Tuesday, November 16, 2010
NORMAN MAILER: R.I.P.
Norman Mailer once mentioned that he wanted to write the novel that would impress Karl Marx, James Joyce, Freud, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Oswald Spengler, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Now that he is dead, he will probably be categorized with Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal. Mailer will likely be remembered most for writing The Naked and the Dead, his most orthodox and therefore atypical Norman Mailer novel. His second novel, Barbary Shore, is where his writing career really began because it put on display Mailer’s ongoing goofy fascination for radical political ideas. During the 1950s, he could just as well have stopped being a novelist altogether and instead become a public personality. Mailer wanted to be popular, respected and controversial, and at least in the reading public’s mind, he achieved all three things. Yet I doubt he was ever fully satisfied with his achievements.
When Mailer was young and stupid, he became a Communist. When he was middle-aged and stupid, he desperately craved attention. And when he was old and stupid, his brand of liberalism almost became conventional (sort of a cross between John Edwards and John Kerry). Still, all of this stupidity was mixed in with some brilliance. Whatever his political leanings were in the 1940s, The Naked and the Dead was an extremely well written novel that’s comparable to John Dos Passos’ Three Soldiers. During the 1950s and 1960s, his book long journalism was notable for sometimes showering shrewd praise upon those he would have considered his enemies. (In Miami and the Siege of Chicago, for example, he often praises candidate Richard Nixon for his political astuteness while likely being revolted by the man.) And after turning eighty, Mailer devoted a great deal of time to religious speculation while at the same time condemning displays of piety.
Mailer probably could never accept the fact that he was not one of the giants. After publishing his novel, The Deer Park, he sent a copy of the book to Ernest Hemingway. On the inside cover, Mailer wrote that if Hemingway chose not to respond “then f**k you.” The package containing the book was returned to Mailer unopened. In correspondence with William Faulkner, Mailer implied that the southern white man (Faulkner’s neighbors in Mississippi) feared the sexual potency of the black male. Faulkner replied that he had heard this idea spoken before, but it always came from white middle-aged women. It’s difficult to know if Mailer ever got over the snubbing. Mailer was to go onto spar with lesser writers like Germaine Greer, William Buckley and Gore Vidal (in Vidal’s case, quite literally). In these debates, Mailer came across as brash and rude. Mostly, he attempted to humiliate his opponents, but more often than not he humiliated himself.
Even worse, Mailer, the kid from Brooklyn, came across in print as often provincial. Advertisements for Myself, which contains an essay entitled The White Negro, expresses admiration for the stereotypical black male of the 1950s. “Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm.” (Mailer never quite understood why black writer, James Baldwin, took exception to his description.) And Mailer writes a book entitled The Prisoner of Sex in which he insults an entire gender by stating: “But finally, by his [Mailer’s] measure of these matters, he had seen too many men who failed to accomplish what they desired because a woman had ground them down, and had seen even more women who never discovered what they desired, and on the consequence set out to hobble their men.”
Yet I preferred the Mailer who did not fit in with polite society to the one who received awards for his books. Only the first third of Armies of the Night, which was to win the Pulitzer Prize, was all that interesting to me. Mailer was always better when he criticized the constituency he claimed to support than when he attempted to romanticize them. And Executioner’s Song, for which Mailer won his second Pulitzer Prize, is unbearably long and not particularly insightful. Unlike In Cold Blood, we never have a real glimpse into what turned a man into a murderer. Mailer, himself, must have missed a portion of the lesson because a short time later he campaigned for the parole of Jack Abbott, a writer who would kill again.
I guess the outrageousness of what Mailer could say always appealed to me because I’ve been a reader of him for close to thirty years. In between his antics, he often managed to throw in an observation that went outside the norm. His essay Ten Thousand Words a Minute puts a favorable reflection upon Sonny Liston, the former heavyweight champion that Mailer wanted to see get beaten at the hands of Floyd Patterson (Liston knocked Patterson out twice in the first round). While supporting desegregation of the schools, Mailer acknowledged that the opponents of it probably understood the consequences of such a policy better than he did – nevertheless, he was always (and rightly) convinced he was on the correct side of the issue. Mailer always flaunted convention, but at least until his later years he always understood exactly why that convention was in place. He took drugs while acknowledging that the drugs never enhanced his writing or his ability to function. He spoke graphically about sex while still advocating an almost strict Puritanism when it came to sexual matters.
Mailer did not rely upon his Harvard education in order to speak about life. In World War II, he volunteered to be a rifle-man when he could have been an officer. He remained physically active most of his adult life, and sparred with former Light-Heavyweight champion, Jose Torres. Courage and instinct to him were superior to rational thought. He was arrested during the anti-war demonstrations during the 1960s rather than remain in the press box. He fell in love many times as was evidenced by his six marriages. Mailer never wrote the novel that he will be remembered for like J.D. Salinger or Jack Kerouac, yet he didn’t throw himself into seclusion or drink himself to death, either. He wrote more than forty books. And if the books were flawed, it was often because he tried to say too much rather than too little. As I mentioned above, he probably was never satisfied with his achievements, but that lack of satisfaction also prevented him from ever becoming complacent. He was still attempting to say something to the very end. His last book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, was published less than four weeks before he died.
Hopefully, there will not be too many eulogies placing him in the company of John Updike and Phillip Roth. In a strange pairing, I find Mailer more comparable to the early 20th Century writer, Jack London. London glorified eccentricity and individuality in his short stories and novels while at the same time identifying his self as socialist. Probably, while in reality practicing the part of rich capitalist and rugged individualist, London had no true socialist leanings. London identified with the political ideology of socialism because it was made up of political outsiders, and his brand of individuality would not allow him to become comfortable in any sort of establishment. When late in life, London discovered that there was no real revolutionary passion in his fellow party members and he completely disassociated himself from their movement.
Likewise, the role of being a dissenter and outsider probably always appealed to Mailer – at least until he reached old age. He was always a fighter, and harmony, communion and compromise had no appeal for him in his life. Mailer always wanted to have the competitive edge over everyone that he met. He once said that he found democratic man in America to be both noble and “obscene as an old goat.” The same could be said of the recently deceased writer who drank too much and swore too much, whose hair looked like it never had been combed, and who always looked like he had just slept in the clothes that he wore. Mailer was lean and tough and opinionated and very much an American.