevelt’s Court-packing scheme, aspires to the Presidency, misses the boat, and his career declines. As he goes down, his young assistant, Clay Overbury, a poor boy on the make, goes up, and in …