Reading "The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal" is like watching a cobra devour forest vermin. Even if you don't have much feeling for the prey, you may pause at the thought of what might happen if the monster turned its attention on you.
Not that Vidal has venom for everyone. There are writers he admires: Edmund Wilson, Dawn Powell and Italo Calvino are the subjects of splendid appreciations. On the whole he seems to find it easier to praise the dead.
He also loves much of Tennessee Williams, who wasn't dead when Vidal set down his thoughts about the playwright's memoirs, though they were no longer the friends they'd been. Deftly Vidal separates the superb from the lamentable in Williams' work:
"He makes poetic (without quotes) the speech of those half-educated would-be genteel folk who still maintain their babble in his head. Only on those rare occasions when he tries to depict educated or upper-class people does he falter. . . . But then he is not the sort of writer who sees words on the page; rather he hears them in his head and when he is plugged into the right character, the wrong word never sounds."
The Williams essay also contains delectable swipes at British aesthete Harold Acton's memoirs ("And so, wanting no doubt to flesh out yet another chapter in the ongoing story of a long and marvelously uninteresting life") and Carson McCullers' Southern accent ("Did ya see muh lovely play? Did ya lahk muh lovely play? Am Ah gonna win the Pew-litzuh prahzz?").
A single savory sentence concerning John Updike's memoir "Self-Consciousness" is enough to convey his malice: "Dental problems occupy many fascinating pages."
The volume's editor, Jay Parini (who is also Vidal's literary executor), quotes a critic who once observed that Vidal urinates from a great height. That's an excellent description of his famous essay "The Top Ten Best-Sellers According to the Sunday New York Times as of January 7, 1973":
"I have never before read a book by Herman Wouk on the sensible ground that I could imagine what it must be like: solid, uninspired and filled with rabbinical lore." That stated, Vidal is surprisingly taken with "The Winds of War" and its "close- ups" of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini:
"To my astonishment, it is splendid stuff. The detail is painstaking and generally authentic. The naive portraits of the great men convince rather more than subtler work might have done. . . . This is not at all bad, except as prose."
He's unimpressed, Nobel or no, with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914": "To give the noble engineer his due he is good at describing how things work, and it is plain that nature destined him to write manuals of artillery or instructions on how to take apart a threshing machine."
Granted, the ability to sneer magnificently is a narrow achievement. But nobody reads Vidal's essays for their range of feeling. We read them for their wit (Vidal is the true heir of Oscar Wilde) and their learning.
The second half of the book contains articles on history and politics. "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star," an attack on a stunningly homophobic piece of writing by conservative commentator Midge Decter, has become a classic of gay liberation. "The Second American Revolution" is a magisterial analysis of the Supreme Court's role vis-a-vis the Constitution.
More pieties crumble in Vidal's 1967 essay on the Kennedys, "The Holy Family." He didn't hate Robert Kennedy, but he was skeptical about his rise toward the power of the presidency:
"One does not necessarily demand of our leaders passion (Hitler supplied the age with quite enough for this century) or reforming zeal (Mao Tse-tung is incomparable), but one does insist that they possess a sense of community larger than simply personal power for its own sake, being first because it's fun."
It's entertaining to imagine how he might have altered those words in 2000 to apply them to George W. Bush, whose administration he later called "eerily inept in all but its principal task, which is to exempt the rich from taxes." More venom, I imagine.
The Selected Essays of Gore VidalBy Gore Vidal, edited by Jay PariniDoubleday, 458 pages, $27.50Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun