It's 1939, and a teenage math genius is mysteriously summoned to the Smithsonian Institution, where a crash program to develop the atomic bomb is being conducted in the basement. The boy turns out to hold the key to both the secrets of nuclear fission and breakthroughs in the time continuum. As he brainstorms with Robert Oppenheimer, he catches a glimpse of the coming war and becomes determined to ward off the cataclysm. In a race against time-and surrounded by figures from American history past and present, including Albert Einstein, Grover Cleveland, and Abraham Lincoln-he battles to save not just himself, but humanity. Gore Vidal has written some of the finest and most inventive novels in modern times. Readers of such bestsellers as Burr, Lincoln, Duluth, and 1876 will revel in this, his latest foray into the American scene. A brilliant and vividly imaginative tale about some of the key events of the twentieth century, The Smithsonian Institution is a dramatic masterwork of comedy and allusion.
About the Author
Hometown:La Rondinaia, a villa in Ravello, Italy; and Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:October 3, 1925
Place of Birth:West Point, New York
Education:Attended St. Albans. Graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, 1943. No college.
Read an Excerpt
War clouds were gathering over Europe as T. came out of the lower school dormitory of St. Albans and hailed a taxi. Since St. Albans was anEpiscopal school, cabs--not Mary--got hailed along that part of Wisconsin Avenue.
"Take me to the Smithsonian Institution." T. enjoyed the driver's confusion: on Good Friday, 1939, the Smithsonian would be shut in the morning.
T. was a decisive, tall lad of thirteen, not one to be brooked, as his history teacher, a Canadian, liked to say. "There are many entrances to the Smithsonian," T. said, tossing a lock of blond hair out of grass-green hunter's eyes. "Drive on," he commanded, holding his overnight bag on his knees like the potential skull breaker it was. He wore the school blazer with its coat of arms over the breast pocket while, in an inside pocket, he carried a brand-new checkbook from the Briggs National Bank. Due to a bookkeeping error of the sort that had kept President Roosevelt's New Deal in clover, T. could now, until discovered, draw on $100,000 with a simple squiggle of his pen.
Pennsylvania Avenue was nearly empty at this hour. Presumably, the frightened citizenry were all at home listening to their president on the radio as he spoke from his fireside to them at their firesides. Rifest rumors as of that Friday: Hitler was already encamped on Staten Island, threatening the Trylon and Perisphere of the World's Fair, while Mussolini had been spotted in the Englewood, New Jersey, area, where every day is Columbus Day. Farther afield, the Japanese emperor had been sighted, riding his white horse through San Francisco's Chinatown, enigmatic lips set in secret smile. Yes. There would soon be war, a war to end all speculations about the possibility of war if these wild mass hallucinations should prove to be, as the New York Times pundit Arthur Krock hinted, premonitions.
The taxi driver turned off Pennsylvania Avenue at the old post office, a dark rosy Romanesque tower that had become the world's largest repository of postal secrets after James A. Farley was made postmaster general and refused, so it was rumored in the city of rumors, to allow a single letter that entered the building to go unread either by him or by his closest confidante, Mrs. Farley.
"All my wife's love letters are in that building." The driver unwisely invited confidences of a sort that T. never dealt in.
They were now at the main building of the Smithsonian: the Castle--with its dark dried-blood red brick crenellated towers and wide moat in which swam not swans--this was Washington after all--but chilly soldiers on leave from nearby Fort Myer. Since the drawbridge was down, the cab was able to penetrate the first of no one knew how many courtyards. "He who comprehends the Smithsonian Castle comprehends the universe" was an old Washington proverb, attributed, depending on your informant, either to Anonymous or to Joseph Alsop, the war correspondent with the portable typewriter and weight problem.
The first courtyard was empty. A sign reading CLOSED hung beside the massive elm doors.
"It's closed," said the driver, pleased to be the bearer of bad news.
"Shut up," said T., as he got out of the taxi. "I'll write you a check on Briggs Bank for the fare."
The feral face cracked wide with unpleasant laughter. "Cash or else, buddy boy."
