Dec/Jan 2014

The Gospel According to Norman

Two new books wrestle with Mailer's myths and his legacy

Christian Lorentzen


In July at the Manchester International Festival, I saw a preview of Matthew Barney’s seven-part film opera River of Fundament. Barney explained that Norman Mailer, before he died, challenged him to adapt his 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, which he felt to be his most misunderstood and unjustly loathed work (“a muddle of incest and strange oaths,” James Wolcott wrote in Harper’s, “reducing everything to lewd, godly bestial grunts”). Barney admitted that it was a book he both loved and hated. In 1999 Mailer had acted in Barney’s Cremaster 2 as Harry Houdini, by family legend the grandfather of Gary Gilmore, the double murderer and subject of The Executioner’s Song (1979), Mailer’s last great success. Among the scenes Barney showed in Manchester were a staged wake for Mailer, filmed in the author’s Brooklyn apartment, attended by Paul Giamatti, whose head and feet are massaged by ghastly spirits, and presided over by Elaine Stritch; the melting down of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial—representing Osiris—at a Detroit steel mill shot to the accompaniment of a brassy orchestra performing in the rain; and a soliloquy delivered by Maggie Gyllenhaal as two slimy ghouls stimulate each other’s posterior apertures (to use Mailer’s preferred phrase). Here was the appropriately bizarre second coming of Norman Mailer: celebrity laden, anally fixated, overlong (it’s said that the film will be five hours in full when it premieres in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and very expensive (the Detroit performance alone had a budget of $5 million).

Neither Matthew Barney nor Cremaster 2 are mentioned in J. Michael Lennon’s new biography Norman Mailer: A Double Life; the year 1999 is mentioned only in reference to the author’s wife Norris’s hysterectomy. By then, nearly two decades had passed since the Pulitzer Prize had gone to The Executioner’s Song, and it seemed that the culture had come down with a terminal case of Mailer fatigue. He still made the best-seller lists, and he had garnered some positive reviews for his past three books (biographies of Lee Harvey Oswald and Picasso and a novel about Jesus Christ), but there was little sign that the rising generation admired him. “Unutterably repulsive,” David Foster Wallace wrote in a letter as he was reading The Armies of the Night. “I guess part of his whole charm is his knack for arousing strong reactions.Hitler had the same gift.” Mailer was among “the Great Male Narcissists” of postwar American fiction, Wallace wrote in 1997, “now in their senescence.” Yet Wallace practiced the sort of subjective, novelistic, personality-saturated journalism that would scarcely have been possible without the example of the New Journalists of the 1960s, Mailer foremost among them. By the time he went on the campaign trail with John McCain in 2000, Wallace was referring to himself in the third person (as ROLLING STONE), Mailer’s signature move. Wallace too, with his footnotes and the great effort he put into suppressing his narcissism, aroused strong reactions.

Mailer’s two greatest exponents in the intervening generation have been Don DeLillo and Joan Didion. From there it may be a case of influence trickling down. DeLillo told Lennon that he found a copy of Mailer’s 1959 collection Advertisements for Myself in a desk drawer when he was working at an ad agency: “I don’t think I owned a single hardcover book, and now I had one. . . . I thought it was terrific. I still have that copy. I just ingested it. I read it at home and every subject one might try to explore had been explored by Mailer in this book—speaking, writing, arguing.” DeLillo said it was Mailer’s “ambition, risk, broad vision, wide range—aspects of the American tradition—that put me on the path I’ve been following all these years.” Three months before he died, Mailer told Lennon he thought DeLillo had “replaced him as the writer who takes on all the big themes and events in American life.” Didion defended Mailer against his detractors more than once: “They regard The Naked and the Dead as a promise later broken and every book since as a quick turn for his creditors, a stalling action, a spangled substitute, ‘tarted up to deceive,’ for the ‘big book’ he cannot write.” She argued in 1979 that he actually had written this “big book”—four times over, starting with his 1955 novel The Deer Park—and that the consensus view that his nonfiction was superior to his novels amounted to a means of ignoring his most original work. (We still await the critic who will make the same case for her.)

