"THE GOLDEN AGE" is the capstone to the series of fine historical novels (known as "Narratives of Empire") about America through the ages which Gore Vidal began with "Washington DC" in 1967.
The story begins at a private residence in Washington DC in October 1939, a few weeks after war has broken out in Europe. Several standouts from the city's social scene are in attendance, along with a number of powerful members of the House and Senate (e.g. real historical figures such as Republican Senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert Taft of Ohio, both potential Presidential candidates for the coming election in 1940), a celebrated film maker (Tim Farrell) and his former lover, friend of the Roosevelts, and Francophile, Caroline Sanford, who had wielded considerable influence in Washington politics since the days of Teddy Roosevelt as owner of The Washington Tribune. Conversations laced with spicy gossip fill the air.
Furthermore, for those readers of Vidal's other novels in the "Narratives of Empire" series (e.g., "Empire", "Hollywood", and "Washington DC"), a number of characters therefrom make an appearance here. Figures like Senator Burden Day, who though a Democrat, is a potential FDR rival for the 1940 nomination for President; Blaise Sanford, Caroline's half-brother who took over ownership of the Tribune and is, in contrast to Caroline, an avowed enemy of FDR and the New Deal; his son, Peter, who plays a interesting role in the evolution of national news, culture, and politics over the 8 decades covered in "THE GOLDEN AGE"; and Clay Overbury, Peter's half-brother and future bete noire, who later becomes a political force in his own right on Capitol Hill during the 1950s.
"THE GOLDEN AGE" takes the reader through the 1940 campaign (with a unique view of the Republican convention and its candidate, Wendell Willkie), the Second World War, the early post-war years between 1945 and 1950 (an era in which Vidal contends that the U.S. experienced a unrivalled flowering of the arts and culture such as had never been experienced before), the Korean War, the Eisenhower years, and on to the dawn of the 21st century.
This is probably the most personal of novels that Gore Vidal has written. Here is a quote by way of illustration:
"...Gene Vidal was several years younger than Peter. Each had been at St. Alban's, each had attended Mrs. Shippen's; then war had taken Vidal to the Pacific and Peter to the far more perilous corridors of the Pentagon. Now, to Peter's bemusement, Vidal had dropped his Christian name and as GORE VIDAL had published a first novel; a second novel was on the way... - p. 294 [hardcover edition]." (This was in 1946.)
There was also an observation in the novel about Caroline Sanford in relation to the changes wrought in Washington by the war and the Communist scare of the late 1940s, which made me pause in my reading and reflect on some remarks I heard Gore Vidal make when I saw him in person at the Smithsonian almost 15 years ago ---
"... in the half century since she [Caroline Sanford] had first come upon the Washington scene, this leisurely world, hardly much different from that of John Quincy Adams, had been jolted by the First World War and the attendant corruption that war always brought; then jolted yet again by a second world war that had made the entire world, like it or not, an American responsibility." --- p. 372."
Of all the novels I've read this year, the more I read "THE GOLDEN AGE", the more I enjoyed uncovering its priceless pearls of wisdom through its characters, be they of the real, historical variety or the ones that Gore Vidal created out of his fertile, inventive, and wide-ranging mind. Furthermore, he knew personally many of the historical characters he employs here (e.g., Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt), which gives
"THE GOLDEN AGE" a solid and unassailable credibility.
Honestly, I almost hated for this novel to end. As a Gore Vidal fan, it pains me deeply that he is no longer with us, because we are now utterly bereft without his unrivalled wisdom, wit, and knowledge of American culture and politics. (Here was a man who occupied a unique position among the first generation of post-Second World War American writers in that he grew up in Washington DC during the 1930s, the grandson of one of the first Senators from the State of Oklahoma, whom he often accompanied to Congressional meetings on the Hill and read the Congressional Record to him, due to his grandfather's blindness. Vidal's father, a West Point graduate who had been one of the Army's first aviators, served FDR for a time as an advisor on civil aviation matters.)
I like to sum up my review with the following passage from the novel. (The setting takes place in 1946 in a low-ceilinged flat in Manhattan, where several artists and patrons are in attendance. Among them is Peter Sanford and two old friends from the prewar years in Washington.)
"There was a round of applause for Laurence Vail, who had finally raised the sails of a miniature ship inside a bottle. 'That's my sort of ship,' said the young war novelist. [i.e. Gore Vidal]
" 'I intend for us to create --- we'll include you and Cornelia if you want to come along for the ride --- America's Golden Age.' Peter was overwhelmed not only by his own megalomania but by the new world empire's untapped resources.
"He was promptly deflated by Vidal. 'How can you have a golden age after Roosevelt took us off the gold standard?'
" 'Uranium,' said Aeneas, 'will do just as well.' "