But by the time the driver had got to the word "boy," long drawn out to show contempt, T. had slipped through the great doors, conveniently ajar, as Papa Chasseau, the French teacher at St. Albans, had told him they would be; then before the odious driver could get to him, T. had shut the doors with a crash and slid the iron bolt that locked them. The faint sound of tiny fists beating on elm wood could barely be heard in the huge entrance hall with its high mullioned windows and the banners of the forty-eight states hanging from carved wooden beams. At last T. was at the heart of the American world, or, if his French teacher was to be believed, the universe itself, not that T. thought that there could be such a thing as a center. He had always known that New York's planetarium with its starry skies and unconvincing planets was simply a diversion calculated to confuse anyone who might actually--like T.--be in a position to work out what, if not where, the universe was.
"Anyway, I'll find it--you'll see--because if it's anywhere it's right here." T. addressed the only person in the vicinity, a uniformed man seated beneath a "Lost and Found" sign.
"My name is T" T. was unexpectedly nervous. "You see, sir, I am an orphan. My parents were killed aboard that zeppelin. Remember the one? The Hindenburg? Everybody burned to a crisp in the sky over New Jersey, two years ago. Since then I've been the ward of Bishop Freeman. He's the bishop of Washington. The one who works out of the cathedral that's never going to be finished up on Wisconsin Avenue." in "But
"Very interesting," said a woman's voice behind him. "But your curriculum vitae is wasted upon `Lost and Found.' He is wax.
"Wax?" T. turned to find a tall, stout, handsome lady in the garb of yesteryear, though which of a multitude of yesteryears he could not place.
"Wax," she repeated helpfully. She had a pretty smile, thanks to a number of regular black teeth, and a large bust.
T. looked at the man at the desk and saw that he was indeed made, rather crudely on close inspection, of wax.
"On holidays we use only wax personnel." She pointed to a half dozen uniformed guards at the far end of the great hall. "So much less of a bother than flesh and blood and not so heavy as plaster of Paris."
"Well, you're not wax." T. knew how to flatter women of any age including the certain age. He had three aunts who lived in a house in K Street and he stayed with them on holidays.
The lady giggled and flushed pinkly, "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Mrs. Benjamin Harrison. We presidential wives take turns on duty when these boring holidays come around. "
"I guess I've seen you," said T., impressed against his better judgment, "in the hall where they keep the inaugural gowns."
"Yes, we're far and away the most popular exhibit here."
"Only you don't have heads in there. You're just a lot of dresses on dummies."
Mrs. Harrison frowned. "True. But after hours, we are ourselves again, out of sight of the public, of course. Also, on holidays or--private missions, like Mrs... ." Mrs. Harrison frowned. "Well, speak no evil, as they say. Anyway, you are quite right. They are always trying to save money round here, and on us of all exhibits! So we're preparing a petition. Martha--she's our chair. Or Lady Washington, I should say. She insists on the title. Of course, she was English most of her life. Anyway, Martha has given up on getting us all heads and proper shoulders through channels, and so she has gone straight to Eleanor--Roosevelt, that is--as the poor thing is still alive and still first lady and she swears that she--the live Eleanor of 1939 swears--she will go to her husband and insist that we have full-time heads. But I'm not holding my breath." Mrs. Harrison indicated T.'s bag. "You will be moving in, I see."
"Oh. Yes." T. was becoming oddly excited by the glamour of waxness versus flesh.
"Naturally, you'll want to penetrate the inner mysteries of the Smithsonian while you're here. So follow me." Mrs. Harrison opened a small door beneath a frayed, cannon-torn Confederate flag; then she led him down a long corridor with a painted ceiling and doors to the left of them and doors to the right, like a hotel.
"The housekeeper is putting you in one of the rooms on the left, with a view of "--Mrs. Harrison threw open the door to a spacious bedroom with a large window overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue--"the avenue where all of us girls, except Lady Washington of course, there being no avenue then, had our proudest moment, riding to the Capitol to watch our beloved, the first magistrate, be inaugurated."
