United States collects 114 essays written by Gore Vidal over the last four decades. Despite the reproduction of Jasper Johns’s forty-eight-star flag on the dust jacket, less than half of them are about politics. The rest describe books, places, and people he has known.

Johnson’s Dictionary had hard words for the essay: “an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” Vidal serves the form better than that. He found his range when Eisenhower was president, and stuck to it. Most of these pieces are anchored to a discussion of some book. If it is a book he likes, Vidal provides a summary that is both detailed and interesting. He favors a bright, staccato prose, which draws its variety from the length of its sentences. Short fragments. Good for facts. These will be followed by long, elliptical tendrils of analysis or appraisal, occasionally wise, often witty, and when neither,...


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