The Smithsonian Institution

by Gore Vidal

Published by Random House

1998, 240 pages


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Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce

There's a boyish exuberance and reverie about Gore Vidal's 24th novel. It reminds me of the short stories I penned back in fourth grade, in all of which I inevitably cast myself as heroic and daring beyond belief, always prepared to save the world -- or some kind female classmate -- from bloodsucking monsters or the secret, evil machinations of my playground foes. Of course, Vidal's writing is far better than mine was back then (or is now, for that matter). But his tale of a brilliant teenager who gets mixed up in developing the atomic bomb and, incidentally, discovers how to alter history, is not so very different from what I might have concocted as a diversion during grade-school math class.

The story begins on Good Friday, 1939, as the tinder of longstanding resentments in Europe is set to erupt into the firestorm of World War II. In Washington, DC, a 13-year-old prodigy known only as "T." is summoned to the Smithsonian Institution by a mysterious telephone call. There, he's greeted by Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, one of many wax display figures who apparently come to life at the museum during its off-hours and on holidays. If that isn't amazing enough, T. discovers a thermostat-like gizmo that lets him dial up events from other time periods. And he finds that he can become a participant in some of the Smithsonian's more elaborate diorama scenes.

In one such exhibit, T. is threatened by cannibalistic Native Americans before being rescued by -- and promptly losing his virginity to -- a comely fellow captive he calls "Squaw," but who turns out to be the animated representation of Frances Folsom Cleveland, 22-year-old wife of President Grover Cleveland.

Is your capacity for suspending belief stretched beyond its breaking point yet? No? Then tag along beside T. as he flies through the museum's Hall of Aviation with Charles Lindbergh in the Spirit of St. Louis; encounters Abraham Lincoln, brain-damaged by Booth's bullet but still alive and hoping to recapture his identity through the works of biographer Carl Sandburg; and lectures physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer on a theory that, though T. dashed it off during an algebra exam, might prove crucial in America's race to create weapons of mass destruction. This theory's potential was the original reason why T. was brought to the Smithsonian. However, his interest in nuclear technology wanes after he catches a glimpse of World War II and subsequently finds a wax version of himself, mortally wounded at Iwo Jima, being readied for a new military exhibit. For the balance of the novel, T. makes it his mission to change the past and prevent future catastrophe -- as well as his own demise.

Fortunately, Vidal isn't so interested in making scientific sense of all this as he is in constructing a classic "what-if" scenario, in the style of Robert Harris' Fatherland (which imagines what Europe would have been like had the Nazis won World War II) or Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain (picturing America after a Confederate victory in the Civil War). He sends T. and the engaging "Frankie" Cleveland skipping back through history to forestall Woodrow Wilson's election as the 28th president of the United States. The result? William Jennings Bryan finally makes it to the White House, Leon Trotsky is named president of the USSR, Adolf Hitler becomes a world-renowned architect, and Europe sits out World War II. Unfortunately, Japan still attacks Pearl Harbor, which threatens to spiral America right back into an extended belligerency unless T. -- along with the vivified and voluble mannequins of previous presidents -- can convince Franklin Roosevelt to take a different course. The best scenes in The Smithsonian Institution are those in which the former commanders-in-chief or their spouses are featured, hashing over policies, debating the merits of their respective administrations, or just behaving cattily toward one another. At one point, for instance, the sexually suspect James Buchanan appears dressed in old lady's attire, causing Grover Cleveland to huff, "Hopeless president, and an excellent argument for not giving women the vote."

Only someone fairly well-schooled in the annals of the US presidency is likely to apprehend every in-joke that Vidal makes in these pages. (Particularly obscure is an appearance by Cleveland in an odd orange suit, which the historical Frankie had talked him out of wearing only by noting that he risked losing the Irish vote if he were to be seen so clad in public.) And it requires having read Vidal's 1995 autobiography, Palimpsest, to catch the author hoping to rewrite a little of his own past. The abbreviated name of our young hero, T., may stand for "Trimble," as in Jimmie Trimble, a boy whom Vidal had known and fallen in love with during their time together at Washington's exclusive St. Albans School (which T. also attends), but who died at Iwo Jima. Vidal mentioned in Palimpsest his interest in "bringing [Trimble] to life again," and he seems to have accomplished that here -- if only through the magic of fiction.

Fans of Vidal's more thoughtful literary meditations on American history, from Burr to 1876 to the transcendent Lincoln, might be disappointed by this latest book. It's an entertaining, sometimes outlandish adventure, not an enlightening or particularly memorable read. If it weren't for the libidinous scenes with Frankie Cleveland and its political overtones -- as well as a jacket that makes people think that you're reading a vapid romance novel -- it wouldn't be totally out of place next to the Hardy Boys series in your local bookstore.

Seattle resident J. KINGSTON PIERCE is crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) .