T. liked the room, which reminded him of the guest room in his aunts' K Street house. There was the same four-poster and chintz all over everything. He put his suitcase down on the bed. "I suppose I'll be here for some time. Won't I?" T. was probing.
Probed, Mrs. Harrison nodded. "Naturally, you can leave whenever you like. But if you mean to penetrate the mystery of the Smithsonian, which is the mystery of life itself..." Mrs. Harrison was now redoing her hair in the cloudy mirror of the Empire armoire; she was also, T. could tell, speaking tonelessly, as if she had no idea what she was saying. "Rest assured that here, somewhere in the bowels of this ancient structure, past all the monsters both living and dead, past blockades and safe places, doublets, penalties ..."
"Monsters?" T. perked up considerably. He liked monsters and whenever he could get time off from his busy classroom schedule, he would play hooky from school and go up to the Capitol and look at the Senate.
"Oh, yes. Monsters. Or so they say. We first ladies are sheltered from the worst of the horrors in the basement. In fact, the management insists we keep pretty much to our own quarters except for ... Well, there's always one rotten apple in every barrel. And wonderful Eleanor--so intrepid--going wherever she likes, doing good. But..." Mrs. Harrison chuckled. "Lady Washington constantly complains that the management never lets her see any of the real monsters, much less mysteries, only the Potemkin ones."
"The what ones?"
"I only repeat what the management requires me to say." Mrs. Harrison was at the window, looking down on the streetcars as they rattled past, and the pedestrians--mostly men--in white straw hats. Spring was at hand. Cherry blossoms. Dogwood. "Come here and I'll show you how the thermostat works. It's fun."
T. joined her. "What's a thermostat?"
At the window she showed him a small enamel box with a dial on it. "The Mechanics' Room thinks up all these new inventions, like this one which controls the temperature of the room. Only it's not on the market yet. Then one evening when the Chief Mechanic was working late in his own private laboratory up in the tower, he, somehow, don't ask me how, attached the thermostat to a clock--or was it an hourglass? And then to a carbon-dating calendar, whatever that is, something like the ones the mortuaries used to send you at Halloween in my day, and now--well, look!" Mrs. Harrison twirled the dial to the left. "This is rerun."
T. looked down and saw the avenue blurring and changing. Streetcars were replaced by horsecars, and everyone's clothes changed. "It goes back in time!" T. shivered with excitement. Mrs. Harrison stopped the dial. There was now a bright clear view of the avenue, as a great hearse, drawn by huge black horses, moved to the dirgelike music of a military band. The men standing on the sidewalk uncovered as the be-flagged coffin passed. Women wept.
"Lincoln's funeral," said T., with the authority of one who had spent many hours in the Palace Theater on Fourteenth Street. "Is it an old movie?"
"Oh, no. There weren't any movies back then...
"We've had an awful lot since. In the one with Raymond Massey--"
"This, buster," said Mrs. Harrison with the quiet majesty of a true first lady, "is the real McCoy." T. pressed his nose against the glass and looked up the street toward the Capitol and then down the street in the direction of the White House. The lady was right. Whatever it was that he was watching was not a movie. The crowds were endless as far as he could see under a real sky, not Technicolor as in Gone With the Wind, which he had only just seen at the Capitol Theater.
T. put his hand on the thermostat. "What happens if I turn this even further back?"
"You'll be able to look further back in time, as we did just now with Lincoln's funeral."
"No one knows. It would take somebody centuries, they say, to get back to the beginning of the world, and your hand would probably fall off long before. The Chief Mechanic claims to have seen a dinosaur swimming out there when all this was underwater." Mrs. Harrison returned the dial to the present day.
"What happens if you turn it forward, to the future?"
"The Chief would rather we not do that. Too depressing, I suppose, what with war clouds over Europe and you-know-who on Staten Island."
T. made a mental note to see as much of the future as possible. Perhaps this was the Secret of the Smithsonian. The ability to see what will be as well as what was.
