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

By D.T. Max
Published February 28, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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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.

D.T. Max


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