This review by Florence King appeared in the March 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.p> em> Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir br> By Gore Vidal br> (Doubleday, 277 pages, $26) /em> /p>
SHOOT IF YOU MUST this old gray head, but spare your country’s enfant terrible. Gore Vidal — expat liberal elitist, name-dropper extraordinaire, snidest of the snide, unabashed advocate of male love decades before America even knew what “gay” meant, has written his final memoir, and I loved it.
His first memoir, which took him from his birth in 1925 to age 70, was called Palimpsest, and I panned it, saying among other things that the title “sounds like an arcane sexual practice involving an inflated condom that explodes like the Hindenburg in the tradesman’s entrance of some hired Apollo, sending ecstasy and other things washing over Maitre Vidal.”
Actually “palimpsest” refers to a papyrus that has been written on before and scraped clean, leaving traces of the earlier writing showing through. Vidal intended it as an allusion to the tricks that memory plays on autobiographers, but the title he has given this, his second memoir, is a more down-to-earth description of the 82-year-old memory he must now depend upon. In World War II he served as first mate of an Army freight-supply ship based in the Aleutian Islands, where the weather was so cold that the compasses often froze, making it necessary to rely on memorized landmarks, a process known as “point to point navigation” in which the navigator proceeds without radar and hopes for the best.
He repeats previously published accounts of his birth and childhood in Washington, D.C., but interestingly, his portrait of his blind grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, is sharper now that he himself has reached the age of the old man for whom he acted as guide and reader. Instead of the eccentric character he seemed in Vidal’s earlier writings, the stoic Gore, who served 30 years in the Senate, abstained on the Social Security vote, lived on his $15,000 salary, and was the first and probably the last senator from an oil state to die without a fortune, emerges here almost as a ghost from the Early Roman Republic when virtue in its original sense of male honor reigned supreme. If Vidal has seemed to harbor a patrician contempt for just about every “popular” leader and flavor-of-the-month pol, it is because he had the good fortune, during his formative years, to know and to serve a giant among men.
Today he has moved back to the United States from his self-exile in Italy and spends much of his time reading Montaigne and meditating on mortality. Were it anyone else but Gore Vidal one could say that he has “mellowed,” but he is still the master of the withering retort. What makes this memoir different from anything he has ever written is his unsentimental yet heartrending account of the horrendous final illness of his companion of 53 years, Howard Auster, and his unexpected revelation about the nature of their relationship.
Howard was a lounge singer. The two met soon after the war — Vidal doesn’t say how but other accounts claim the friendship began at the Everard bath house in New York — and became housemates. “He confessed that he thought he was just passing through my life and was surprised as the decades began to stack up and we were still together.” Howard did not pursue a musical career but he sang at their parties, which he also planned. A born host, he was able to compile a guest list containing the likes of Greta Garbo at a moment’s notice. Altogether, just the kind of person a writer needs.
Although he was a heavy smoker, he remained remarkably fit until the age of 70 when he suddenly started getting sick. His first illness looked like appendicitis to Vidal, who had had it himself, but the doctors patiently explained that nobody can get appendicitis at 70, whereupon Howard’s appendix burst and he had to be rushed to the hospital and operated on for peritonitis. Next, he developed a malignant tumor on one lung. The doctors operated and claimed they got it all, but found that the other lung was weakened by emphysema. Then the cancer spread to the section of the brain that controls locomotion. The brain operation left him unable to control his movements or his bodily functions, and he had to wear diapers.
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