WHEN GORE VIDAL is on a tear, outrage and wit blend to produce a new, delicious and deadly substance, like sulfuric Champagne or a napalm martini. Consider, for example, an especially corrosive—and funny—essay on the twinned destiny of gays and Jews, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” originally published in The Nation in 1981 and newly reprinted in The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal (Doubleday, $27.50). Here’s a sample:
“A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact. Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded. Although Jews would doubtless be Jews if there was no anti-Semitism, same-sexers would think little or nothing at all about their preference if society ignored it. So there is a difference between the two estates. But there is no difference in the degree of hatred felt by the Christian majority for Christ-killers and Sodomites. In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexuals wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. ‘After all,’ said Isherwood, ‘Hitler killed six hundred thousand homosexuals.’ The young man was not impressed. ‘But Hitler killed six million Jews,’ he said sternly. ‘What are you?’ asked Isherwood. ‘In real estate?’”
From there we segue into a long, withering attack on Midge Decter (“Mrs. Norman Podhoretz”), whose nakedly homophobic Commentary essay on “the homosexual-rights movement” (“The Boys on the Beach,” September 1980) clearly provoked in Mr. Vidal a kind of gleeful, murderous fury. He alternates light slaps (“She … writes with the authority and easy confidence of someone who knows that she is very well known indeed to those few who know her”) with roundhouse punches (“For sheer vim and vigor, ‘The Boys on the Beach’ outdoes its implicit model, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”), and ends on a note of bitter contempt and ominous foreboding: “[S]he is indeed a virtuoso of hate, and thus do pogroms begin.”
“SODOMY,” Gore Vidal declares in another context, “gets the audience’s attention.” And the attention of the law, too, as William N. Eskridge Jr. reminds us in Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003 (Viking, $32.95), a thick, scholarly tome, dry but accessible. I doubt Mr. Vidal would be surprised by this representative passage:
“The 1880 Census reported that only sixty-three prisoners were then incarcerated for crimes against nature [i.e. sodomy] in the entire country. Thirty-eight of them were in the south; only five were New Yorkers. … Thirty-two of the prisoners were males of color, and eleven of the white prisoners were foreign (European) born. Charges were almost never pressed against native-born, educated white males. … Indeed, these ‘horrible offenses’ were typically regarded as ‘foreign to our shores—to our nature they certainly are.’ The crime against nature was thus seen as a foreign infection threatening to native purity.”
In 1880, of course, there was no such concept as “homosexual,” and certainly no “homosexual-rights movement”—the defenders of native purity therefore had to make do with other signs of irreducible difference.
BEACH READING: Dan Rattiner’s In the Hamptons (Harmony, $24.95) is a relaxed, cheerful memoir by the editor and publisher of Dan’s Papers, the free weekly ubiquitous on the East End (which 20 years ago vied with Coney Island and San Francisco for the nickname “Sodom by the Sea”). Mr. Rattiner started his paper in 1960, before the potato fields sprouted their bumper-to-bumper crop of McMansions. His anecdotes stretch from Westhampton Beach to Montauk (where his father owned a pharmacy), from John Steinbeck to Spalding Gray, from Gloria Jones to Christie Brinkley. Does he drop a few names? Only in the nicest possible way.