cover image The Golden Age: An American Chronicle Novel

The Golden Age: An American Chronicle Novel

Gore Vidal. Doubleday Books, $27.5 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-385-50075-3

The newest entry in Vidal's ""narratives of empire"" series (which includes Burr, Lincoln and 1876) is a densely plotted, hugely ambitious novel that manages to impress and infuriate in equal measure. A series of historical essays masquerading as a historical novel, it endeavors to present Vidal's philosophy regarding our nation's ascent to global-empire status, from 1939 into the 1950s. The protagonists are Peter Sanford, a prescient young intellectual from a well-to-do family, who helps to found the American Idea, a politically radical journal; his aunt, Caroline Sanford, a former film star who has returned to her D.C. newspaper publishing roots; and Timothy X. Farrell, Caroline's half-brother and an acclaimed documentary filmmaker on the rise in Hollywood. The narrative carries its myriad characters--including FDR, William Randolph Hearst, Tennessee Williams and Vidal himself--through the political machinations that culminate in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the economic boom engendered by WWII, even the dark years of McCarthyism and the Korean War. However, it is in the misadventures of the cynical yet idealistic Peter Sanford that Vidal advances his powerful (if rather familiar) central thesis. Events include Sanford's brush with politically motivated murder at the 1940 Republican Convention, and a bitter clash with golden-boy politico and bogus war hero Clay Overbury years later. In Vidal's view, the U.S. has been manipulated by a dangerously insular governing class for most of the past century, a self-serving and inbred elite determined to use incessant war (be it against drugs, terrorists or other nations) to keep the real decision-making power out of the hands of the masses. Vidal's historical savvy and insider's understanding of the psychodynamics of Washington's power players is constantly in evidence; a feel for the humanity of his characters is not. His protagonists are an arrogant, bloodless lot, and his narrative meanders. Accordingly, what could have been the crowning achievement of Vidal's long career feels incomplete, a philosophical treatise in desperate need of a more human literary framework to stabilize it. Major ad promo; author tour. (Sept.)