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The Boston Phoenix Waxing Eloquent

Gore Vidal's latest take on American history is a novel of philosophical comedy and allusion.

By Thom Powers

MARCH 9, 1998: 

THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, by Gore Vidal. Random House, 260 pages, $23.

Anyone who's bored by scholars writing American history will find a far more lively (and possibly more accurate) telling in Gore Vidal's scrupulously researched quintet of historical novels: Burr, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, and Washington, D.C. His new book, The Smithsonian Institution, comes at the subject from a different perspective. A phantasmagoric adventure about a time-traveling 13-year-old who calls himself T. (for time), the novel asks: if you could change history, what would you change?

T. is a mathematical genius, not unlike Matt Damon's glum Will Hunting. The comparison, by the way, underlines how much more ambitious Vidal is than most of our current storytellers: where the Oscar nominees deliver a rehashed story of child abuse, Vidal uses his genius to reexamine the 20th century. He begins in 1939, when war clouds are gathering. T. is summoned to Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian castle (the original museum) by its mysterious, omniscient chief. There, T. discovers that what so many children have imagined is true: at night the museum's presidential wax dummies, their wives, and the other exhibits come to life. Reanimated, the dummies plot the fate of the world and make whoopee.

Other staff members are working on an atomic bomb, and need the gifted T. to help prevent the bomb from blowing up the whole earth. Genius that he is, T. quickly produces a solution, then suggests they design a bomb that destroys only buildings, not people. The bomb makers don't get the point. They're more interested in devising a neutron explosion that does the opposite. "We call this the Realtor's Dream Bomb," says a scientist.

Once inside the Smithsonian, T. finds it difficult to leave. He takes up work on his own experiments with time travel. He also takes up a mistress, Grover Cleveland's 22-year-old wife, but soon discovers how sex can get in the way of work. "Now my head's a bit cloudy," T. notices. "Too much testosterone? I think I'm turning into everybody else. I'm a breeder who can't think anymore." Meanwhile, the Smithsonian's unseen chief wants T. to stay, and T. wants to find out who's running the institution.

Vidal has thus built a set where he can cast any historical figure he chooses. It's as though Walt Disney (who shows up late in the novel himself) had handed him the keys to Disneyland's Hall of Presidents. Most kids today consider that attraction the least amusing one in the amusement park. If only they could see Vidal's version, with an addled Lincoln, a cross-dressing Buchanan, and an adulterous Cleveland. The repartee among the Smithsonian's dummies peaks when Presidents Washington and Jefferson debate Franklin Roosevelt on the necessity of going to war:

"There are rats in Norway which I have read of," Jefferson spoke, slouched in his chair. "As an amateur naturalist, I enjoy contemplating their habits, of which the most dramatic is a sudden rush, on the part of all of them, at some signal as yet undetectable to us, toward the sea, where they proceed en masse to swim ever farther and farther out until all are drowned. Presumably enough are left, somehow, to start a new race. So much, Mr. Roosevelt, for the tempo of your history. You have provoked the Japanese into attacking us, and now we are all to rush behind you into the sea."

While the politicians bluster, T. discovers a way to make limited forays into the past and future. He decides to make two trips: one to prevent the First World War (and hence the Second), another to rescue his future self from dying at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Readers of Vidal's memoir, Palimpsest, will recognize that The Smithsonian Institution is laced with details from his own life. T. attends St. Alban's, the prep school where the author was also enrolled; the ghost who haunts Palimpsest is Jimmie Trimble, Vidal's St. Alban's classmate and lover, who died at Iwo Jima at age 20. Trimble was the love of Vidal's life, "the half of me that never lived to grow up." Now Vidal has conscripted his fictional T. to rescue his other half from Iwo Jima, to alter in fiction what couldn't be changed in real life. And does T. succeed? Well, that would be giving away the ending.

Suffice it to say that Vidal is keen to subvert the history as it's been written. When T. meets Charles Lindbergh, he asks how the pilot went to the bathroom ("I mean . . . number two") on his famous flight. The Lone Eagle replies, "I sure felt sorry for those Frenchmen who carried me on their shoulders after I landed." While this detail seems apocryphal (Lindy hardly ate on the trip, and he carried a bottle for "number one"), Vidal wants us to remember that history in the making usually stinks of shit.

Thom Powers is a writer and documentary filmmaker in New York City.

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