The fact that we heard so little from the outspoken Vidal in the months before he died made me assume that he was ailing. Vidal wasn’t just a prolific writer, he loved to be interviewed on TV and radio so that he could share up-to-the-minute analysis of politics and popular culture with the public.
Back in the 1970s, I always looked forward to the hour that TV talk show host David Susskind would give to Vidal for what the writer jokingly called his “state of the union” address. Unlike many of his peers, Vidal was completely relaxed in a broadcast studio and he was always fascinating to hear (whether or not you agreed with what he was saying).
Vidal’s public profile and his acerbic political pronouncements had the tendency to shift the focus away from his remarkable output as a novelist. (I was distressed to hear a Time staffer tell one of the NPR hosts that Vidal’s essays were vastly superior to his fiction).
The 24 novels are an impressive mix of modern stories (“Washington, D.C.”), ancient history (“Julian”), American historical novels (“Burr”), and daring novels like “Kalki” and “Live from Golgotha” that could be described as science-fiction or fantasy.
Vidal’s masterpiece might be “Myra Breckinridge,” the novelist’s 1968 satire of Hollywood and gender roles, a book that was, unfortunately, overshadowed by the horrendous 1970 film version (below).
The book became an immediate number-one bestseller when Little Brown first published it, but many conservative critics labeled it pornography due to sex scenes that were unprecedented in mainstream fiction (and remain almost as perverse as those in William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”).
It took the passage of time — and the dimming memory of the 20th Century Fox adaptation with Raquel Welch and Mae West — for a scattering of literary critics to see just how smart and original Vidal was on American show business obsessions and the lives of actors and filmmakers in Hollywood.
Vidal wrote from an insider’s perspective — having spent a good part of the 1950s and 1960s working on movies like “The Catered Affair” and “Suddenly Last Summer” — so his portrait of the movie community is sharp.
Vidal was also ahead of the curve on sex and gender issues, creating the first transgender heroine in a popular novel, and satirizing male-female sexual equality at the dawn of the feminist revolution of the 1970s.
Six years after “Myra Breckinridge” was published, Vidal anticipated the sequel craze that was about to take over the movie industry with his very funny follow-up novel “Myron” which took the earlier novel’s protagonist through another gender reversal.
Both books are sadly out of print at the moment, but there are plenty of used copies to be had from the usual Internet sources.
Also, the good news arrived recently that a new documentary about Vidal will be unveiled at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival.