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Editor’s Choice: ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal’

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200 pages ($24). Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer were the leading figures from the last literary generation to be larger than life. While it’s true that there was more than a little legendry in a writer getting a book out of going on the road with David Foster Wallace, as David Lipsky did in “Although Of Course In the End You Wind Up Being Yourself,” this book by Michael Mewshaw has an entirely different – and hugely welcome – flavor to it.

Vidal was in his rather astonishing prime. His historical novels sold briskly, for all that they also bored, his fictional experiments (“Myra Breckenridge,” “Myron,” “Duluth”) were wildly entertaining, his autobiographical works filled a need and his collected essays were among the finest written in the past century (and apparently, according to indiscretions emerging from the bowels of the New York Review of Books, heavily dependent on elementary editing and fact-checking).

His magisterial urbanity and wit and his aristocratic distaste for the American middle made him perfect for the true media home of the American middle, television. The credo he claimed to live by was “I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.” The elderly Vidal – narcissist and political crank – was all-too-apparent as it eluded intelligent self-examination in his own books and appearances.

Here, then, is an imperfect but nevertheless splendid way to contemplate the Gore Vidal that we needed to see “up close and personal,” as Roone Arledge might have had it.

Mewshaw is a novelist, journalist and critic whose lack of stellar status should, in no way, deter anyone from the revelations of a Vidal as necessary as his own memoirs (and, of course, more revealing).

Who else, for instance, is likely to tell you that Vidal’s life partner, Howard Austin, “mentored Gore’s drinking, curbed his excesses, scolded him when he crossed the line and generally prevented him from plunging over the edge. He hadn’t just enabled Gore to create; he had enabled him to continue living when he declared that he wanted to die.” – Jeff Simon