Editor's note: Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, biographer and critic. He is the author of more than 20 books, ranging from poetry and nonfiction to biographies as well as collections of essays. In 2009, his novel "The Last Station" was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. Film adaptations of "Benjamin’s Crossing" and "The Passages of H.M." are under way.
For a long time now I've been thinking about the day Gore Vidal would die, as we've been close friends for three decades. I knew I would miss him terribly, and I do – although he hasn’t been dead for a day yet.
We met a few decades ago in southern Italy, where I lived for a period in a small house overlooking the Amalfi Coast – a magical place, with astonishing views of the sea and a lemon grove behind us. I was writing a historical novel, set in the coal country of Pennsylvania, in the 1920s, and reading historical novels to get ideas, especially those by Vidal – he had been a favorite author of mine from my days in college, when I first read "Julian" and "Washington, D.C."
At the time, I didn't even know he lived on the Amalfi Coast, nor that - in fact - I had rented a house in a garden below his imposing villa, which perched on a cliff like a swallow’s nest. (Gore had lived there since 1972 with his lifelong companion, Howard Austen.)
By chance, soon after my arrival, I asked a local newsagent who lived in the big villa, assuming it was some feudal lord. He said: "Gore Vidal, il maestro!" He explained that Vidal stopped by every afternoon to buy a paper and have a drink next door. Somewhat taken aback, I left a note for him:
'Dear Mr. Vidal, I'm an American writer who has moved to town. If there is any chance to meet you, I would be delighted.' I left my address but hardly expected to hear from him. Much to my amazement, he knocked on my door a few hours later, saying: "Parini, come for dinner."
That night I went for dinner, and I kept going. Over time, we became close friends, and he would read a good deal of what I wrote and comment in detail, offering shrewd criticism and encouragement. I would read drafts of things that he wrote, too, and we talked endlessly about the craft of writing.
He really did seem to know everything there was to know about this. Once, for instance, I was sitting with him and said: “I'm writing a novel in which two characters talk about Kierkegaard for about 20 pages. Can I get away with this?" With a twinkle, after a slight pause, he replied, "You can do that. But only if these characters are sitting in a railway car, and the reader knows there is a bomb under the seat."
Gore left behind a shelf of books that astonishes, with 25 novels, plays, screenplays, short stories, memoirs, and - splendidly - the countless essays collected in volume after volume for half a century.
He was a great American essayist, a worthy successor to Emerson and Twain in this genre. And he never minced words, writing as an early advocate of gay liberation, as a political radical with ties to the American and European Enlightenment.
I think he was a necessary writer, an American patriot who took seriously the ideals of the Founding Fathers. He called a pothole a pothole. He was, perhaps, a natural scold, and he attacked all and sundry who refused to behave in a way that he considered right and proper.
He hated war-mongering, and he opposed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with his usual vengeance, horrified that Americans seem willing to trade the bodies of young American soldiers for oil. He scorned a political system that allowed rich people and wealthy corporations to buy off politicians in ways that would reduce their taxes - corporate and personal - and kill regulatory legislation. “We’re a country with only one party,” he said to me, “the party of property.”
He thought of the Republicans and Democrats as simply two wings of this single party, which had very little to do with the people. He seemed never to tire of noticing how badly things had gone, how the country had somehow slipped off the rails.
Anyone who wants to learn about American politics and history should read his amazing essays. They should also read his novels about the American past, such as "Burr" and "Lincoln" and "Empire." They might even click on one of his acerbic appearances on British and American talk shows, now easily accessed through YouTube.
His voice – in writing as in person - was singular, and there is nobody to replace him. Of course I will miss him personally – he was a friend I could call any time of the day or night with a problem, a joke, a good story - but the country will miss him more, even though they don't quite realize it now.