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¡Gore Vidal presente! (3 Oct. 1925 – 31 July 2012)

1 August 2012

Rolling back through Gore Vidal’s remarkable life — the great and terrible old man raging against the Empire; the witty, mischievous purveyor of gossip about the safely dead: the rare intellectual in Hollywood; the inconveniently related Washington insider (thanks to his much-married parent’s various partners and paramours — and his own paramours — he knew or was related to everyone from Amelia Earhart to Hollywood stars to European intellectuals and political cranks and half the Democratic Party establishment of the 50s and 60s — John Kennedy was married to his half-sister Jacqueline Bouvier and even Jimmy Carter was a distant cousin); the Army brat (his father was a West Point instructor, and he was born in the Cadet Hospital); the prematurely wise veteran of his two early novels (Williwaw, written while the 19-year old Vidal was stationed in the Aleutians as an Army private, and In a Yellow Wood, about a young veteran’s conflict between an unconventional life with the possibility of love and social and economic stability); the sexual radical whose 1948 The City and the Pillar was particularly shocking in that the gay hero’s conflict is resolved by accepting his homosexuality, and — moreover — his being a healthy, well-conflicted American male.

As part of his journey as a healthy, well-conflicted American gay man in search of self-acceptance The City and the Pillar‘s fictional protagonist, Jim Willard, travels to the Yucatán in a vain attempt to find satisfaction with a woman… Unsuccessful in finding “normalcy” as it is was socially defined in the late 1940s, Jim returns home, coming to self-acceptance, contradictions and all. The author, whose editor flat out told him “You will never be forgiven for this book” found his own literary acceptance, and contradictory voice, though his own sojourn into Guatemala.

To pay the bills, Vidal  churned out a few detective novels under a pseudonym, and an odd quasi-fantasy novel (there are vampires and werewolves in it) about Richard the Lionhearted and Blondel…  justifying gay relationships through history, and also marking Vidal’s debut as a historical novelist.  More importantly, he developed the story, and wrote Dark Green, Bright Red … his short Central American novel, that so nicely debuts the multi-faceted Vidal — the ironic observer of human frailty that acts out of sight to influence public events, the delighted voyeur, the veteran, the name-dropper, and the voice in the wilderness decrying American imperialism and corporate chicanery.

Set in an unnamed Central American republic, Peter Nelson has come to work in the country under a cloud:

As far as he knew, the General had been told nothing of his court-martial and discharge from the American Army.  José knew, of course, and he had chosen to ignore everything except their friendship when, two weeks earlier in New York, he had invited Peter to join the army of the revolution.  Peter had agreed.  It was not as if he had a future.

Though we don’t ask, and Vidal doesn’t tell exactly why Peter was court-martialed his reasons for going to Central America may not be all that different than Jim Willard’s were.  There is a more than a hint of sexual attraction between Peter and José, even if we accept that Peter’s attraction toJosé’s sister, Elena, is more than a desperate stab at “normalcy”.   When José dies in a accident, Peter beds Elena, but leave her.. which reads to me more like an attempt to assuage his own grief — an “anger fuck” to use the vernacular — than any particular feeling for the rather flighty daughter of the former (and would be future) dictator.

When the book was reviewed by the New York Times in October 1950, Donald Barr dismissed it as “a sound enough melodrama about revolution in a Central American country…”  missing what the novel is — a personal tragedy (Peter’s) set inside a dark comedy, wrapped in acid political commentary about  United States interference in Latin America.

General Alvarez is a standard issue Central American dictator — a Ladino in a country described as “80 percent Indian” of no particular political persuasion. He sees his recent and relatively comfortable exile in New Orleans as simply an interruption in his career — much as a gangster might view a prison sentence.

The General’s political adviser (and court jester) is another near stereotype.  The French exile, De Cluny is a novelist like Vidal somewhat grudgingly admitted to the corridors of power.  But, De Cluny is a third-rate hack, and the corridors of Tenango (second city of the unnamed Republic) are not those in which Vidal  could stroll renewing family ties.

Who De Cluny really serves — the General, the reactionary priests threatened by the ruling Opina party’s mild reforms,  Mr. Green of the World Banana Company, himself, or some unnamed others, is never clear.  It may not even be clear to the cynical De Cluny himself.  That the ruling Opina regime is secular and liberal (although looking to check the power of Mr. Green’s banana empire) — and popular — means the General needs to have some better rationale for overthrowing it than just “life was better with me around”.  It is De Cluny, the third-rate Metternich, who comes up with “Christian Socialism” — basically neo-liberalism (in the 1940s yet!) with an overlay of paternalism (and, of course, reliance on banana exports) which wins over… some of the most devastatingly drawn stereotypical gringos abroad to be found in expat writings anywhere. And, a few professional soldiers on the make, and the more reactionary churchmen… and — we think — the World Banana Company.

The revolution is a disaster, and ends in a bloodbath.  The only winner… as expected… is the World Banana Company.  Peter gets out, because he can.  One would like to think that, like Jim Willard, his stint in Latin America has forced him to accept who and what he is… but, in an enigmatic tale like this, we are never sure that Peter has learned anything at all.

Peter — even with his court-martial and self-imposed exile — is the  quintessential American military man loose in Latin America.  It is not true that “there is no evil in this book, only adventure-tale villainy” as Donald Barr wrote about the then new novel.  Four years later, Jacobo Arbenz — the Guatemalan President whose elected government instituted some mild social reforms and challenged the power of both the Roman Catholic Church and the United Fruit Company was overthrown by a military uprising of no particular political persuasion (other than turning back the clock on the reforms) and largely the handiwork of then shadowy foreigners being manipulated by the CIA.  That the coup’s ostensible leader was coming in from Honduras aside, Dark Green, Bright Red was more in the nature of a prophesy than a “adventure-tale”.

Perhaps it is only in hindsight — more than 60 years after it’s 1950 publication — that we can see that Dark Green, Bright Red shows us why we will miss Gore Vidal — cantankerous and tiresome as he sometimes was in his old age, he was a shrewd political analyst.  Satire, as a literary form, is intended to convey moral values, and Vidal was a moralist in both the sense of giving us a parable with a moral and in the sense of standing in opposition to immorality.  That our flawed human nature prevents us from seeing the wrongness in our actions are tragic.  That power corrupts is no secret.  That we are willing to be corrupted  (even if through innocence, like Elena, or a lack of self-awareness and acceptance like Peter and José) is tragedy.  That we will be thwarted is the moral of that lesson.  That political and social culture can be corrupted and perverted for the benefit of outsiders, and that the outsiders avoid any responsibility for their actions is a  moral outrage.

That we failed to heed Vidal’s warnings, mistaking elegance for decadence, prophesy for wit, and incessant intellectual curiosity  for a disorderly life is our tragedy.  That Latin America has so often paid for our failure of imagination is, to those of us here, reason enough to mourn Gore Vidal’s passing.

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