I went through three distinct phases with Gore Vidal's books. When I was a teenager, he was my first guide to that complex genre known today as "anti-Americanism".
Vidal's stylish little polemics on the conquest of the Red Man and the paranoid elitism of the Founding Fathers set a high bar for subsequent practitioners of that kind of essay.
Our own version of this kind of polemic has always looked puny to me by comparison, if only because Irish anti-Americanism is a risk-free enterprise when offered from a makeshift stage outside Shannon Airport.
Sure, he had the protection of impeccably patriotic DNA -- his father was in FDR's cabinet, his blind grandfather was the first US Senator from Oklahoma and the man who won California for President Wilson in 1916.
But still, Vidal suffered for his art, and that lent the requisite amount of electricity to his polemics, something not available to Irish "radicals".
My second debt to Vidal then is his novel about Abraham Lincoln.
Before settling down with this astonishing rendering of Lincoln as a Hoosier Macbeth -- Vidal's lead man is all fire and guilt -- I hadn't thought much of historical novels.
Up to that point I had been taught to look on the summarisation of antique government files as the pinnacle of the historical task.
Vidal cured me of that.
His Lincoln is a kindly fanatic, an American Bismarck who killed the Jeffersonian farmers' republic while leading the world's first industrial war.
His genius for Vidal was to have held just enough of the
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Northern electorate for the length of time it took him to find a butchering general who would make good on the North's population advantage.
This Lincoln was both the "redeemer president" prophesied by Whitman, but also very much the Caesar figure denounced by the cotton barons in the Carolinas.
One passage from Lincoln never left me.
Lincoln is riding amongst wounded Union soldiers after the battle of Sharpsburg.
Suddenly he sees broken bodies clad in the smoky gray of the Confederacy.
His assistant tells him these are prisoners-of-war awaiting transportation behind Union lines. Lincoln insists on talking to them, and walks alone into the makeshift Confederate hospital.
"I am Abraham Lincoln," he says over the dull moans of one very badly injured prisoner.
He has come, he says, to praise these men for their "wounds so honourably gained".
He offers to shake the hand of every prisoner there as a token of brotherly love.
For a couple of seconds, no one moves. Then one prisoner on crutches hobbles towards the president, shakes his hand and starts to cry before Lincoln whispers something to him.
Soon a line of college-age colonels forms.
Only one man refuses Lincoln's gesture and the president walks over to him.
The prisoner turns his back, Lincoln places his hand gently on his shoulder and murmurs, "my son, we shall all be the same in the end", the kernel of his last great speech as president, the second inaugural address that indicted both North and South together for the joint sin of slavery.
This kind of superbly controlled writing taught me an imperishable lesson.
Vidal was the first writer I encountered who presented historical knowledge as a form of affective rhetoric.
What he was saying in that book was that any fool can learn the "facts" about the Civil War.
But only a rare bird could render them in a way that does justice to the old belief that historical writing involves what one ancient authority called "a decorum of transportation", that is to say, the transportation of the reader back into unrecognisable past societies through words.
Vidal's linguistic brio helped me to pick out the rhetorical greats in the Irish paddock, Sean O Faolain, O'Connell's great biographer Oliver MacDonagh, and Oscar Wilde's biographer Richard Ellmann.
My third debt to Vidal then is more personal.
But it's the first few chapters devoted to his first love, Jimmy Trimble, that still take the breath away.
The blonde baseball whizzkid Trimble was killed on Iwo Jima.
In his rendering of their all-too-brief love affair, Vidal offered what to me is the finest meditation on love penned this century.
Recalling Plato's Symposium, Vidal told the story here of the ancient belief that each of us is born half-male and half-female.
At the dawn of creation, the gods then vengefully halved each of us.
Love is the pursuit and successful reintegration of our lost halves -- the very task Vidal may only finally finish in death.