Novel of the week

The Golden Age

Gore Vidal <em>Little, Brown, 467pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0316854093

Gore Vidal musters his fictitious but well- connected Sanford family one more time to round off the septet of historical novels he began with Washington, DC way back in 1967. The sequence is now to be known retrospectively as "Narratives of Empire", and purports to show how the United States has fallen, like ancient Rome, from republican virtue into imperial vice.

This volume opens in November 1939. Caroline Sanford, sometime silent film star, now joint proprietor of the Washington Tribune with her brother Blaise, is staying at the White House. In the Oval Office, a brilliantly portrayed Franklin Roosevelt, all misleading candour, mixes her one of his special martinis and claims to be "benignly noncommittal" towards the young anti-war activists whom his wife, Eleanor, has invited to dinner.

The dinner proves largely inedible and climaxes with a ghastly salad: the First Lady has taken revenge for the president's adultery by hiring a terrible cook to torment him. Caroline is seated beside her old friend Tim Farrell, who is making a documentary about the great public issue of interventionism versus isolationism. "I want to keep Americans home," Tim says. "To make improvements about the house." Caroline suspects that FDR would quite like a war. "For England?" asks Tim. "For himself," Caroline explains. "Which will include us, of course." Presidents gain more power in wartime, and victory would let the US rule the world.

Caroline and Tim, who seem to be the central figures at first, recede somewhat as Caroline's young nephew Peter comes to the fore. Armed with press pass, he attends the 1940 Republican Party convention in Philadelphia and discovers a stitch-up. A cabal of Manhattan lawyers and bankers arranges to murder the official in charge of tickets, replacing him with a fixer who packs the hall with supporters of the interventionist candidate, Wendell Willkie.

The conspirators do not much want to see Willkie elected president; he is simply their insurance policy in case FDR loses. Discussing Britain's predicament on the train back to Washington, Tim tells Peter: "There won't be an invasion now. Roosevelt's spiked the Republican guns." So those gallant RAF fighter pilots could have stayed on the ground and done the crossword. Hitler turned tail just because he knew that FDR's rival in the presidential race was another pro-war chap.

The slight snag with this ingenious notion is that Willkie and Roosevelt both maintained a stolidly isolationist front in public. Still, FDR does win, and spends the next year or so, as Peter's investigations reveal, deliberately provoking the attack on Pearl Harbor to swing public opinion towards war. Vidal goes into this at great length. Again, his view is very American-centred, and he appears not to credit the Japanese with having minds or plans of their own.

But historical fiction is fiction, not history. What the novel seeks to offer is an atmosphere of insider gossip, articulated and animated in style. It hardly matters that many of Vidal's assertions - for example, that Chamberlain fell because of the failure of the Norwegian campaign, or that the Kennedys were responsible for the assassination of Lumumba - are wrong.

Peter founds a radical magazine, The American Idea. Quite how radical, the reader never learns; but Peter has no trouble with the wartime censors, while he edits the magazine from his comfy office at the Pentagon in the ample spare time afforded by his sinecure in military PR. And after the war, he is not affected by the furious witch-hunt for un-American subversives.

The five years between VJ Day and the outbreak of renewed hostilities in Korea constitute the "golden age" of the mildly ironic title. It is a good time for literature: Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, the young Gore Vidal and others make distinguished cameo appearances, and Peter adds a soon-to-be- legendary culture section to the magazine.

But Harry Truman has already decided to bankrupt the Soviets by instigating a cold war, and the gloomy pattern of the next few decades is set. Peter's prospective father-in-law, the wise Senator Day, tells him: "The real political struggle in the United States, since the civil war, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the country with their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally split off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in."

The epilogue, set at the turn of the millennium, shows Peter and Vidal debating these matters for a television programme. Vidal narrates the passage in his own persona and, Prospero-like, takes his leave. Crackpot conspiracy theory has seldom been so suavely and entertainingly put across.