Gore Vidal concludes his chronicle of America

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Over the past three decades, Gore Vidal has written the most renowned series of historical novels about the United States. Millions of readers have learned more from "Burr," "Lincoln," "1876," "Empire," "Hollywood," and "Washington, D.C." than from their high school history classes. Unfortunately, with "The Golden Age," the series ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

Those expecting the historical novel to take them into the flame of power will find here mostly the aroma of smoke. It's not that his central characters don't have the inside view of mid-20th century America. Caroline Sanford, founder of the Washington Tribune, is an intimate friend of the Roosevelts. Her former lover, Timothy Farrell, is a documentary filmmaker. Caroline's nephew, Peter Sanford, publishes a sophisticated journal that gives him access to politicians, critics, and writers (including young Gore Vidal at a party of literati).

These are well-placed observers, but telling the story through them means that we spend most of the book listening to them ask important people what's happening. Instead of "You Are There," we get "You Are Very Close."

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The novel opens in the hard-to-imagine days of America's isolation from the war in Europe. The country swarms with British agents trying to enlist help for their impoverished fight against Hitler. "The interventionists were nervously aware that 80 percent of the country was unwaveringly isolationist."

Timothy Farrell is set to start a new film about America's reaction to the European conflict. His interviews with leading politicians convey an enormous amount of information, but it's a clunky method of exposition that risks turning the novel into a series of lectures.

When the focus shifts to Tim's old lover, Caroline Sanford, we move with her into the White House as Mrs. Roosevelt's guest. Having survived it himself, Vidal is a master at re-creating the chatty gossip of Washington luncheons. In fact, despite the big historical arguments the book keeps rapping, Vidal is best with acerbic social details. He describes one guest as "the ancient faded daughter of a 19th century president whose name no one could recall except specialists in the rich field of White House occupants," and points to another guest who "was considered an intellectual because he once had tea with George Bernard Shaw."

There are also tantalizing glimpses into the lives of FDR and his wife: The sainted empress of Washington, for instance, insists on retaining the nation's most horrible cook in order to punish her husband's adultery. In a particularly poignant scene, on the night of Pearl Harbor, Eleanor is filled with panic about the fate of her own sons.

But these intimate moments are rare. Seeing FDR through a cracked door slumped in his wheelchair on election night (his third!), only makes us wish we could know what he's thinking. Instead, he remains "the mysterious cripple who fascinated everyone as he spun his webs all around an entire world." It may be that he was a man whose "vast depths of benign insincerity could never be entirely plumbed by any mere mortal," but that's why God gave us historical novelists.

Still, there are several engaging scenes. Ex-president Hoover comes off much better than you might recall; new president Truman much worse. The raucous Republican convention of 1940 makes this year's bloodless commercial exercise seem even more unfortunate. Rumors of a military coup in the highest circles of D.C. are a thrilling reminder of just how controversial FDR was at the time.

The excitement of seeing television, hearing about the A-bomb, watching "A Streetcar Named Desire" - all these firsts and a hundred others drop in the margins of this story with fascinating effect.

But Vidal's major arguments, none particularly fresh, are these:

FDR provoked Japan to attack so that the US would enter World War II.

Americans live in ignorance and powerlessness, controlled by their leaders for their own selfish ends. (Why these nefarious forces allow Vidal to reveal this secret is never explained.)

American leaders have invented ominous threats (communism, terrorism, drugs) to justify extending US military power over the entire world.

Anyone who misses these heavy themes will benefit from reading the metafictive epilogue from the year 1999 in which the character Peter Sanford chats with his creator Gore Vidal. But wait, there's more! In an "afterword," Vidal drops the wooden masks entirely and lectures to us directly.

It's a shame that witty young novelist at the party grew up to be so serious.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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