One of his most famous novels (second only, these days, perhaps, to Burr), but I was somewhat disappointed. The quality improves immensely towards the end, but I am trying not let the magnificent writing of the last quarter of the novel (and recency bias) to make me overlook the first seventy-five percent. Part of the improvement is that he mostly drops – until the very end – a subplot about one of Booth’s fellow conspirators: a callow fellow named David. The less of him the better!
His Abraham Lincoln is compelling but too distant. Aaron Burr loomed large and his young protege interested; and in my own favorite, Julian, the titular emperor and his two chroniclers are compelling, catty, and captivating. No one steps up so in the absence of Lincoln.
The writing is good, but not great. I believe that he understands the politics of the time pretty well and he is a good commentator on the realpolitik of eras predating ours. And his small details are wonderful. For example, we generally see General George McClellan as a ditherer, who let the war drag on. But Vidal portrays Washington society as worshipful of the man they called ‘Young Napoleon.’ I hadn’t realized he was so young, much less that he was ever compared to Napoleon, but I trust the author enough to believe it (though I will hold my fire on the venereal controversy).
But it is not enough. Perhaps one wishes that he had dived deeper into Lincoln’s psyche and written from his perspective.
To the reader, Lincoln sits opaquely, fascinatingly at the center, but for much of the book, the characters who orbit the man view him as a weak figure, easily stymied by his generals and hangers on and a man of wan, waffling convictions. I mention this because though I cannot for the life of me remember the title, I recently read a review of a newish history that suggests just that: Lincoln was actually rather weak and most of the credit for victory should go to the so-called Radical Republicans.