Mrs. Harrison indicated a placard on the door. "These are the times your meals will be delivered. When you're finished, leave the tray outside in the hall. Now I must get back to the Assembly." She gave a radiant if overplump smile. "We seldom get visitors, you know. I mean, overnight ones, like you. The Chief Mechanic thinks you may be important now that storm clouds are, once again ..."
Suddenly the entire room--building? T. could not tell--gave a shudder. T. felt mildly sick to his stomach as he rushed to the window where 1939 was doing its usual dull Good Friday thing.
"Is the Smithsonian on a seismic fault?" he asked, turning to Mrs. Harrison. But she had disappeared.
As T. started to the door, an African-American native of D.C., the District of Columbia, appeared with a great smile and a small tray. He wore a Pullman car waiter's white uniform.
"Lunch," he announced, putting the tray down on the desk in front of the window. With a flourish he removed the battered pewter cover to reveal chicken a la king.
"That's always Friday's lunch since the local Catholics stopped being so kosher about the fish. And tapioca pudding for dessert as well as the Smithsonian special salad with--you'll find it under the napkin--the recipe for the special dressing which you can make right here in bed..."
"Thanks," said T., who was very partial to chicken a la king.
The waiter removed a miniature xylophone from his pocket and struck three melodic chords, just the way they do on the trains. Then he, too, was gone.
T. wolfed down lunch. The Smithsonian's mysteries had given him an appetite. Then he put the tray, as requested, outside his door. Next he got his notebook from his suitcase as well as a brochure giving the history of the Smithsonian and a description of its contents. He was particularly eager to see the Hall of Aviation, where old airplanes were kept. The Assembly of First Ladies Exhibit--nice as Mrs. Harrison had been--didn't really attract him. They were all so old and probably spent their free time playing bridge like his three aunts in K Street.
For a moment he studied the administrative chart of the Institution. Under the heading "More Chiefs than Indians," numerous department heads were listed. Mrs. Harrison had mentioned the Chief Mechanic, but which one? Five were listed. Which one had sent for him?
Yesterday, the telephone had rung in the dormitory of the lower school. The Canadian dorm master and history teacher, Mr. Pratt, T.'s sworn enemy, had answered it. Grudgingly, he passed the telephone to T., who heard a man's voice say, "The secret of the universe is here at the Smithsonian Institution. Check in at the Castle on Friday morning. Papa Chasseau will leave the door open. Tell no one. War clouds are gathering..." The usual. Then the sign-off. "This is the Chief."
Now here he was, as requested, ready for anything. Well, almost anything. Certainly, he was not ready for the contents of an envelope that someone had pushed under his door. He assumed that it was from Mrs. Harrison since it smelled of her frangipani.
There was no salutation and no signature. Only the bleak message. "Shun Mrs. Grover Cleveland as she is a voracious chicken hawk." That was all. But what did it mean? Something to do with the delicious chicken a la king he had had for lunch? In any case, how could an old, not to mention dead, first lady be a hawk of any kind? Truly the Smithsonian was proving to be full of mysteries. Now it was time for him to meet the chief who had rung him in the dormitory.
On the map of the building's interior in the brochure, T. marked with an X his room on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, noting that at the end of the corridor where his bedroom was, another corridor branched off to the right, ending in a room marked "Chief Director of Historical Evolution and Ceramics Evaluation." This could be the chief he was looking for.
T. walked slowly down the hall, opening doors as he passed, revealing bedrooms that were a duplicate of his own. But, alarmingly, in each of these rooms there was a tall, lanky, golden-haired youth whom he recognized as a duplicate of himself. This was dismaying. Worse. With so many copies, which T. was he? As usual, when puzzled, he began to mathematize the problem. Should one T. be raised to the nth power ... But mathematics failed him. He had been, somehow, for no apparent reason, copied--six times, always assuming that the T. in the corridor was himself the original, the prototype. First Mystery of the Smithsonian.
At the end of the corridor with its half dozen bedrooms containing other T.'s, he turned right.
The new corridor was wider, higher, longer than the one that housed the multiple T.'s. Between large stained-glass windows depicting the westward expansion of the original American settlers, he could make out the dome of the Capitol in the distance.
