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Symphony for the Devil:
Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal: gossiping about, and gaping at, greatness and gayness

BY DREW ROWSOME

There can never be too many compilations of Gore Vidal's witticisms: even the ones that are familiar, are a joy and a chuckle to read again. It is questionable whether there is any necessity for another account of Vidal's descent into alcoholism, incoherence and ill health. Whether we admit it or not, most of us are eager and inclined to read yet another rehash of Vidal's sexual proclivities. But it is utterly useless to have Vidal's sexual habits analyzed by a slightly homophobic (or perhaps just clueless) heterosexual.

And that is the odd space that Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Matthew Mewshaw sits: the book is totally unnecessary and redundant but it is a lot of fun - mainly salacious fun - to read.

When Mewshaw talks about Vidal's writing - "the sentences had the snap of a dominatrix’s whip" - or intellect, it makes one want to re-read Vidal's work. Especially as Mewshaw's sentences often ramble on and pile on the metaphors until they snap like a weak strand of the pasta they are constantly dining on. The passages charting Vidal's decline - more than once Mewshaw luridly describes the stumbling, fumbling and sloppiness of a drunken evening before stating that he expects Vidal to die of alcohol poisoning during the night - are hard to read and made me want to reach for a drink.

The friendship was to begin with unbalanced - Vidal was a spectacularly successful writer, Mewshaw could be accused of reaching for the brass ring with this book - and Vidal was, by all accounts, a hard person to actually know, let alone be friends with. Fortunately Mewshaw does emphasize the kindnesses Vidal bestowed on him and the reader can sense the struggle to explain what made the friendship work (he basically consigns it to Vidal needing an audience and having driven away everyone else, no wonder Mewshaw is bitter).

Where Mewshaw does offer something new is in the portrait of Howard Austen, Vidal's ambiguously-designated partner of many decades. Referred to by Vidal as either the second love of his life or as an assistant with whom he had sex once but no longer cared to, Austen comes to life in Mewshaw's recounting and the results are alternately horrifying and touching. 

Tim Teenan's In Bed with Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master delves deeper into Vidal's sexual history and scandals, and that appears to be because the topic makes Mewshaw nervous. During their friendship, Mewshaw would respond to queries by affirming that Vidal had never made a pass at him. However, mere paragraphs into Sympathy for the Devil, Mewshaw emphatically establishes that he is not only a raging heterosexual but that he has procreated. An unpleasant encounter with a transsexual and a general distaste for Vidal's appetites, put a pall on the book, and call into doubt Mewshaw's speculations on Vidal's status as a gay writer and activist. Concepts that are familiar to the average gay man, elude Mewshaw, and sully the portrait. Worse, it gives the book a moralistic tone that is just a little homophobic.

That said the anecdotes and quips are fun to read (or re-read); the descriptions of Rome are ravishing; the detailing of the plight of a freelance writer is accurately horrific; and the name-dropping is of the highest quality, spanning royalty and Hollywood stars, literary feuds and Truman Capote, politicians and the Kennedys, and the size of Rudolf Nureyev's cock. 

Unfortunately Mewshaw met Vidal when the great writer was already in decline so the book can't help but be tinged with a sadness. Mewshaw claims he wrote Sympathy for the Devil to reveal Vidal's warmer, human and generous side. It is a back-handed compliment, he also revels in and focuses on what is most shocking or sordid. But then so did Vidal when he wanted a best seller, Mewshaw learned well.

 


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