Book Review: Sympathy for the Devil
Now that Gore Vidal has left us, it’s gratifying to see a new interest being taken in the old lion’s finest work. His collected essays will be re-published in two volumes from Library of America early this year, and the best of his novels—Burr, Julian, Kalki, Washington DC, and Creation—will shortly appear as Penguin Classics with new introductions by Jill Lepore, Mary Beard, Michel Houellebecq, Sue Miller, and Jay Parini, respectively.
Oh, no, hang on. No, that isn’t what’s happening. Instead, what’s happening is that the only book of his to be republished this year is a shoddy old pot-boiler he wrote under a pen name (Thieves Fall Out) flanked by a couple of ignominious tell-alls.
Tim Teeman coldly furnished the facts (exactly whom Gore slept with, exactly how often, etc.) in 2013’s In Bed With Gore Vidal, and now Michael Mewshaw fleshes out those facts—with special attention paid to Vidal’s late-life drinking and his cranky streak—in Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal.
Mewshaw met Vidal in Rome in the late 1970s and became a sort of friendly acquaintance and drinking buddy of the great man’s. Then Vidal bought a house on the Amalfi Coast and, later, when Mewshaw moved away from Rome, they saw a good deal less of one another. But Mewshaw would occasionally convince magazines to fly him back to interview the old rascal, and they’d meet up for dinner when they both found themselves in London or New York.
Throughout their relationship, Mewshaw would ask Vidal for occasional advice or favors and Vidal seems always to have been wise and generous, even loaning Mewshaw his house and writing desk for several months when Mewshaw was on deadline for a book (Mewshaw found the house uncomfortable and cold).
At the end, the bereaved friend summarizes:
Whenever I was asked what Gore was “really like”—a question that would have set his teeth on edge—I found myself recalling his postmortem remarks about Tennessee Williams: “I suppose too much had been made of his later years when he was often on pills or drink and not always coherent. But, at his best, he was corrosively funny.” That was what I remember about Gore—how funny he was. And how generous and hospitable. Not at all the bitchy, mean-spirited man his critics maligned.
A beautiful sentiment. More’s the pity then that we so often have to read between the lines to discern this generosity and hospitality for ourselves. There are some good wisecracks here and there on Vidal’s part, as we’d expect, but most of the really funny lines appeared in print years ago. The man we most often meet in Sympathy for the Devil is a “haughty,” “fat” has-been, “hollow-eyed one instant” and “irascible the next.”
This author of “monotonous” books “snarled” at friends, boring them on the telephone with “needy, repetitious,” arguments, “harping on old grievances and disputes.” “Whenever he danced, he looked like a wind-up toy.”
As he ages, things only get worse. Mewshaw describes in painstaking detail how he watched Vidal morph “from a brilliant pundit into a pitiable creature,” one who displayed “increasing signs of emotional fragility and rage” and “seethe[d] just beneath the surface with infantile rage.” It was drink that killed him, even though “all that stood between him and oblivion was the bottle.”
Mewshaw is embarrassed by Vidal in public and terrified to introduce him to his wife’s parents (“what if he asked my in-laws their opinion of anal intercourse?”)
“You may call me a fair-weather friend,” Mewshaw winks (pshaw, Mewshaw!), but toward the end old Gore “looked like a down-and-out panhandler,” “a sad, shrunken doll,” “his shirt buttons always stretched to the popping point.” He was at times more corrosive than funny and, “strangely, no one but me seemed to be appalled by any of this.”
“If he was often cantankerous and confrontational,” our author concedes at one point, “it might have had something to do with the smugness of the opposition ranged against him.” Imagine.
Once we understand exactly what kind of book we’re reading, Mewshaw fills out the rest of this slim adventure by pasting in bits of old interviews (some that he conducted and published himself, some by others), and dabbling in very little literary criticism. At one point he laments Vidal’s “failure to choose between fact-based fiction and sometimes ingenious, sometimes goofy ‘inventions’. Or give it the Greek name hubris.” That Vidal produced not only salable but worthy work in both genres – well, call it luck?
He criticizes Vidal for recycling stories for his memoirs and then proceeds to recycle those very same stories. (“For Gore, self-plagiarism was always the sincerest form of flattery” he writes, cribbing a sentiment from an old Sunday Telegraph profile by his friend Martin Amis, collected in Amis’s very-funny The Moronic Inferno.)
There are repetitions within repetitions. Twice in a span of 30 pages he describes Vidal’s prose as “gimlet-eyed,” twice we’re told Vidal refers to his own memoir as a “me-more.” (On receiving a copy, Mewshaw reports turning to the index and feeling disappointed not to find his own name.)
It is not only Vidal who comes in for the treatment here, of course. Italo Calvino is “slightly supercilious,” mutual acquaintances in Rome are “starfuckers.” At one point he relates a particularly unflattering anecdote about Guy Talese and then half-apologizes, “this might make Talese sound like a buffoon.” A bit, yeah.
“I have no intention of producing what Joyce Carol Oates has described as a ‘pathography,’” Mewshaw assures us in the introduction, describing such a book as “the kind of lurid postmortem that dwells on an author’s detonation.”
If he had no intention of producing such a book, then I am sorry to report that he has failed. Sympathy for the Devil is not only disorganized and joyless, it is a thoroughly hateful book.