This "little book", as author Gore Vidal
affectionately calls it, caused quite a stir in the US upon its publication in 2001. At first glance, it is an innocent looking collection of essays and magazine articles by a revered member of the American cultural orthodoxy
- you'd think.
Then again, Gore Vidal was never much of an orthodox. In the harmless grass of reminiscences about his friend Clare Boothe Luce and the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy there are snakes - stern reflections on the sad state of cultural and institutional racism in America (as embodied by the Hollywood-produced Amistad), rather vitriolic musings about his relative and failed presidential candidate, Al Gore, and some truly mind boggling insider information about how FDR manipulated the Japanese into bombing Pearl Harbor.
Much of the book is bound to excite incredulity and cries of conspiracy theorism. My husband, a professional sceptic, went and checked up on Vidal's more outrageous assertions, and guess what, the facts were all true. Although we in this household are no chest-thumping American patriots (well we're not American) to say the least, we were still agog at how deep the corruption runs, but more than that - how long it's been going on.
Vidal has led a very brave life; one of the privileged few, as a child he was privy to the most sensitive political gossip in Washington through his father, and is still very much on nodding acquaintance terms with the unelected establishment. Rather than exploit the power of the Gore clan for political aims (like his cousin Al), however, he chose to expose the underbelly of the American government and military in his novels, essays and articles for some fifty years or more now. The glimpse he gives the ordinary reader into how the US is really run is invaluable and is bound to leave some jaws hanging in disbelief.
But its not just for prurient shock value that I would warmly recommend the little book - Vidal is a dedicated historian and an accomplished, entertaining and masterful writer. The book is a pleasure and an education in one.
The Last Empire (Essays 1992-2001), published in the UK by Abacus, ISBN
0 349 11528 1.