No one would call Gore Vidal a big old sweetie pie, but some people who knew him were aware that this most acerbic of wits and nettlesome of contrarians could be generous and kind. One such is Michael Mewshaw, a freelance journalist and novelist, whose Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal purports to be what its title suggests: a memoir of friendship, and it is that, I guess, in the sense that Mewshaw occupied the position of friend. As such, he is able to show us aspects of Vidal — fastidious and unflappable in his public persona — that the man might have preferred to remain private; specifically a few instances of quiet benevolence and discreet charity, and many more of anger, resentment, churlishness, and drunkenness.
The difference between the private, welcoming Vidal and the tough customer he presented himself as in public fascinated Mewshaw:
"This astringency, this belligerent self-sufficiency, might have been necessary early in his career. But even after he achieved riches and renown, he gave the impression of being pereptually embattled. Maybe it galvanized him; maybe the struggle produced better work. Still, I wondered how much it cost him to keep fighting against enemies real and imagined."
Michael Mewshaw's new book is Sympathy for the Devil. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24.)