An Encounter With Gore Vidal

17 Nov

Some years ago, living in Los Angeles, I was in Borders and saw that there was a new Gore Vidal novel on display called HOLLYWOOD. With the exception of LINCOLN, I am not a huge fan of Vidal’s fiction. But I love his essay collections. And it so happened, as a common publishing tie in, his latest collection of essays HOME was also on offer in paperback. I grabbed it and headed home to read my way through the contents. One essay in particular struck me. It was a funny affectionate memoir of a forgotten writer Dawn Powell. Vidal put her in the same category as Evelyn Waugh. I was slightly annoyed that I had never heard of her, let alone read her.  Fancying myself as a literary trufflehound, I determined the next morning to hit the second hand bookstores in the neighbourhood to flush out copies of her work.

The next morning I drove over to Vagabond Books which was then on Westwood Boulevard. Blocking the doorway with a broom was a shop  assistant. He asked me what I wanted. Somewhat surprised, I said I wanted to hunt for some books in the stacks in back. Rather reluctantly, I thought, the clerk stepped aside and let me in. I thought his hesitation was somewhat odd but I forgot about it as I scanned the shelves.

It took me about ten minutes of hunting around before I confessed failure. And it was then I heard a vague hum of noise coming from the front of the shop. I peered round the edge of the stacks and saw a line of people, all carrying stuffed shopping bags, entering the store and making a queue before a desk and a chair. Being ushered  with near worship by a little posse of publishers aides and bookshop clerks was none other than the great man, Gore Vidal in the flesh.

I was lurking in the shadows, unnoticed, and I saw the opportunity and I could not resist. Before anyone  could stop me, I stepped forward and tapped Vidal on the shoulder just as he seated himself.  He turned  and his eyes widened  slightly, wondering who this nut was.

“You know, it’s a real coincidence you being here,” I said. “I was just reading your Dawn Powell essay last night. And that’s why I’m here hunting for any of her books.”

The publishers aides and the bookshop employees froze, wondering where this lunatic had sprung from. The entire line of  people against the wall stiffened in outrage at this blatant queue jumping. But Vidal lit up like a Christmas tree. He swivelled the chair around so his back was to everyone else. “Did you find anything?”

“No joy.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, because of that essay, three of her books are about to be reissued and they’ve asked me to write the preface to each of them.”

I asked which ones. He told me, making some comments on each choice. Behind him, the hostile forces, glared at me, quivering but impotent. But Vidal was totally oblivious. It obviously does an author good to know that the power of his words can set a reader off in quest of a literary grail. He was practically on the verge of inviting me for lunch. But I felt I had pushed things far enough. I said, “I think maybe it’s time to -” and I gestured. He glanced and with some reluctance accepted  he had work to do.

I walked past the gauntlet of the queue, all with their mysteriously stuffed shopping bags. The thought struck me that as an act of courtesy I should buy the novel HOLLYWOOD and  have him sign it. I don’t really understand the need to have books signed by authors. Not unless you actually do know them. But in this case it seemed to be simple good manners. I bought the novel from the original assistant with the broom who was clearly expecting me to pull another stunt. I joined the queue next to a fat lady who glared at me with suspicion as we shuffled slowly forward.

At least now I knew what the shopping bags were about. People were emptying out bags of books. Hardbacks, paperbacks. They were all by Vidal. With no comment, he wrote his name in each one and handed them back in silence with a neutral gaze. Once they had their books signed, the customers did not leave. Instead they backed away and kept on gawking reverently upon the  author at his work.

Finally it came to the fat lady’s turn. She upended her shopping bag and sorted out her collection. She said, “I’d like this one signed to John with regards. This one for Benjamin. And these two here – ”

She was cut off by a publishers aide hovering at Vidal’s shoulder. “I’m sorry but Mr. Vidal only signs his name. It’s not fair to the others,  you see.”

The fat lady was disgruntled but not going to argue about it. She took her books and stuffed them in her bag and stepped away, still glaring at me as if somehow this was all my fault.

I handed Vidal the book. He opened it to the fly leaf, looked up at me with a straight  face and said clearly “How exactly do you spell your name again?” If looks could have killed. I could feel the fury all around me. Neither of us cracked the hint of a smile. But Vidal stretched it out with unhurried deliberation and wrote a dedication of a couple of lines before inscribing his signature with a flourish. He handed me the book expressionlessly. I said “Thank you.” And I walked out of the bookshop.

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