Picks and Pans Review: Empire

updated 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/22/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gore Vidal

McKinley is President. His friends call him the Major. Other characters in Gore Vidal's latest fictional treatment of American history (after Burr, Lincoln and 1876) include John Hay, Henry Adams, Theodore Roosevelt (high voice, teeth clacking) and one of the best portraits Vidal has ever created: newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. To supply a romantic plot, there are wealthy Caroline Sanford and her half-brother Blaise, French born and reared but eager to succeed in America. Vidal doesn't stray far from the known history for his basic story. Hearst believes that he has the power to start and stop wars and that he created Roosevelt with stories about San Juan Hill. America winds up with Cuba and Puerto Rico. Then the U.S. grabs the Philippines and the Panama Canal, and some politicians believe that, as Britain's power fades, the U.S. must take over the world. But at the same time, Empire is about corruption. Every rich man has his senator. Standard Oil pays off both Republicans and Democrats. Tammany has an iron grip on New York, and almost everyone in Washington, from the President on down, has his price. Sanford, a woman far ahead of her time, buys a money-losing newspaper in the capital, adds lurid crime stories and becomes a power in her own right. Vidal is totally cynical about all this. He is especially tough on the newspaper publishers and editors, making them venal opportunists and manipulators. He seems nostalgic for Lincoln, "who could make, it was said, a mule with a broken leg laugh." Some of the characters who have walk-on roles are so vivid a reader wishes there were more scenes with orotund novelist Henry James, William Jennings Bryan and young Texas Congressman John Nance Garner. Among Vidal's continuing triumphs as a historical novelist is that when one of his characters is supposed to be bright and witty, that character actually makes bright, witty comments. So, for example, Caroline tells Adams that she identifies with the heroine of his novel: "I feel as if you had created me...and then left me in mid chapter." (Random House, $22.50)

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