Suddenly, a sound of drumming, not unlike Gene Krupa's recent gig at the Capitol Theater. The sound seemed to be coming from behind a massive mahogany door flanked by two wax guards.
T. tried the door handle; it turned; he pushed the door open just wide enough for him to poke his head into--another world!
A sign identified this world as the Early Indian Exhibit room, a favorite exhibit of T.'s childhood. A couple of dozen Indian braves and their squaws and papooses--papeese?--were going about their business in and out of wigwams on a sunny day, while a realistic painted backdrop, called a diorama, showed their native environment: trees, a distant plain with buffalo roaming, blue mountains.
But something had radically changed since his earlier visits. The Indians were no longer artfully molded and tastefully painted figures of plaster; instead, they were now real men and women and children in colorful native garb, while the mock fire--over which a cauldron of stew had been placed--was very much a real fire, with eye-stinging black smoke, and the pot had a section of what looked to be a real moose floating in it. The background was no longer painted but real: tall aboriginal trees, endless grassy plains where buffalo ambled in the middle distance and a hawk suddenly soared across the intense blue sky of yesteryear.
T. was about to slip out of the exhibit before its occupants became aware of him, but, as he was backing toward the door, suddenly it slammed shut and the sinewy arm of a sweaty young brave encircled his neck.
"Got ya!" said the brave in flawless American-Indian reservation English.
T. struggled to get free, but the brave was as strong as an ox. Also, get free for what? Where the door to the exhibit had been, there was now just another wigwam, with a running stream back of it in which naked papeese splashed about.
"I'm a guest of the Chief." T. gagged out the words as the pressure on his Adam's apple kept increasing. He could not utter the presumably magic word "Mechanic."
"I take you to Chief Yellow Sky Bird. He big chief here, Puritan white boy."
Then the redskin dragged T. to the largest of the wigwams, where, on a log, the chief sat, knitting himself a warbonnet of eagle feathers.
"How," said T. A greeting he had gleaned from a recent film about the taming of the West.
"How yourself." The chief looked down at T. who now lay on his back, staring at the chief's moccasins, a supine position that the young brave had arranged for him.
"What brings you to our neck of the woods, Puritan white boy?"
Behind the chief, two squaws were beating a blanket. One, to T.'s amazement, was as white as he, with long chestnut-colored hair, a truly saucy minx of a colleen.
"Miscegenation," blurted T., his conscious mind inadvertently overthrown by his racially sensitive District of Columbia unconscious.
"You've been reading too much Parkman. Racially, we are pure and intend to remain so until the cows come home. Where you from, boy?"
"Up on Wisconsin Avenue." T. was evasive. No use involving the school in his caper.
The chief sighed and put down his eagle-feather knitting. "At least you're not using the old `I just happened to be visiting the Smithsonian,' like so many of the strays do. It's got to be some sort of mass hypnotism or, maybe, hysteria out there. We often debate around the campfire whether or not there is such a thing as the Smithsonian Institution. A place where we exist in a negative--even entropic--state, on permanent exhibit, as so many of our visitors like to tell us before we cut their tongues out.
T. did not like the sound of any of this. But he was also not about to be cowed. "You are--like it or not--a permanent exhibit. I know. I've been looking at you ever since I was a kid. Fact, thousands of people come here to see all of you in your colorful native clothes, doing colorful native things, except, of course, you're really all just a bunch of painted dummies ..."
"We're what?" The chiefs scowl betrayed a suspiciously broad knowledge of D.C. slang.
T. had by now worked himself to a sitting position on the ground. The fire's smoke was making his eyes water. "I mean you're just plaster or plastic, or something, you know, models."
"Does this look like plaster?" The chief revealed a bare arm with a powerful biceps.
"I guess you've been working out quite a lot, at the gym."
"I have no quarrel," said the chief, "with the metaphysics of your argument. I accept the proposition that there are numerous simultaneous worlds of us Iroquois. So your Smithsonian concept is a sort of metaphor--yet another world imposed on ours and invisible to us. Except for the odd stray, like you, from the British or French colonies." The chief turned to the brave who had captured T. The bronze youth lifted him by his hair from a seated position to a standing one. T. thought he was going to be scalped.