Mailer’s novels—there are twelve of them—resist easy groupings. No logic connects them, only the circumstances of their author’s working life. There were four books he conceived of as the first parts of epic series he never got around to completing. There were two he was able to dash off in the course of a summer, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)—he considered them “gifts.” Another resulted from a commission from Esquire to write a novel for serialization. And one, Of Women and Their Elegance, indeed amounted to “a quick turn for his creditors,” or in this case the swift fulfillment of an outstanding British publishing contract. His fame allowed him to be something of a literary hustler, writing his first drafts in public, promising interviewers books that would never be written. Novelists are cannier than that today, but few of them are as well paid. Starting in the 1990s, Mailer received $30,000 a month from Random House. With more than a dozen dependents, he still needed another $300,000 yearly on the side (speaking engagements, teleplays, consulting on films) to keep the Mailer machine in motion.

It’s easy to think of Mailer’s career as a case of overcompensation for a youth in Brooklyn as a diligent student and “physical coward.” When he was a freshman at Harvard, he read the books that gave him “the desire to be a major writer”: Studs Lonigan, U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath. He majored in engineering, but wrote constantly. The stories he published got him enough attention from editors in New York that when he was drafted in 1944 he went to the Pacific secure in his mission as a novelist. The letters he sent his first wife, Beatrice Silverman, from the Philippines—four or five a week—would become the basis of The Naked and the Dead. For better material, he requested a transfer to a reconnaissance platoon. He made twenty-five patrols as a rifleman; he was shot at and returned fire, but according to Lennon it’s unlikely that he killed any Japanese. After an honorable discharge in May 1946, Mailer and Bea went to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they lived off their savings and he worked on the novel. He designed it like an engineer, with note cards detailing each character’s backstory and charts to track their interactions, trying to reproduce Tolstoy’s methods in Anna Karenina. By the end of August he had a draft of 184 pages. Some publishers thought the novel’s language too strong, despite Mailer’s use of “fugging” in dialogue. “It is certain to be prosecuted and suppressed in Massachusetts,” wrote one reader. But Mailer secured an advance of $1,250 from Rinehart, and in the fall of 1947 he left with his wife for Paris on the Queen Elizabeth.

In Paris Mailer learned that the book was a critical and commercial smash, and that he would come home famous. He started to get the second-novel jitters: Would he have to write The Naked and the Dead Go to Japan? Instead, he went to Hollywood. “Norman, what the fuck are you doing here?” Marlon Brando asked him. “You’re not a screenwriter.” (Brando was right, but the movies were a dream Mailer never really gave up.) A deal with Samuel Goldwyn went south, and Mailer returned east to work on Barbary Shore, his novel about ex-revolutionaries. It was savaged on arrival in 1951. Mailer never stopped repeating Time’s evaluation: “paceless, tasteless and graceless.” Whatever its failings, as Lennon points out, Barbary Shore was the first step away from the naturalism of The Naked and the Dead toward the baroque style that would mark his prose until the deliberate stripping down he undertook with The Executioner’s Song.

A slate of cruel reviews did little to dim Mailer’s celebrity: Notoriety “was great for one-night stands,” he said, but it was “a lobotomy to my past.” Mailer occasionally expressed regret that his success at twenty-five would never allow him to be a drudge with a boss and a clock to watch; an anonymous life would better lend itself to the writing of novels. These remarks sound disingenuous today. More often he seemed to consider fame essential to being a writer: “It is sometimes fatal to one’s talent not to have a public with a clear public recognition of one’s size,” he wrote in the preface to Advertisements. Four decades later he said that the success of The Corrections would “change” Jonathan Franzen’s “life and charge it. Franzen will begin to have experiences at a more intense level; the people he encounters will have more sense of mission, will be more exciting in their good and in their evil.”

