cover image The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution

Gore Vidal. Random House (NY), $23 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50121-0

Having astutely explored several historical periods in his fiction (Lincoln, etc.), Vidal has now produced an eccentric novel about a literal time machine and a boy who uses it to save the world (or one version of the world) from within the headquarters of Washington, D.C.'s public museum complex. On Good Friday, 1939, 13-year-old T. is summoned from his D.C. boarding school to the Mall for a mysterious meeting. It seems the outwardly average (if unusually attractive) young man has scribbled, in the margins of a math test, an equation that may be essential to the upcoming war effort. Cloistered with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, the Founding Fathers and other historical personages who have been kept alive in the Smithsonian's magical exhibits, T. struggles to solve the mysteries of space-time, prevent the coming war (in which he is doomed to die) and hold on to cradle-robbing Frankie Cleveland, the immortal 22-year-old version of Grover's First Lady. Part Alice in Wonderland, part Twain's Mysterious Stranger, part fictionalized autobiography, this bagatelle reintroduces many of the characters and themes already treated in Vidal's historical novels and memoirs. T. bears at least enough resemblance to Vidal's well-publicized great love--a St. Albans classmate who died at Iwo Jima--to explain the novelist's obvious affection for him. If the tale of T. remains a mostly private, somewhat rueful joke, it will no doubt charm Vidal's most devoted readers. (Mar.)