"Fanny Farmer time," said the chief comfortably. The brave removed T.'s jacket, unbuttoned his shirt.
"Hey, what are you doing?"
"Preparing you for the Great Spirit's pleasure." A second brave was now removing T.'s shoes and socks.
"You aren't going to take all my clothes off?" T. was aware of the morbid interest of the women all around him, particularly the white girl. T.'s question proved to be rhetorical. Trousers were yanked off. Now he stood naked except for his so-called jockey shorts, a recent invention that the boys at school were addicted to.
T. wondered if he made enough noise one of the many chiefs of the Institution might hear. But then if they couldn't hear the racket that the Indians were making, it was unlikely that they would hear him. Besides, it was Good Friday, a day of special celebration in the District of Columbia, when the Daughters of the American Revolution, clad in tasteful black and shocking beige, made their way, lamenting, from Constitution Hall to the Great Lingam itself, the obelisk monument to Washington, where the current president, in his wheelchair, would receive them in the phallic shade, chewing on his cigarette holder, little dog, Falla, at his side.
T. was well and truly trapped by demented Red Indians. just back of the chief, one of the braves was sharpening a knife, with many a flashing smile in T.'s direction.
Fortunately for T.'s modesty, the jockey shorts were not removed. Unfortunately for T.'s life, his arms were being bound behind his back; then his ankles were bound, leaving just enough space between them so that he could shuffle but not run.
The chief was now on his feet. He came so close that T could smell the buffalo fat and who knows what else on that massive body. A huge rough hand sandpapered T.'s smooth chest, erecting a nipple in the process.
The chief beamed. "Prime veal," he said, and the braves at the fire all sycophantishly repeated the sinister phrase. T. himself hated veal, and, for a moment, wondered if dinner was about to be served. If so, he would explain, tactfully, that he was a vegetarian and a single new-world potato would suit him just fine.
The chief tugged at the solitary tuft of golden hair under T.'s arm, outward and visible sign of a formidable if precocious sexual maturity; for sheer copiousness, his wet dreams were the talk of the dormitory. "Ow," said T., thoughtfully--he was thoughtful as he pondered just what the chief had in mind for dinner. Could prime veal be...?
The chief turned to a brave whose face was painted in red, white, and blue stripes. "Brave, bring me preprandial Scotch on the rocks."
"You drink firewater?" T. was intrigued because, if he did, the white man had already begun his corruption of the noble red man.
"Only the best," said the chief "Joe Kennedy is our bootlegger. We call him Great Hyannis Hyena."
"Gosh." T. could think of nothing else to say. The present Ambassador to the Court of St. James's in England was supplying, probably illegally, bonded firewater to the Smithsonian Early Indian Exhibit.
In the middle distance T. could see the lovely white girl as she and two comely squaws presided over a huge cauldron atop a blazing fire. As the water bubbled, they threw in ears of corn and Birds Eye frozen lima beans--a sensation that season which had even found favor in K Street, where the aunts agreed that, for once, you couldn't tell the frozen lima from the real thing. Plainly, the Indians' cuisine was being kept up-to-date by the Smithsonian even though none of these exhibits seemed to have any idea where they were situated or who was looking after them--except for the chief's curious remark about the Great Hyannis Hyena. Otherwise, they appeared to believe that they were living in the primordial wilderness and preparing for a dinner of prime veal.
Sweat trickled down T.'s side, tickling him. Tumbler of whisky in hand, the chief said, "Well, here's looking at you, Veal."
T. felt dizzy; legs began, inadvertently, to shudder. "You're not cannibals, are you?"
"Let's say that like our Aztec cousins down Mexico way, we crave protein of the sort that can only be got by eating flesh. Indian cannot live by succotash alone." In unison, several braves in the vicinity chanted this line, apparently the chorus to a hymn to meat.
With his head, T. indicated the herd of buffalo roaming in the distance. "There's a lot of prime beef out yonder on the range."
