Jennifer Howard reviews 'Sotheby's: The Inside Story' by Peter Watson.

Topics: Books,

What if the Hardy Boys gave long lectures on the gold standard or Nancy Drew held forth on women’s suffrage? Would kids still read ‘em? That’s what I kept wondering as I read Gore Vidal’s “The Smithsonian Institution.” This is the redoubtable man of letters’ 24th novel, and it is the only novel I know of to try to combine teen adventure suspense with hearty op-ed nutrition. Let’s cut Vidal some slack. He is among the most interesting essayists going, and he mastered how to write fluent fiction with “Williwaw” five decades ago. If he wants to toss off a playful trick of a novel with plot holes big enough to fly a Lockheed Elektra through, who are we to complain?

The set-up is this: In 1939, T., an undisciplined but brilliant 13-year-old, receives a mysterious phone call summoning him to the Smithsonian on a day the museum is closed. He slips through an open door, where he is met by Mrs. Benjamin Harrison from the first ladies exhibit. It turns out that after hours the dummies come to life at the Smithsonian. Also, there is a kind of thermostat you can turn to view the past, all the way back to the dinosaurs. Last, if you walk into certain exhibits, you become a participant in them. Quickly, T. loses his virginity to a woman in an Indian exhibit known only as Squaw, who happens also to be Mrs. Grover Cleveland from that president’s first term, but not his second. Pretty neat.

This is all before T. finds out the real purpose of his visit. Apparently, in an algebra exam, T. stumbled on a theory with possible application to nuclear weapons. The U.S. will soon start building the atomic bomb and it needs T.’s help. Why is all this taking place at the Smithsonian in 1939? I’m not sure. Here’s where Vidal’s fun starts. If you can change the future, you can change the past. The precocious T. is already wondering whether weapons of mass destruction are such a good idea. But when he spots his own corpse in the Smithsonian’s under-preparation exhibit on the next war, he gets hip to the problem. If Vidal (I mean T.) can go back in time and prevent Woodrow Wilson from being elected president, then the U.S. will stay out of World War I. Thus there will be no World War II. T. will live.

Off he goes, and in the process Vidal gets to rearrange history. Wilson never becomes president of anything bigger than Princeton University. The U.S. sits out World War I, which means Europe sits out World War II. Unfortunately for T., Japan doesn’t. Yet, thanks to the metaphysics of time travel, being dead does not get in the way of T.’s marrying his love, Grover Cleveland’s first-term wife, or, you’ll be relieved to know, making love among the wax figurines of the Smithsonian after the rest of us have gone home. The Hardy Boys never had it so good.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>