Sympathy for the Devil by Michael Mewshaw

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal BY Michael Mewshaw. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 224 pages. $24.
The cover of Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal

Reviewing is easy, but history can be hard. I mean that Michael Mewshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil, his reminiscence of Gore Vidal, proves easy to praise—swift, canny, sensitive, and unafraid. But Vidal himself, two years after his death, poses more of a challenge. Was his accomplishment literary, finally? Or does he owe his status more to his public persona, and his gifts as a well-spoken cultural gadfly? Such celebrity carries its own weight, to be sure; most writers would gladly give up a masterpiece for a fraction of Vidal’s fame. Nonetheless, the nature of that fame ought to be examined, since this book will no doubt prove only the first of several to grapple with Vidal’s legacy.

This one tends to the “entertaining,” as Jay Parini puts it in his endorsement (Parini is currently at work on a Vidal biography). Mewshaw, himself with twenty books to his credit, proves adept at whipping up suspense and story. In the introduction he states that he intends “a corrective portrait,” one that gets past the “well-rehearsed performer” that we see, for instance, in the televised squabbles with Norman Mailer. Thereafter Sympathy proceeds chronologically, starting in 1975, when Mewshaw held a fellowship in Rome. By then Vidal had lived many years in Italy, and he invited the younger writer to his penthouse for dinner, a gesture that reveals a kindness you might not expect from the venomous figure who appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. More generosity followed, always with no strings attached, the most spectacular instance being Mewshaw’s long stay in the famous author’s villa above the Amalfi coast.

As mentor and apprentice achieve greater parity, and as the years take their toll, Sympathy develops empathy. Additional warmth is generated by the Italian setting; Mewshaw celebrates the old country’s pleasures even as he masters its corrupt ways. The memoir trots along so smoothly, in fact, that we overlook its unpromising materials. By the time of that first get-together in Rome, Vidal was fifty, famous, and financially solid. He was long out of the closet (the creator of Myra, née Myron, Breckinridge, identified as bisexual), long in a stable relationship, and—arguably—long past his defining literary accomplishments. While Mewshaw‘s subject may be a lion in winter, he’s approaching no comeuppance, no epiphany. Rather, his drama is the same as everyone’s—debility and loss, in this case worsened by a lurch into alcoholism.

Still, Mewshaw renders the sorry spectacle with a sure feel for its turning points, tensions, and humor. By and large, the punch lines have to do with sex, and often function as punctuation; Sympathy concludes a number of episodes with some sophisticated filth out of Vidal’s mouth. I won’t soon forget his recollection of a transsexual woman who almost had Vidal convinced, until she “sloshed baby oil between her legs.” To clarify: “No matter how ingenious the surgeon, only God can create a self-lubricating vagina.”

The quip also exemplifies Mewshaw’s straightforwardness regarding Vidal’s romantic relationships, and in this Sympathy for the Devil lives up to its title. A couple of early pages consider Vidal’s longtime partner Howard Austen, and while these sketch relations far from “chaste,” indeed open to the occasional threesome, they wind up emphasizing the depth of the companionship. Again Vidal enjoys fresh illumination, revealing an unexpected commonality with other high-profile sexual outliers of his era. He feuded viciously with Truman Capote, yet just as Capote needed Jack Dunphy, so Vidal needed Austen. When the helpmeet dies, Mewshaw’s description rises to the occasion, compassionately.

Less satisfying are the lapses into mere name-dropping. I’ll grant that an anecdote about Burt Lancaster and his blow jobs has a charm all its own. Still, why should the memoir go out of its way for that, while saying nothing about how Vidal’s entire circle of friends—Mewshaw included—acquiesced to his drinking? Austen alone raised a hand, once or twice. You cant help but wonder, during a couple of the uglier episodes, what power this sloppy old drunk still had over people.

But then, addressing such questions requires a different book, about fame’s destructive insularity. Mewshaw didn’t write that book, no more than he engaged in a thoroughgoing literary assessment. The one Vidal title he looks at closely is the 1995 memoir Palimpsest—described, intriguingly, as “in many respects his best book in decades.”

Well, what about those books? Vidal produced upwards of sixty, an output itself praiseworthy, and yet as I look over the titles, only a few seem to demand a revisit.

Among the novels, Vidal’s The City and the Pillar retains historical significance, a coming-out story from 1948, but its characters flatten under the weight of its aphorisms, a kind of authorial posturing. So, too, Vidal’s later satires, starting with Myra Breckinridge in 1968, lean on the horn without letup, blaring warnings about capitalist excess. That leaves his historical fictions. His novel of ancient Rome, Julian (1964), earns a place alongside Robert Graves’s 1934 novel I, Claudius, while Burr (1973) offers a bracing alternative to the usual hagiography about the Founding Fathers. The same contrarian current enlivens all of his “Narratives of Empire”—though a book like Lincoln (1985), lacking a central scoundrel like Burr, can feel didactic to the point of hectoring.

Mewshaw makes clear that the didactic came naturally to Vidal, as do any number of YouTube clips of the famous author. Perhaps, then, his greatest impact came in the more argumentative form, the essay. That’s the consensus in the States, but his essay collections remain miscellanies. They prize piecework, which keeps its author’s name before the public, over full-length investigations, slower to appear but greater in impact. By contrast, two of his old nemeses produced landmarks in nonfiction, Capote with In Cold Blood (1965) and Mailer with The Armies of the Night (1968). In the end, the fundamental question about this author might echo his polar opposite, the reticent Raymond Carver: What do we talk about when we talk about Gore Vidal?

John Domini’s latest book is a selection of criticism, The Sea-God’s Herb. A set of stories, MOVIEOLA!, will appear next year, and a novel in 2016. See