"The apes have always governed us, and our complaints are simply monkey chatter."
The local library had a fistful of Gore Vidal's to pick from, but I had already decided I was going to pick up this novel for several reasons. First, it is the first novel in the Narratives of Empire
series. Second, it was published in 1967. The year of my birth. It is interesting for me to see what was published, and what was on the minds of the people the year I was born. Third, I own a signed first edition that I really didn't want to haul around with me. Any inadvertent scuffing that the spine split library copy I borrowed received in my hands would not be noticeable.
Gore Vidal was 42 in 1967, so he is spotting me 42 years, and given his seemingly firm grasp on life I can only hope that I can manage to outlive the silver tongued devil.
Above is Gore Vidal in 1967.
From what I've heard about this book I knew it was going to be the least historical based of the series and also one of the weaker books in the series. With Vidal's connection to politics I believe it was really just a vehicle for him to put together some of his observations of politicians and their satellite community of supporters and enemies. If he skewered a few of his own enemies in the process all the better. The novel begins in the final years of FDR and ends under Eisenhower. During that span we see the power of the old guard politicians being pushed aside by the "in a hurry" war generation. Corruption has always been a part of politics, but during this generational switch the rules change. "Now of course hardly anyone even pretended to worry about right and wrong. Today's man knew no motive but interest, acknowledged no criterion but success, worshiped no god but ambition."
I was out to lunch with a retired politician the other day. He still makes the trek to Topeka to petition those in power for pet projects or to help out some of his friends. He bemoaned the changing times and how irritating he found these young politicians. I had to bite my tongue, nod my head, and make sympathetic noises at the appropriate times, but I wanted to say have you read Washington, D.C.. He would have found that Senator James Burden Day from the 1950s had the same complaints as he does in 2012.
The book confirmed for me that things never really change. Every new group of politicians may start out with the best intentions, but eventually succumb to the power and influence of Washington. The parties, the rampant infidelity, the greed, the deals, and the constant jockeying for position. A reader might experience whiplash with the Mach 1 velocity of some of the changing alliances. The family, friends, and associates of the politicians are as swept up in the unseemliness of Washington power politics as much, if not more, than the politician they are associated with.
This is a cynical book relieve only by a smattering of Vidal wit and moments of sparkling dialogue; the book would have benefited from higher dosages of both wit and sparkle. Political junkies will like this book. For the rest of the reader nation out there I would suggest starting with Julian, Lincoln, or Burr. Those all come recommended by my friend Steve Kendall, a very reliable goodreads reader.
One last quote that really sums up the theme of the whole book. "'There is no virtue in any of us, Senator. We are savages and don't say it was better when he was alive.' Peter struck the painted face of Jefferson. 'He lied and cheated and wrote lovely prose and collected recipes and wanted to lord it over this foolish land and did and died and that was the end of him. And don't say that it matters what opinion the future holds of you, for the human race will stop one day, not a moment too soon, and then it will not have mattered one single damn who was an ape and who was a monkey in this filthy cage.'"