Late night thoughts from the Texas Book Festival

This year's opening gala has just concluded -- with Ray Benson, the lead singer of Asleep at the Wheel, ably filling in the emcee duties that Kinky Friedman has most often performed. The Kinkster, of course, is too hot a political potato this year, running for governor and possibly spoiling any chance we have to remove Governor Rick Perry. No one was about to give him a free platform.

Actually, one wonders what would happen if Friedman were elected, got to run the whole state but still showed up at the First Edition dinner to crack jokes -- unlike George Bush, who once came by his wife Laura's creation just to wave. Or Rick Perry who presented a book award one year at the festival and delivered an embarrassing speech about how much the writer really, really meant to him. Very little was actually said about the writer, you understand, it was all pretty much about Little Ricky.

At any rate, what at first glance looked like it would be a thoroughly familiar evening -- the speaker/readers were Gore Vidal, Amy Sedaris and Frank McCourt -- turned into a deeply moving one. It was a shock to see the frail Mr. Vidal getting around entirely by wheelchair or on crutches, being helped on and off the stand, and to hear him as he spoke, his voice going raspy and slow. Mr. Vidal has played the role of the jaded, seen-it-all patrician for decades, but to see him like this, he was a living image of a former age, a dying Roman senator, still waspish, still holding to liberty and democracy, still standing against the imperium.

He gets "breathing awards" these days, Mr. Vidal cracked. Awards for endurance. For just showing up. He spoke about his new memoir, Point to Point Navigation. He spoke about those few individuals each generation who are cursed to be "writers for life" -- like Balzac who, W. H. Auden said, got to the point at the end of his life that it was easier to write a novel than not write one.

As a young man, Mr. Vidal thought he was "doomed to be a reader for life, but I gradually strayed." He began inventing other worlds or describing "the weird one we currently inhabit, the United States of Amnesia." It's the sub-title of his 2004 book but here, it referred specifically to the way most Americans (and American media) quickly turned away from the deep doubts raised by our election subterfuges of 2000 and 2004.

"They say, 'We need to move on, we need to move on,' but," Mr. Vidal insisted, "this is all we've got -- the republic. And the Constitution from which it devolves."

There were comic jabs about Iraq, about how politics wasn't an escape for a writer because there was too much there to write about. "Electrical engineering," he said, was probably a better, more fruitless topic, but he hadn't the aptitude for it. "Writers for life are difficult to discourage," he admitted, but then returned poignantly to his own motivation for writing so much, even for delivering this "sermon," as he called it.

"Let us tell the truth," he enjoined the audience. "No matter how uncomfortable."

October 27, 2006 11:06 PM |



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