George, Being George

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

The late George Plimpton (1927–2003) wore many hats: writer, Paris Review editor, actor, boxing fanatic, toastmaster, prankster, fireworks enthusiast, urban cyclist. In the oral history George, Being George, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. skillfully weaves together more than 200 voices into a coherent account of Plimpton’s prismatic existence. Reading the book is a bit like being at a cocktail party attended by good-natured wits. Despite the occasional criticism (Tom Beller wonders if Plimpton’s antics prevented him from doing anything truly daring), the vast majority of reminiscences contained here are fond and driven by a raconteurish spirit.

The contributors—who include literary luminaries Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Peter Matthiessen—report on Plimpton’s life with varying degrees of grandiosity and nuance. Gleefully superficial stories about The Paris Review office abut penetrating insights (Gay Talese’s observations particularly stand out). The collected testimonials paint Plimpton’s milieu as vividly as his persona; lines like “and of course, we were all gorgeous” evoke the collective pathos of a fading generation of glitzy WASPs (though Jonathan Ames identifies a Jewish strain in the author’s work).

The oral biography—a medium in which Plimpton himself excelled, having edited gossipy tomes about Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote—is an appropriate format to introduce the reader to Plimpton, a gifted confabulator who knew how to render conversation into text. Chronology is occasionally scrambled by Aldrich’s thematic grouping of quotes, but this excellent book keeps its momentum as it captures the hyperkinetic spirit of a literary celebrity and gregarious bon vivant. “The only unlikely thing he did, the only thing that seemed out of character, was dying,” says Roy Blount Jr. of Plimpton’s legendary élan. “It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that he would do.”

Edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. Random House, $30.