By L.S. Klepp
Updated October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Golden Age

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In his historical novels, Gore Vidal brings the solemn marble statues of American history to brilliant life by letting them talk. And talk. His books are long, devious conversations, and his characters distinguish themselves — sometimes extinguish themselves — through their own words.

For instance, in The Golden Age, a large helping of World War II-era spilled beans, a young man at a New York party responds to the idea that America needs a new civilization to go with its new global ascendancy by saying, ”Do we really want a civilization?… We’ve done awfully well as the hayseeds of the Western world. Why spoil it?… No, we’ve got to stay dumb.”

Yes, that signature cynicism is uttered by the author himself, making a brief cameo. So if you won’t find gore, you will find Gore in this 100-percent-action-free wartime novel, the seventh and last in the linked sequence of American history novels that begins chronologically with Burr (although Vidal wrote what’s now volume 6, Washington, D.C., way back in 1967) and adds up to a talkative masterpiece. Also in captivity, among a mob of mid-century American potentates, are Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, Cary Grant, and Tennessee Williams.

As usual, the conversation’s good. Vidal’s animated historical figures aren’t farcically pompous, but they are, like Vidal himself, trenchant, sporadically wise, and routinely malicious. He delivers verbal stilettos to just about every eminent back that appears.

The more ominous conversations are about America’s backing into the war and its lurching role in the postwar world. If you’ve been following the story through previous novels like Empire and Hollywood, you know the anti-imperialist gospel according to Gore. Here, Vidal’s FDR sees involvement in the Nazi-launched European war as a winnable shot at an American-administered worldwide New Deal, and — craftily and charmingly — he goes for it mainly (in what has been the novel’s most controversial assertion) by provoking the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. The global war produces, in Vidal’s version, a new America that loses its republican innocence and becomes a Cold War garrison state.

In other words, we should have stayed dumb, or played dumb. One of Vidal’s mostly marginal fictional characters, wandering in from the earlier novels, launches a magazine and declares, ”I intend to create… America’s Golden Age.” For Vidal, it was that brief parenthesis of national elation, between war and Cold War, that was a Golden Age, followed by fool’s gold — we’re now stuck in a congested ”technological Calcutta” of a planet. Wherever you shelve its populist isolationist politics, The Golden Age works as a mordant evocation of historical personalities and turning points, and above all, as monumental past-tense gossip. A-

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The Golden Age

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