Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gore Vidal Was Not In The Navy

In the times we live in a Presidential candidate can say that he "saw thousands of people dancing in New Jersey when the World Trade Centre came down" - a palpable and easily refutable lie - and yet he is still, somehow, the front runner of the Republican Party. Do the facts even matter anymore? Does no one care? I think, actually, that they do. Lance Armstrong lied, Bryan Williams lied and they got caught and they suffered the consequences. People care about the facts. Everybody's watched Rashomon and they understand that ones perception of events can be different than someone else's but the truth is still "out there" to be discovered. Either OJ killed those people or he didn't, it's not a matter of an interpretation. (He did by the way. And for those of you under 30 OJ was a famous football player who was in the Naked Gun movies with Priscilla Presley. Priscilla Presley was Elvis Presley's wife. Elvis Presley was a famous rock and roll and singer. Rock and roll was a type of music that was popular before dubstep, teen pop and rap came to dominate the world. The world...I'll stop here.)
What has this got to do with Gore Vidal? Well, the other night I was in the smallest room in the house reading The New Yorker. My wife, the intellectual of the family, gets The New Yorker because she feels that by subscribing to the magazine she's somehow upholding part of the fabric of Western Civilization. I don't read The New Yorker as a rule because it irritates me far too much and is thus bad for my blood pressure. But on this particular night I was tending to a piece of business in the smallest room in the house and I read this sentence in an essay on Gore Vidal

"At seventeen, Vidal would explain, he 'quit schooling' for good and enlisted in the Navy, [and] served as first mate on a supply ship in the Aleutian Islands..."

and then this sentence, "after reading Williwaw, Vidal's first novel, about his Navy experiences..."

These two sentences appeared in an article written by Leo Robson reviewing a new biography of Gore Vidal and offering observations about Vidal's character and personality. It's quite the hatchet job this piece, Robson laying into the poor biographer for not doing his research properly and for taking at face value all Vidal's lies and exaggerations. 
The New Yorker, of course, is famous for not taking anything at face value. It has a team of fact checkers who go through every article they print again and again to make sure that not one fib or unverifiable fact gets through the sieve into its hallowed pages. I knew one of these fact checkers in the 90s and she worked really really hard. And you would have thought that in an essay which is actually about sloppy research (and about Vidal, a man who, Robson asserts, made up shit about himself all the time) the famous New Yorker fact checkers would be working double shifts to make sure they got everything right, yeah?
But here's the thing: Gore Vidal was never in the Navy. In fact if Robson had read Williwaw he would know that the book is about the irony of being a United States Army soldier serving as first mate on a US Army ship in the Aleutians. Williwaw was of particular interest to me because I didn't know about the US army's fleet and after I read it I did some research and I found out that the United States Army had all sorts of ships that it operated in World War 2 from landing crafts to tug boats to big transport and patrol vessels. The personnel on these ships were soldiers. If you're a geek like me you like facts like these. Gore Vidal joined the army and ended up a first mate on an army ship. I hope this was just a little slip on the New Yorker's part for although I don't read the New Yorker it's comforting to know that it exists and their famous standards of professionalism are still intact. I'll forgive them this one off. To paraphrase Horace, even Homer sometimes drives the USS Hartford into the USS New Orleans, a mistake Warrant Officer Vidal would not have made.