Gore Vidal infiltrator in pinstripes, has ensconced himself behind enemy lines in a correct hotel in the Federal City. With a wan smile he lobs a grenade onto the mine field of public opinion.
"Probably the only thing that would do any good now would be for the entire population of Jersey City to die, all at once."
But Vidal no longer expects secondary explosions. The enemy society is inured. What use are caustic warnings of befoulment by air, land and sea when the Amoco Cadiz already has vomited 1.6 million barrels of oil onto the French coast? No, it will have to be goodbye Jersey City before anyone notices anything is wrong.
"The environment causes a lot of yawns now," he concedes, not yawning. If hyperbole has lost its punch, so has litotes.
But the pilgrim continues his journey, offering a homily of iconoclasm: The problem is drugs; the solution, to legalize all of them. A simple act that would immediately eliminate pushers, the corruption of policemen, the Mafia . . . Why does America respond with a blank look?
"In a country to inveterate hucksters, where everyone lies to himself at all times, that sort of change is unlikely, I suppose," he says.
Gore Vidal, 52, author of 16 novels, four books of essays, several big-budget Hollywood movies, more than a hundred television plays, a consumate talk-show guest, college-circuit lecturer, literary conterpuncher, successful playwright, unsuccessful candidate for Congress, and monkey wrench in the machinery of conventional sexuality, has always found himself trapped in a world he did not device.
Lately he has not only been trapped, but stalked, from cocktail party to TV studio, by the Leatherstocking of Brooklyn Heights, Norman Mailer.
Their confrontations have been widely chronicled - the punches, the drink-thrown-in-the-face, the reciprocal character assassinations juried by studio audiences - as the battle royal of machismo vs. Something Else.
Now Vidal wishes to add one datum: the 8-foot shove.
During the Vidal-Mailer bout of Oct. 2, 1977, in New York City, Vidal actually shoved Mailer eight feet back. "I grabbed him by the shirtfront and threw him eight feet back, into a gathering of people. He was holding onto me, and as he flew back he left three finger marks on my right forearm."
Ridiculous? Of course. "What more is there to say - being attacked by Mailer is like being attacked by someone who's been dead for 20 years."
There is something to be said for anyone who can go through what Gore Vidal has gone through and still maintain a sense of rancor.
He was born at West Point, son of an instructor there. Because his mother, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' mother, was once married to stockbroker Hugh D. Auchincloss, he and young Jackie lived at Merrywood, the Auchincloss estate in McLean. His grandfather was Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, and since Sen. Gore was blind, the lad often assisted him in the Senate. There followed Phillips Andover Academy, a stint in the Army, and Rome by age 22, where young Gore hobnobbed with George Santayana, Andrea Gide, Harold Acton, Tennessee Williams and so on. He feels obliged, even in recent essays, to point out that he was not nearly as handsome to look at then as people now seem to remember.
By 1954 he had written eight novels, but gave them up for television when, he claims, an editor friend in New York confided that a good, gray morning newspaper there was nurturing a vendetta against him.
He found television in the 1950s congenial, even if "there were things you couldn't do. You couldn't say Jew, but you could write stories about a new boy in the neighborhood, and everything is fine until he turns out to be one of 'them.' The pattern was standard: an idyllic opening, then conflict, then a bittersweet resolution."
"You couldn't do suicide. They said, look, there are lonely, bored people out there, what if they saw the show and . . .
"And my reply was of course, 'Well, if they're that lonely and bored, you know, maybe they should . . .'"
On his way through the Vale of Tears he also signed one of the last of MGM's fabled seven-year contracts. The price of early release from it was to write "Ben-Hur."
His co-author was Christopher Fry, the British playwright, who read the book. Vidal did not carry things that far. Vidal was to write it "up to the chariot race," and Fry, the rest.
"Fry worried so about his half," Vidal said.He was concerned about the part where Mrs. Ben-Hur, and Miss Ben-Hur, and fiance Ben-Hur are covered with gray rubber leprosy warts, and the Messiah passes them, and they're cured.
"How are they cured?" Fry was worrying. "How are they actually cured?"
"I told him, now don't worry about this. If you just think of it as the 'Jesus Christ, Dermatologist' scene, everything will be all right."
And everything was all right. Nobody who wrote MGM movies then claimed they were art. But the people in Hollywood with Vidal were artists - Christopher Isherwood, John O'Hara, Aldous Huxley, Dorothey Parker - and they had each other to think for each other.
Vidal had hit plays. "Visit to a Small Planet," adapted from his original TV script; and "The Best Man." But by 1972, when he opened "An Evening with Richard Nixon," the New York critics were back on his back.
The Times critic "said I was mean and nasty to our president." And from that experience, Vidal concluded that, "If you're going to say rough things about our leaders, you can't expect to survive in the commercial theater."
But by that time, Vidal did not have to worry about survival. He had money, and publishers, and enough loyal enemies to keep his name in circulation.
He also had the talent to find amusement along the way, and clever friends. Like many skilful writers, he is a good performer, and appreciates the talent in others.
"In a good actor you get something you don't get from a star. There is actually a kind of modesty, as if the actor is an empty space, waiting to be filled with details."
Jason Robards receives this accolade. And Marlon Brando. Vidal met Brando in London.
"He saw me, and I must have said hello and then scratched my forehead, and Marlon said 'Wait - what you do that for? What do you do when you scratch your head? (Vidal's Brando immitation is part Godfather, part Fletcher Christian and part Chief Dan George.)
"All I had done was scratch my forehead, but there was Marlon, wiping his forehead too, adding the motion, I suppose, to his repertory of motions.
And Alec Guinness. Another collector of detail. Alec was always worrying about details of clothes, "What shall I wear. Always tweeds, always tweeds. But what tweeds?"
The novelist, Vidal said is, faced with certain related problems. He must find his voice in his book, and things will not go well until he does.
"Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare had perhaps 20 players, and Tennessee [Williams] has about five, and [Samuel] Beckett one - and perhaps a clone of that one. As you get older, I think you become more skilful at a casting them, that's all." Myra Breckinridge was not in the original set. "Myra came, and went."
Vidal himself is a character too, and the role he is fated to play is that of the pilgrim. While traversing the Slough of Despond he has got a lot of it on his shoes, and perhaps one wishes from time to time he would not scrape it off on us.
Take human life, for instance - in "Kalkj," his new novel, it ceases to exist. Just an apocalic Henny Youngist. Just an apocalyptic Henny Youngman joke.
But the end of the world did not come easy, even "Kakli," the tale of a pilot who falls in with a dommsday cult and winds up as diarist for Gotterdamerung, had a male protagonist in its first draft.
"Fell completely flat." So he went back and rewrote, this time with a new narrator: the beauteous, athletic, liberated, bisexual Teddy Ottinger, a woman. "And then, it worked."
So does Gore Vidal, at his typewriter at least, remake the world. So does wit cover its tracks, and arrogance, in its way, approach aplogy. He was once asked, from afar, to act as sponsor for a child's journey through the vale. Camethe cabled reply:
"Always a godfather, never a god."