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Book Review: 'Sympathy For The Devil' By Michael Mewshaw


Gore Vidal was known for his historical novels and his social criticism. He was also famous for an acid wit that occasionally ventured into nastiness. He died in 2012. Now his friend of nearly four decades, the writer Michael Mewshaw, has written what he calls a corrective portrait of Vidal. It's called "Sympathy For The Devil: Four Decades Of Friendship With Gore Vidal." And Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Mewshaw refers to himself in the book as a mid-list kind of guy, meaning not a best-selling writer. But he approached Vidal almost 40 years ago to do the first of what turned out to be a series of interviews for various magazines. And eventually, the young writer and elder literary statesman became friends. The interviews are set in Vidal's Rome apartment, his villa on the Italian coast and his Los Angeles house. They turn into conversations, and conversations turn into declamations on Vidal's part about writing, sex and politics. Sometimes, they turn into relentless lecturing on history and architecture. But the whole time, Mewshaw is trying to debunk the popular notion of Vidal as an icy, mean-spirited, America-hating, narcissistic sexual deviant. Mewshaw tries to present him as a politically engaged, socially responsible man of letters. And what comes across is something in between, a memoir of friendship with a man whose no angel, but not a devil either. Mewshaw develops a picture of his friend as quixotic, a devoted life-mate to his companion Howard Austin, an avuncular if not fatherly figure and often a raging provocateur at dinner parties, banquets and conferences - except when he's not. Mewshaw records a lot of sharp, witty one-liners which, as he reveals, Vidal practiced and polished before he delivered them. And the vast amounts of alcohol the writer imbibed on a daily basis reveal him to be a contradictory character. This book started out as a stitched together bunch of magazine pieces, but it ends up being a study of friendship with a famous man, easy to admire and difficult to love.

BLOCK: That was Alan Cheuse reviewing the book, "Sympathy For The Devil: Four Decades Of Friendship With Gore Vidal," by the author Michael Mewshaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.