Gore Vidal is one of America's most pugnacious, intelligent and politically engaged essayists, but until now the only book of his essays one could readily buy was United States, a 1300-page compendium the size of a Miami phone book.
This handier volume ought to make introductions to the writer's best work less likely to lead to herniated discs. It also reminds that when it comes to the battles of his day, Vidal would hit back as hard as Norman Mailer, often harder.
Vidal has always been more effective, more virulently on point, when he is angry and determined that people besides himself have something at stake. American to the bone, he doesn't mind self-invention or bravado, but he does not like anyone treading on civil liberties, especially when they do it in the name of patriotism. Recently Vidal has mercilessly attacked what he calls the perpetual war for perpetual peace, and the tortured logic American presidents have wielded to keep it going — and not just George W. Bush. In "Black Tuesday," he reminds that it was Bill Clinton who in 1996 signed into law the Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act, which "selectively suspends habeas corpus, the heart of Anglo-American liberty."
Grandson of a senator, cousin to a first lady, a former Democratic congressional and senatorial candidate, Vidal doesn't just understand these issues — he has lived them on the public stage.
As a critic of culture, Vidal refuses to set up artificial boundaries between America's political and artistic climate. In one of the most heated pieces in the book, he forges a blistering argument that John Updike's political views and the kind of novel he writes reflect the aesthetic of a man willing to agree with the nation's direction, no matter what. That, as these essays make abundantly clear, has never been Vidal's way. His first essay collection, Rocking the Boat, was published in 1962: The title would still fit.
John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.