The Central Man

Lincoln: A Novel

by Gore Vidal
Random House, 657 pp., $19.95

Walt Whitman elegized Lincoln as “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” “The actual Lincoln was cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” according to Gore Vidal’s brief meditation on the martyr president in The Second American Revolution and Other Essays: 1976–1982. That somber “Note” by Vidal gave us a Lincoln “at heart…a fatalist, a materialist” who “knew when to wait; when to act.” This is the Lincoln of Vidal’s superb novel, celebrated by the author as the master politician who invented what is now in crisis, the American nation-state.

If I count accurately, this is Vidal’s nineteenth novel and thirtieth book, and he is (or is going on) fifty-nine. I have read thirteen of the novels, and two books of essays, which may be enough to yield some reasonable estimate of at least the relative nature of his achievement, if only to see how his work might be placed, so far. Though Vidal has a substantial audience, which certainly will be augmented by Lincoln, he has had rather mixed esteem among the most serious readers whom I know. I myself found his fiction very readable but not greatly memorable until the appearance of his ninth novel, Julian, which seems to me still a beautifully persuasive historical tale, a poignant portrait of the Emperor Julian, known forever as the Apostate by the Christian tradition that he rejected and abandoned.

Of the earlier novels, I had read only the first, Williwaw, and the third, The City and the Pillar, both refreshing, but then I was disappointed by the book just before Julian, an ambitious yet sketchy work that courageously was entitled Messiah. What the far more powerful Julian showed, I thought, was that Vidal lacked invention, and so was most gifted at reimagining history. The political and historical Washington, D.C., which followed Julian, seemed to confirm this intimation, since everything and everyone weakest in it was of Vidal’s own creation. But I underestimated Vidal badly. Myra Breckinridge followed, an apocalyptic farce that rivals Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, three outrageous travesties that will outlive many of the more celebrated visions of our century. After many readings, Myra Breckinridge continues to give wicked pleasure, and still seems to have fixed the limit beyond which the most advanced aesthetic neopornography ever can go.

Myra compelled a revisionary estimate of Vidal, who had powerfully demonstrated that superb invention was his strength, provided that the modes were farce and fantasy. The polemic of Myra remains the best embodiment of Vidal’s most useful insistence as a moralist, which is that we ought to cease speaking of homosexuals and heterosexuals. There are only women and men, some of whom prefer their own sex, some the other, and some both. This is the burden of Myra Breckinridge., but a burden borne with lightness, wildness, abandon, joy, skill. It was a little difficult to see just how the author of Julian was one …

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