"True," said the chief, accepting yet another tumbler of Joe Kennedy's best. "But have you ever tried to spear a buffalo after a hard night at the old wassail bowl? Then there's the sheer drudgery of dragging it back to the campfire and the awful mess of skinning it ..." The chief gave T.'s crotch a playful tweak. "Which reminds me, since you're being boiled, we skin you first. Alive. This means that every one of our squaws is going to find a lovely pair of white kid gloves in her Christmas stocking. Meanwhile, I'm about to have me a pair of mountain oysters."
T. never knew whether it was the white kid gloves, or the thought of his mountain oysters, but terror seized him and he pissed into his jockey shorts as the braves roared with more than a hint of homoerotic delight. "Take Veal to the skinning wigwam," said the chief. "And bring me some of them smoked mountain oyster canapes, to whet my appetite for the fresh ones coming up." A second squeeze of his crotch and T. swooned dead away. When he came to, he was still trussed like a veal and the soaked Jockey shorts were gone. Naked as he was born, he lay in front of the pale-eyed chestnut-haired squaw who held in one hand an early Bronze Age knife with a carbon-14H dating tag on it--plainly lifted from another exhibit. In her other hand, she was playfully juggling T.'s mountain oysters.
"No!" he bellowed.
"These are going to make a tasty dish for our chief. How old are you, Veal?"
"Thirteen," he stammered. She looked at him, appraisal in her eyes.
"On a clear day," she observed thoughtfully, "you could pass for fourteen."
"How about getting me out of here? I mean we're both white."
"Oh, but I'm a captive squaw." She let go his mountain oysters. "A slave to the lust of my brave. He's the one with the double braids that I got him to work red ribbons into, using bear grease, of course, and practically over his dead body as, he kept saying, `me no Nancy boy' ..." During this the beautiful white squaw was using her razor-sharp anachronistic carbon-14H bronze knife to cut not T.'s smooth white skin, but his bonds. Freed at last, T. sat up; hands and feet tingled as blood recirculated.
The white squaw was now looking out the wigwam to see if the coast was clear. Then: "Wrap yourself in that blanket over by the chest. The one that says `Pullman.' And cover your head. The sight of our golden hair and eyes and skin turns your average brave into a beast. Thank the Lord," she added contentedly to herself. Quickly, T. shrouded his blond hair and veal-white body in the Pullman blanket. Plainly, wherever--whenever--those Indians were supposed to be living, the plow had already broken the plain, and the great iron horse--a train--could be seen crossing the tawny plains of older times in the distance.
"Follow me." Like some great cat or a small pony, she led him out of the wigwam, which was at the edge of the settlement hard by a stand of cottonwood trees.
"We go through the stand," she whispered, urgently. At the other end of the settlement the braves could be seen, sitting cross-legged around their chief, quaffing cocktails prior to a succulent dish of prime veal from the pot where the squaws, salivating at the thought of what was to come, were now adding okra and kiwis to their aromatic bubbling stew.
T. dashed through the woods, barely able to catch up with the fleet-footed white squaw while holding on to his Pullman car blanket at the same time; the fact that he was barefoot slowed him down considerably as she led him through a cactus rock garden, then across a shallow pebbly stream toward a thickly wooded hill.
T. was breathing heavily by the time they had made it to the "safety," her optimistic word, of the forested hill whose view of the wide dusty plains ended in a vista of snowcapped purple mountains, originally painted in as background for visitors to the exhibit but now very much, if not the real thing, rendered in astonishing 3-D. A herd of buffalo munched their way toward them, like so many slow-moving burlap sacks.
"I've saved you, Veal darling." The white squaw threw her arms around him. Pullman blanket fell to mossy bank. She held his sweaty body to hers, tickling and tweaking and otherwise arousing him--a waking wet dream in dizzying 3-D, he thought, tugging at her maidenly wraparound of deerskin which, in less than a trice, she wriggled out of.
They were the same height. Green eyes gazed into hazel eyes. Warm loins pressed against even warmer loins. Did he fling her, or did she fling him onto the mossy sward? No matter. There was no sequence of consequence, only confluence.
