Wingspan of the American Gadfly: Kurt Andersen and Gore Vidal, in Cobble Hill and Beyond

It seems right on to have just seen Kurt Andersen read live at Bookcourt from his new novel True Believers the day after Gore Vidal died.  While discussing Vidal with Brian Lehrer earlier that morning on WNYC, Andersen said he did not view Vidal as an immediate influence, and I certainly respect that point as Andersen would know best what floats his own boat.  But I do think it’s constructive to view them together, as having comparable occupations and roles in the biology of our pop culture.

True Believers is the story of attorney and Supreme Court candidate Karen Hollander, whose secretive, long hidden act of late 60s radicalism has suddenly become exposed.  In its ardor for the era’s music and Ian Fleming novels alike, Andersen evokes the kind of fervor Vidal and his brethren brought to the airwaves at that time, when the vigorous political debate felt a little less like today’s static semantics slapped between pharma ads. Moreover, Andersen and Vidal are cut from the same hearty cloth: journalists, editors, novelists (and in Vidal’s case, penning plays and films to boot), talking heads of TV and radio all at once, political savants they seem now like forbearers of the liberal arts-infused “a la carte” style of social commentary that the blogosphere has made commonplace.

What we even call this brand of people seems to pass some judgment on what we think of them.  Cultural critic sounds at once lofty yet vague.  Polymath cuts to the heart of the multifaceted streak of such folks, but that too is a bit angular and stuffy.  Andersen coming at storytelling from a variety of angles is not necessarily as varied occupationally as other commonly cited polymaths:  Jean Cocteau managing boxers, Goethe as avid geologist and statesman, the b-sides of Thomas Jefferson’s greatest hits.  “Renaissance man” is another term of the past, and one that all too well encompasses the reality that these figures were almost always white males.  To his credit, Andersen at Bookcourt cited Joan Didion as a writer he deeply admires for her frankness and clarity when reporting in True Believers’ bewildering era.

Whatever we call them, I am in perpetual awe of people who forge careers as curators of their own time and place, as Andersen seems to be for here and now, whether he’s grading Obama on Charlie Rose, thawing out Tom Brokaw for a post-recession huddle, or touring on this latest novel, his third interspersed between an editor-at-large gig at Random House and hosting the Peabody winning weekly radio roundup Studio360.  To begin to touch on all of Andersen’s varied interests in foreign affairs would take all night.

My first memory of Andersen was seeing him on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1999, discussing his then newly released first novel, Turn of the Century.  My kingdom to have it Youtubed now!  Even then it seemed special and noteworthy that this talk show that I probably wasn’t supposed to be watching at that hour to begin with was interviewing an author, in particular one that wasn’t necessarily a household name.  It was as if Andersen was playing the role of an author who gets to go on a funny TV show.  I do not find him insincere or phony – au contraire.  Rather he seems like an archetype.  I would argue his career has been fortified by fitting the bill of what we think a cultural critic should look, sound, and smell like.  What Andersen was doing with Conan looked immensely appealing to me at the age of fourteen.  It felt like something I could do, and which felt ever-changing. Most of all, it seemed appealing that writers were getting some of the celebrity rub that we bestow upon actors and musicians, these other chameleons who charm us both as themselves and as fictional characters.  Little did I know that millions of people would nowadays also think that the role of gadfly was one which they could play.

Andersen also created with Graydon Carter in 1986 a veritable rum punch of a magazine called Spy.  It remained afloat until late 1998, has had its entire run uploaded and made free to us by Google, and as much as any publication seems as if it could exist only in its own time.  At once lavish and gaudy, like a drunk socialite at a sophisticate pool party, Spyseeped from its office at the Puck Building on Lafayette and Houston like the radioactive ooze that birthed the ninja turtles.  It was beloved and reviled for its skewering of pop icons, most visibly in proto-Photoshop collage covers that uglied up everyone from Bill and Hillary and Princess to Madonna, Schwarzenegger, and seemingly every Kennedy.  One such cover announces a scantily clad cut-and-paste job of Pat Buchanan to be 1992’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Opening a mid-nineties issue of Spy, one was apt to find an expose of Hollywood hellspawn Don Simpson sandwiched in between a witty full-page Fila ad and an exhaustive timeline of the OJ trial.  Its back pages advertised phone sex hotlines, occult merchandise, and cruise ship job offers alike.  In short: everything was fair game for a decent ribbing. Spy’s smarm printed on glossy analog sheen reads now like some distant catalog of Reagan-to-Clinton prosperity, entirely removed from our faintly numb, 24/7 digital diets of news processed before the ink even dries, assuming anyone still uses ink.

The eerie sensation which makes these socio-political gadflies like Andersen and Vidal feel of a bygone time and place may be the realization that we are all becoming cultural critics, and that as a result that kinda isn’t much of a career path anymore.  The box I would have checked off as my ambition after watching Conan that night has today managed to shrink by expansion.  Social media platforms grant us each the authority to weigh these issues in the town square; regardless of how informed we are on the topic at hand.  We still have the talking heads of Viacom pop culture roundups and their imitators, but that seems a far different animal than observing an actual conversation or debate.  The search engine switch has been flipped in our minds, and there’s no turning back, nor would we want such a time warp.

With increasing fervor, we are receiving culture and criticism alike as a kind of tasting menu through we which our feedback is ever present.  I don’t mean to get misty-eyed and nostalgic for an era in publishing through which I was attending elementary school, more apt to wipe my nose with Spy or ogle its Demi Moore centerfolds than I would be to gain much intel from it.  There’s a lot to like about our media circa 2012, and the digitalization of print media offers expansion of forums, not of the least of which include Vol 1 and our peers.

But still there remains a soft spot in my heart for what I most likely revere with some ignorance of greener grass to be a bygone era in journalism, of which Andersen was for me some hip if modest idol.  The expense account era has come and gone, but what remains most admirable about the gadflies of our culture is their role as decoders and makeshift oracles.  They are confident in their knowledge, often experts in an array of fields, and therefore appear quite comfortable in their own skin.  Such was Andersen that night on Conan thirteen years ago, a bright light in the darkened bedroom of a boy who should have been doing his homework.  And so too was Andersen this week in Cobble Hill, holding court and deciphering for his captivated audience the mysteries of some activist spirit within our national dialogue which now feels aged and trampled, yet still smolders and kicks up cinders now and again.

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