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'Hollywood' is a Vidal dose of bits, pieces

HOLLYWOOD, A Novel of America in the 1920s By Gore Vidal Random House, $19.95 I once dipped into a Jackie Collins novel - Hollywood Wives was the title, I think - in which a character reflects on Barbra Streisand and wonders to herself why she never got her nose fixed. I know the answer to that, as you probably do - as probably everyone who picks up that book knows, too. And it occurs to me that here, in a nutshell, we have the secret to the appeal of this sort of "insider" novel: not in telling us things we don't know about the famous and the mighty, but in reminding us of how much we already know. Not only, we find, are we wiser, smarter, more in control of our lives than the characters are, but we're better informed about the lives they lead than they are themselves.

Something like this can also be said about Gore Vidal's Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s, a somewhat serious-minded, often intriguing, but for the most part unwieldy march through some of the better-known scandals and behind-the-scenes stories of the early years of this century.

I need to mention that there's a certain anomaly in the title of a book that, for the most part, is set in Washington, D.C., and is three-quarters of the way through its 439 pages before it reaches the 1920 election of President Warren G. Harding.

Hollywood, a continuation of Empire, again features Caroline and Blaise Sanford, the half brother and sister who edit and publish the Washington Tribune. In this book, Caroline goes to Hollywood and becomes a film actress and producer. Her former lover, Sen. James Burden Day, who is the father of her child, is a prospective presidential candidate.

These characters mingle with and provide bridges among the great names of Washington and Hollywood: Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson and Harding; Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, director William Desmond Taylor;

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt - and a few dozen more.

Early in the book Caroline accepts cold duck en gelee from - "What was her name? Lucy something" - a young woman whose "voice was low and faintly southern. She was a popular extra woman who was to be seen at large rather than small dinner parties in the west end of Washington."

This same young woman reappears some pages later when Sen. Day runs into the wartime under-secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, weeping in a hallway - from a bout of pneumonia, he says.

"Lucy Mercer joined them. . . . 'Senator,' she smiled. She was dreamily beautiful. What was the gossip about them? He had heard something; and forgotten it."

But you, the sharp-eyed reader, won't have forgotten that old gossip about Lucy Mercer Rutherford, Eleanor Roosevelt's secretary, whom FDR gave up to save his marriage but who turned up later at Warm Springs the day the president died. She, like Harding's loves, Carrie Phillips and Nan Britton, is one of the cameo characters who troop through the novel, and whose backstage tales are the book's real thread and reason for being.

There are some funny and inspired bits in this book - Florence Harding visiting an astrologer (who reveals that her husband will be president, and that he will be murdered in office) and Wilson working a Ouija board in the bedroom of the White House (which delivers a message from Horatio Alger to mine German submarines).

Vidal displays, as always, a needling wit and an elegant turn of phrase.

But much of this book has a weary and familiar feel to it. Vidal's account of the murder of William Desmond Taylor, one of the great Hollywood scandals of the '20s, follows closely the particulars of Sidney Kirkpatrick's 1986 A Cast of Killers.

This probably sounds like another way of saying what is commonly said about Vidal, that he is a much better essayist and social critic than he is a novelist. Vidal's essays, which are almost always enlivened by personal recollection and a hint (and sometimes more than a hint) of personal bias, have the pointedness and the tension of a story line. His novels, however, always wear the weight of the research he has done or the backstairs stories he has to tell and seem clotted and plodding as a result.

The ordinary indirections of the novelist - putting ideas and information into scenes and dialogue - don't really suit Vidal, whose talent thrives on directness and a calculated candor. Vidal is a writer of many strengths, and for many readers this new book will be the source of pleasure and satisfaction. But it is not a novel, per se - not a story or even the capturing of a scene or milieu, but more an assembly of bits and pieces, a salad rather than a meal.

David Walton's book of short stories, Evening Out, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 1983. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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