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."
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."