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Jay Parini

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Remembering Gore Vidal

Posted: 08/01/2012 12:01 pm

For me, it's hard to imagine the world without Gore Vidal.

I met him in southern Italy, three decades ago -- a piece of good luck. I was a young writer working on a novel, living in a small house that, by chance, proved to be just below Vidal's enormous village, "La Rondinaia," which means Swallow's Nest. It clung to a cliffside, towering over the Amalfi Coast, with a magnificent view of the Mediterranean below: you could see from Salerno to Capri.

I heard that Vidal lived there and left a note for him at the local newspaper store, where he stopped each day to buy a paper. He knocked on my door the same day, and we had dinner that night. We kept having dinners, and he soon became a close friend and mentor, and over the years we talked on the phone at least once a week, sometimes even more often.

We traveled together in far-flung places. But mainly, he became someone I could trust, could talk with about my own work: the kind of shop talk that any young writer finds invaluable. We also discussed his work, at great length. Over many years of conversation I don't think any subject was ever left unexplored.

He was, of course, a crazily gifted man, with a capacious mind, a lucidity of imagination that is rare in this world, deep learning, and a prose style that took away the breath with its clarity and balance, its crisp shimmer. As a thinker and public figure, his bravery was paramount. He was among the first novelists to write as an openly gay man. He was a pioneer there, throwing caution to the wind.

He was also amazingly clear-eyed about politics, calling a pothole a pothole. But his opinions, sometimes a bit outlandish, were leavened by wit. I can't think of another person who made me laugh more often, or harder. I'm not alone here, of course. Gore's witty essays and public interviews were wonderfully funny, often scathing. As a mutual friend once said, "Gore pisses from an enormous height." Few people in power didn't, at some point, experience the spray.

There haven't been enough people like Gore in the U.S.-- American dissidents, people willing to stand firmly and say: No, this will not do. It's not okay to invade Vietnam and kill thousands of people and burn villages in the name of freedom. It's not okay to trade American blood for oil in the Middle East. It's not okay to bomb Iraq and kill tens of thousands of civilians. It's not okay to allow wealthy corporations to buy American elections so they can get tax breaks for themselves and squash regulations on their ability to do whatever they like -- such as ruin the environment -- in the name of profits.

Gore was an iconoclast and true American patriot. He was a scold. He didn't take prisoners. Yet he was, in person, one of the kindest people I have known, a gentle and generous man who listened closely and responded with care. I don't know that he can be replaced.

 
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