From Advertisements on, fame and its toll, the fracture between his public image and his own experience, would inflect all of his work, whether he was dramatizing his own role in books like The Armies of the Night (1968) or attempting to get inside the minds of politicians (Kennedy), boxers (Ali), or starlets (Monroe). He hoped fame might lead to something more than fame, and in this hope he would always be disappointed. Appearing on European television in 1994, he said: “We wanted to change the nature of American life. . . . None of us ended up as heroes; we ended up as celebrities.” He was seeking a way to transcend the limits of being a writer. The urge explains Mailer’s two deviations from writing: his campaign for mayor in 1969 (he’d also declared and then aborted a campaign nine years earlier, and out of frustration with Bill Clinton considered running in the Democratic presidential primaries in 1996), and his four films, the best of which, Maidstone (1970), is about a filmmaker who runs for president.

In December 1954, Mailer started keeping what he called his “Lipton’s Journal,” a diary of 110,000 words written over three months. He would sit down to type each entry after smoking a joint (what he called his “tea”). Here he put down the thoughts that would lead to his extensive revisions of The Deer Park and his 1957 Dissent essay “The White Negro.” Rinehart rejected the novel when Mailer refused to cut a passage about oral sex. It was picked up by the editor Walter Minton at Putnam’s, who would later publish Lolita. On the last round of proofs, Mailer commenced with “ripping up the original silk of the syntax” to make his narrator, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, less like Nick Carraway and bring him into line with his new ideas about the hipster. Lennon’s reading of the Lipton’s Journal shows how autobiographical these were. Mailer himself—smoking joints, listening to jazz, thinking about nuclear war and the Holocaust, cruising the Village for the more apocalyptic orgasm, daydreaming about committing acts of violence, imagining himself living under psychic oppressions akin to the actual oppressions endured by black men—was the “white Negro,” and Sergius O’Shaugnessy was Mailer imagining a version of himself who could drink like an Irishman.

“The White Negro” was the centerpiece of Advertisements, and it is the core of the early work collected in Mind of an Outlaw, a new selection of essays edited by Phillip Sipiora. Advertisements inaugurated Mailer’s ragtag style of collecting his occasional pieces, and the new volume fits into that tradition. There are about a dozen major essays among the many “more obscure gems” chosen by Sipiora. Not to knock the “gems”—most of which, like a pair of 1956 Village Voice columns endorsing Hemingway for president, are very charming—but a selection that stuck to the major pieces might have served Mailer better. And there are several significant pieces missing: his report from the 1964 GOP convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco (where Barry Goldwater “promised to lead the nation across the edge of a precipice”) and his 1977 Esquire essay on television, as well as his reviews of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign book, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and Norman Podhoretz’s Making It. Jonathan Lethem, in his introduction, writes of fellow novelists of his generation confessing to having a “Mailer-thing” (i.e., to finding him anything other than “unutterably repulsive”). He is right to say that “to isolate Mailer’s ‘ideas’ from the context of a style at once aphoristic, discursive, and performative is to hang them out to dry.”

In April 1960, Clay Felker, then an editor at Esquire, bumped into Mailer at a bar, and suggested he cover the summer’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. The piece that resulted, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” more an essay than a report, marked a turn in his attentions from the margins to the seats of power. Hipsters, in “The White Negro,” “do not have the protection of a position or a class to rely on when they have overextended themselves.” If Kennedy was “Sergius O’Shaugnessy born rich,” then a hipster could be president, and it would count as a revolution:

Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.

Mailer thought Kennedy could reconcile the dull life with the dream life by the sheer force of his image. He compares Kennedy to a boxer, a matador, a professor, a prince, a football star, the Man of Steel, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mickey Mantle, Charles Lindbergh, and, by way of O’Shaugnessy, himself. “I’ve read The Deer Park . . . and the others,” Kennedy told Mailer when he visited the family compound in Hyannis Port later that summer. “If one is to take the worst,” Mailer wrote, “and assume that Kennedy was briefed for this interview (which is most doubtful), it still speaks well for the striking instincts of his advisors.” In fact, it was the writer Peter Maas who told the aide Pierre Salinger to tell Kennedy to refer to The Deer Park “if you really want him eating out of your hand.”

