I figured I would give this one a shot after reading Vidal's masterpiece Burr. Burr was absolutely brilliant and flowed like rich cream. This book, which deals with an apocalyptic scenario set against the background of 1970's pop culture, was much less impressive. Maybe I should stick to Vidal's historical fiction pieces and not expect much out of his social satire work. Having started this review with this somewhat negative comment, I should say there is some good stuff about this book. There is still plenty of "Vidalian" wit to enjoy, and some of the imagery and references to 70's culture is pretty amusing. I always get a kick out of end of the world books too, so I am biased in that regard. Still, for this genre, Kalki is pretty out there.
The main character of Kalki is Teddy Ottinger, a smart mouthed feminist who is a world-renowned aviatrix, an author of a feminist tract called "Beyond Motherhood" and an avowed bisexual. It isn't hard to see that Vidal is borrowing heavily from 1970's feminism, with its calls for the ERA and loud blustering. The big news of the day in Teddy's world is an American who is calling himself Kalki, or the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu. Kalki has returned to the world to end the last cycle of mankind and usher in a new Golden Age of man. Kalki recruits Ottinger as his personal pilot while she is writing a story about him for an American newspaper. Needless to say, lots of hijinks follow, as secret government agents, drug lords and a freaky dude by the name of Dr. Ashok, run around and provide lots of plot twists and turns. Vidal drops lots of clues to what will happen in the end of the book, but the apocalypse Vidal unfolds here is not what Stephen King would have had in mind.
What is interesting about this book is that it serves as a snapshot of late 1970's culture. I can just imagine that if this book is still read several centuries from now, that there will be fifty pages of footnotes in the back, defining such terms as Reverend Moon, est, and other events that were so relevant in the 1970's. The book also attacks the widespread attention that religious cults were attracting during the time this book was written. It's not surprising that Vidal picks a religion from the East as his delivery device for destruction. Lots of people were turning to Katmandu for guidance, apparently as the 1960's and early 1970's faded and new ideas of "turning on" were hard to find. Vidal savagely attacks the shallowness of cults and people that believe mindlessly in any type of contrivance that promises them something. In this way the book works, but it fails in other ways.
As mentioned above, this book lacks Vidal's usual magic. Maybe this sub par book is part of the larger malaise that gripped the U.S. in the late 1970's. Maybe it is part of the national hangover that occurred during this time, as America woke up from the 1960's with a dry mouth, a nasty headache, and wondered where it had been the night before. Even better, maybe Vidal planned his book to read this way to reflect the weariness of the time, although I'm probably giving him way more credit then he deserves with this theory. Anyway, it just lacks his typical majesty, although the book was hard to put down at times, and I did care somewhat about how things turned out, which isn't too bad. I can't say I cared much for Teddy, who quickly became annoying with her smart mouthed comments and her constant references to ghostwriter Weiss (who helped her write Beyond Motherhood). Maybe Gore was dealing with memories of his own experience with a ghostwriter? Whatever it is, it became wearisome very quickly.
Would I recommend Kalki to someone else? It depends on whether that someone is a Gore Vidal fan. It also depends on whether someone knows the 1970's and likes apocalyptic literature. If none of the above criteria are met, skip this book. Recommended (with reservations).