I wasn’t as keen on him lately as I once was, because of the conspiracy-thought and the sympathetic view of Timothy McVeigh and the like…but still, he was a hell of an essayist.
Not a very good novelist, I always thought, but a brilliant essayist. Orwell was the same. Some people just shouldn’t write fiction; it’s odd when they don’t realize it.
The Times obit says I’m not the only one who thinks so.
In the opinion of many critics, though, Mr. Vidal’s ultimate reputation is apt to rest less on his novels than on his essays, many of them written for The New York Review of Books. His collection “The Second American Revolution” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 1982. About a later collection, “United States: Essays 1952-1992,” R. W. B. Lewis wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Vidal the essayist was “so good that we cannot do without him,” adding, “He is a treasure of state.”
Mr. Vidal’s essays were literary, resurrecting the works of forgotten writers like Dawn Powell and William Dean Howells, and also political, taking on issues like sexuality and cultural mores. The form suited him ideally: he could be learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once. Even Jason Epstein, Mr. Vidal’s longtime editor at Random House, once admitted that he preferred the essays to the novels, calling Mr. Vidal “an American version of Montaigne.”
“I always thought about Gore that he was not really a novelist,” Mr. Epstein wrote, “that he had too much ego to be a writer of fiction because he couldn’t subordinate himself to other people the way you have to as a novelist.”
Learned, funny, stylish, show-offy and incisive all at once – much like Hitchens, which is no doubt why Vidal named Hitch his “heir” about fifteen years ago. Hitchens used that as a blurb afterwards; he was very proud of it.