The symbolism of politics and the way it fit or didn’t with his theories about America would never leave Mailer’s campaign writing, but at the eight further conventions he covered he did more actual reporting about what happened—the only events in 1960 he paid much attention to were Kennedy’s arrival and the momentary rally for Adlai Stevenson. These political-convention reports remain among the best we have. Mind of an Outlaw includes “Superman,” his pieces on the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, his dual account of both ’96 conventions, as well as his awkward 1976 interview with Jimmy Carter at his farm in Georgia. (The presidential candidate was not inclined to discuss Kierkegaard.) In the 1996 dispatch Mailer resorts to an attempt to channel Bob Dole’s stream of consciousness, a sign that the events themselves have diminished in observable drama. In 1972 Mailer could sneak into a Republican donors’ dinner by posing as a security guard. Last year, reporting on the GOP conclave for Newsweek, Martin Amis found that the prime spectacle in Tampa was “the great humorless grid of American ‘security’” and the “professional scowlers” manning the gates. Most of the other reporters present were tweeting or refreshing their feed of Nate Silver’s statistics.

Lennon gives detailed, if apologetic, accounts of the three great crises in Mailer’s life: his stabbing of his second wife, Adele, in November 1960; the 1981 murder committed by Jack Henry Abbott, after Mailer had petitioned for Abbott’s release from prison; and the revelation of his rampant infidelity to his last wife, Norris Church, in the early 1990s. The stabbing, in Lennon’s account, was the result not only of drunkenness but of temporary mental illness. He quotes a letter Mailer wrote, but probably never sent, to T. S. Eliot at the time:

Prince Mailer the Norman of Principath to T. S. Lord King of Eliot, Impervious to Compassion, Blind by Pride, Timid as Temerity, Royal as a Royal Roach who has Earned his Place which is High. Spirit of Denial and Quick Withdrawal I, hereby, as Norman, do challenge your inflexible taste by presenting the fruits of my orchard and the war of my castle. Do answer. No answer is war, and one would detest that. Mailer.

One letter he did send around the time was to Jackie Kennedy, suggesting she read the Marquis de Sade. When the case came to a head, Adele refused to file a complaint against Mailer, and a judge willing to take a chance on him gave him a suspended sentence. In the case of Abbott, Lennon shows that it wasn’t Mailer who got him paroled in the first place, but Abbott’s own testimony against his fellow inmates. (Mailer didn’t know about Abbott’s snitching.) As for his infidelities, he told his wife that in order to write about the CIA in Harlot’s Ghost (1991) he needed to lead a double life, and was lucky to be forgiven.

Lennon’s title is apt but not quite sufficient. Mailer led innumerable double lives: novelist and journalist; father and flaneur; rich man and debtor; gentleman and brawler; radical and reactionary. His politics—he always called himself a “left conservative”—reflected a duality he could never quite transcend: the desire to be a progressive and the ingrained attitudes of his Brooklyn boyhood. The latter account for his views about gender and race, which came to seem more and more retrograde as the years went by, no matter how radical he wanted to be. All of this was spiced with metaphysical notions about good and evil and sex and cancer, some of them borrowed (from Wilhelm Reich, for one), others homespun. The further he got from the 1950s, the less any of this was unweird. But he was also, most of the time, very funny. When he traveled to Africa to write about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle, he went for a jog with Ali and then turned back after running a mile and a half. Walking home, he heard a roaring lion. “To be eaten by a lion on the banks of the Congo,” he wrote in The Fight (1975). “Who could fail to notice that it was Hemingway’s own lion waiting down these years for the flesh of Ernest until an appropriate substitute had at last arrived?” No living American writer is so unabashed. The lion turned out to be a resident of the Kinshasa zoo.

Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.

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