"Fuck me, Veal," she whispered.
Before the live bn.com chat, Gore Vidal agreed to answer some of our questions:
Q: Good evening, Gore Vidal and Jesse Kornbluth. We're thrilled you could join us!
A: A pleasure to be here....
Q: Gore, it is said you can't judge a book by its cover...but what are we to make of the cover to The Smithsonian Institution?
A: The cover shows the protagonist of the book, a 13-year-old called T. (for Time), because he's an expert in space/time. He's been summoned to the Smithsonian. In back of that is a beautiful mushroom cloud. And in the foreground, a half-naked T. is disporting himself with a beautiful old woman of 21, who turns out to be Mrs. Grover Cleveland. How is this possible? After all, he's summoned to the Institution in 1939 when he's just a student at St. Alban's. But in my Smithsonian, the exhibits come alive at night. And among those that do is the long row of Presidential wives and their husbands. Mrs. Cleveland does have an eye for the boys. She and T. rapidly become a couple -- for which she could be imprisoned in Orange County, California. Just think of that!
Q: It's surely a coincidence, but this is "Good Will Hunting" with a big historical twist.
A: Yes -- and the boy is very ambitious. He's a prodigy, like Will in the movie. But he goes further. By the end of the book, Einstein realizes that advances need genetic alteration. The boy is, in the Darwinian sense, the next step in the human race. So he sets about helping with the bomb -- and stopping the war.
Q: Why this book? Why now? How does it fit in?
A: It's in the air. People are beginning to wonder: What is our fate as a people? For 50 years, we've had a bogus war against the Soviets. Those meanies -- they folded on us. Now we have this vast empire. And we have no function. In moments like this, people talk about genetic alteration. We are VERY very interested in where we're headed. So I created a kid in a satiric comedy. But also: all those Presidents! And in a dream, they summon Roosevelt to explain why the Japanese bombed us.
Q: In your opinion, what has gone wrong with America as we approach the year 2000?
A: I'd say the main thing happened in 1950 when Harry Truman replaced the Republic with a permanently militarized state. We lost representative government. We are now a highly controlled society in which the state has gone completely overboard. We submit ourselves meekly to controls that no European would dream of accepting.
Q: I'm shocked. You mean: The media is not in charge?
A: The media is owned by the same people who buy the political party that runs the country. There is only one party. It has two right wings -- one Democrat, one Republican. The same people pay for both. There's no information for the people at large. There's no way for us to know what's going on if we must rely on media. Misinformation is fed us regularly. I've read the American press for 50 years. I've never read a story favorable to another society. We are told: Swedes have perfect education, day care, etc...but they are all alcoholics who practice free love and commit suicide. So we're not going to give anything to our people in exchange for our taxes.
Q: Why Italy?
A: Why not Italy? I live part of the year south of Naples, part in the Hollywood Hills. Arguably, I don't live in the U.S. at all. I live in Italy to work. If I lived here, I'd be in politics all day long.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a really fun read. It's set in 1939, and T., a 13-year-old boy in Washington, D.C., gets a mysterious message to show up at the Smithsonian on a holiday. It turns out that T. is a math/physics genius, and he has figured out the key to making the atomic bomb. And the Smithsonian isn't what you think--it's a hotbed of cutting-edge science underneath all the exhibits. Some of the exhibits sort of come to life and they can sort of travel through time. T. gets set up with a lab and makes it his mission to try to travel back in time to a point where he can change events to prevent World War II because he sees (from an exhibit that's about to be set up) his future self as an exhibit in a military diorama, and his future self has been killed in the upcoming war. It's quite an adventure.
This is the first book by Gore Vidal that I have ever read. I received it as a gift and knew little of its subject matter when I began reading it. I was astounded by the fanciful plot and the very fine quality of Mr. Gore's writing. I live in D.C. and get alot of out-of-town visitors who want to sight-see. It was no small relief then recently when I was visiting the Smithsonian for the upteenth time, to have something new and entertaining to think about while visiting the Museum of American History's 'First Ladies' and military exhibits.