The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Sunday, February 27, 2005


For about the past 20 years, Gore Vidal has been getting closer and closer to writing the perfect parody of the Gore Vidal essay opening. Could it be that in this Sunday's NY Times, he's finally got it?
I FIRST heard of James Purdy a half-century or so ago on a bright spring day in London. Edith Sitwell had asked me to lunch. We drank martinis while she put the finishing touches on a letter to The Times of London; D. H. Lawrence's novel ''Lady Chatterley's Lover'' was under attack for obscenity. Although Edith disliked Lawrence for having, she thought, caricatured her brother Sir Osbert in the novel, as the gin took its effect on each of us, I boldly assured her that the offending book was not actually the work of Lawrence but of Truman Capote. The red-rimmed eyes atop the long Gothic face narrowed: ''Surely the dates are not right.''

''Capote,'' I said, ''will never see 90 again.''

She sighed contentedly. ''That would explain the dreadful style.'' She began to write the editor of The Times: ''Dear Sir, I am a little girl of 72 and I have it on the highest literary authority. . . .''

As the bowl of martinis emptied, she put down her pen and declared: ''I have discovered a true American genius. Unknown in your country, I fear. He is called James Purdy.'' I pleaded ignorance, but I did know that Edith, for all her swirling costumes and domino-size jade rings, had a sharp eye for literary genius, if not always for talent. She had been among the first admirers of Dylan Thomas, and she put Purdy in the same class, despite the fact that his books were as carefully ignored by American book-chatterers in those days as they are pretty much in these as well. The novelist Jerome Charyn has described him as ''the outlaw of American fiction.'' Presumably, making Mr. John Updike our supreme in-law.
Gratuitous name dropping, flippant put downs, yet another desperate attempt to coin the phrase "book chat," starting an essay with an episode from Gore Vidal's lifeone that proves that Gore Vidal has been at the start of everything important in the second half of the 20th century history (starting with flying, ending who knows where), an effortless knifing of John Updike, and a brief effective sketch of some one famous. One thing is missing: the declaration that homosexuality is an activity, not people. Otherwise, this could be Vidal's best opening from his late, great, self-parodic phase, which started roughly when the Clinton era ended.