Persuading Gore Vidal to say outrageous things is as easy as falling off a log, and just as entertaining to witness. In David Sheff's lengthy December Playboy interview, the novelist, critic and sometime political candidate is in his usual form, predicting the decline of civilization, imagining huge conspiracies and casting aspersions as if they were going out of style -- which, lamentably, they are.
Among Vidal's fresh confections is this: George Bush is "up to his eyeballs" in the Iran-contra scandal and will soon resign with a pardon. Howard Baker will replace him, at which point Ronald Reagan will take "the Walter Reed route" and step down. Thus Baker will become president and win the next election, ensuring that "the Republican faction will stay in power and keep the dark limos and clattering choppers."
As the interview marches on, Vidal shares his views of Mario Cuomo (he's not running for president because "he is smart enough to see what's coming ... who wants to preside over a major depression?") and Lyndon Johnson ("probably the most corrupt man in public life the United States has ever known"). He even admits to admiring another American writer, Saul Bellow: "We're both Puritan moralists, though from different viewpoints ... He's more of a European intellectual -- like Calvino or Primo Levi -- than an American he-man author."
As the one-liners begin to dwindle, Sheff presses in. He asks Vidal if he has been tested for the AIDS virus. "Sure," he replies, and offers his take on the disease: "The one group that does not add to the population and, therefore, is in the truest sense altruistic is the one group to get knocked off. It should obviously be the heavy breeders that get the plague if nature was looking out for our best interests ... I'm afraid Mother Nature doesn't really like the human race, but then, why should she?"
What makes this interview a real departure, however, are Vidal's more personal pronouncements -- or what may be regarded as such from a man who admits to no weakness and no regret.
"You must be really ignorant to be successfully false," he tells Sheff. The reference is to politicians, specifically the kind of politician Vidal says he refused to become. But it serves as the corrective lens through which his other pronouncements may be viewed.
This exchange, for instance:
Playboy: Have you ever been in love?
Playboy: Do you think you've missed something?
Vidal: I doubt it. Actually, if I were to place any value judgment on it at all, I'd say it was a plus ... When most people say 'I love you,' what they mean is 'You must love me, as much as I love me.' "
A moment later, Sheff remarks, "It sounds rather lonely," and Vidal replies, "I've never been lonely."
The average human liver weighs three pounds. Turtles have no teeth. Catsup was once sold as a medicine. If you recognize these statements, you were alive in the bygone age of fillers, those little factlets that once served to fill the space at the end of newspaper articles.
Paul Dickson, in his charming essay for the November Smithsonian, discovers that fillers, far from being extinct, are still supplied to more than 3,800 small papers by the Barbara Thompson Free Filler Service. But youngsters probably don't engage in the can-you-top-this fact fights of Dickson's youth.
On his playground, Dickson recalls, facts pertaining to Benjamin Franklin were banned (because phony ones were so easy to invent) but creative falsehoods ("cheaters") were honored. "Hyenas often laugh themselves to death," say, or "The ancient Sumerians taught oysters to do simple household tasks."
The New Yorker saw the rich possibilities in sending a correspondent to Gabrovo, Bulgaria, to report on the Eighth International Biennial of Humor and Satire in the Arts. The problem, as Burton Bernstein discovers but does not admit in his Oct. 26 report, is that conferences about humor aren't funny -- even in Bulgaria. Bernstein is evidently too nice a guy to make fun of his grim-faced hosts, and in too deep to make fun of his fool's errand. With this shaggy-dog story, the Bulgarians get the last laugh.
Frances FitzGerald, whose exploration of Vanuatu shone from the pages of Islands a year ago, returns with another tale of the South Pacific in the current (November/December) issue. Her report on the island republic of Palau begins offshore as she dons a diving suit to witness the spectacular pageant of marine life. On dry land she finds herself in the oddly cosmopolitan society wrought by years of U.S. protection and its legacy of "pretend jobs in a pretend economy," in one visitor's words. The material here is extraordinary, but this piece, in contrast to the last, seems half-hearted, as if FitzGerald were ready to go home.