There Goes Norman

“But cultural history — well, that’s a whole other kettle of white whales, you might say. From figuratively tussling with Hemingway’s ghost and literally arm-wrestling Muhammad Ali to playing bull in the arena to women’s lib, Mailer conflated the roles of spectator and set-upon gladiator in a way that made him, for a while, the literary world’s answer to Bob Dylan. That Mailer saw no point in staying on the sidelines whenever he could scramble onstage is, presumably, what Lennon means to convey with his A Double Life subtitle — Norman as observer versus Norman as participant.”

Tom Carson reviews J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life. I love reading about Mailer, which, for a long time now, has struck me as the central (if not the entire) point of Mailer. I have more books on my shelf by Norman Mailer than by anyone else save a couple critics I probably don’t even need to mention here, and I can claim to have read exactly one of those books front to back. It’s not like it was an agenda item to spend a bunch of years scooping up used Norman Mailer books (mostly those which fall plainly in the “non-fiction” realm) then not actually reading (or anyway, reading very little of) them, but it somehow doesn’t strike me as an inappropriate response. (I feel like I’m ending up in a similar place with Zappa, actually — I probably think about his work more than I’m willing to actually delve into it.) Mailer’s value is more as someone who has played at being a great writer than as an actual Great Writer (though through his “conflating of roles,” he in a way helped decimate, or push people past, the very notion of Great… oh whatever, anyway, I just dig the guy, okay? Flaws, hypocrisies, prejudices and all).

(God I love the Undertones.)

4 thoughts on “There Goes Norman

  1. Well, Scott, if you’ve got all those Norman Mailer books on your shelves (right up there with Pauline Kael’s, undoubtedly), then you’ve done a good job keeping that from us, or me, anyway — I never suspected a thing.

    Here’s where ye olde been there/done that comes in — for my senior thesis in English at Earlham College, I did a study of five Jewish-American novelists: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Herbert Gold, and Norman Mailer. I spent the entire 1967-68 school year reading EVERY book these guys had published up to that point, and I got my 80-page monograph finished just a few days before Andy Warhol and then Bobby Kennedy were shot. At graduation, I won the “Anna Eves Award” for my thesis, a cool $100. check, the first money I’d ever made from my writing.

    In my studies for my thesis, and in my subsequent readings over the years, I’ve always been pretty certain Bellow and Roth are the best writers-as-writers in that group. And yet I was really taken by Mailer while I was studying him, by his constant “Advertisements for Myself,” his untiring efforts to put himself into his writings as a protagonist at least as important as whatever the basic subject matter was. That was very liberating and even transgressive for me at the time, as I’d been searching for some literary way to rebel against the so-called New Critics’ Kenyon Review-centered insistence that only the text of a piece of literature counted, that you weren’t allowed to think of the author’s human aspects at all. But Norman Mailer was right in your face with his (often messy) humanity at every turn, which made the resulting texts more interesting to me. Mailer was obviously one of the founders of the “New Journalism,” which in turn led to CREEM, the rest is history etc..

    If you’d like to do more actual reading in Mailer, based on my thesis studies, “The Naked and the Dead” is his best conventional-fiction book, but both “The Deer Park” (in which protagonist Sergius O’Shaughnessy is introduced as having been a Sabre Jet pilot in Korea — a classic sensitive-Jewish-boy macho fantasy) and “An American Dream” have their moments. And I re-read “The Armies of the Night,” Mailer’s first-person report on the 1967 March on the Pentagon, just a few years ago, and found it better than ever. I’m afraid I haven’t kept up on Mailer’s post-1968 writings the way I have with Philip Roth’s, especially, but the example Mailer set for me in the ’60s, that a writer was allowed to be a full-blooded character in his own right, not just a polite byline, has stuck with me forever. I still love the guy for that.

    At some point during my work on my thesis, it hit me that I could do a Mailerian reinvention of my own, that if I rearranged the units and changed just one letter of my REAL name, I could sport a Jewish-American novelist’s handle myself, and I became “R. Milton Siegel,” a byline I actually used in CREEM a few times. Thanks again, Norman.

  2. That’s great, Richard — the linkage to CREEM makes a lot of sense to me. The one Mailer I’ve read start to back was *Miami and the Seize of Chicago*, which I liked okay, and I came close with *Armies*, but don’t recall why I put it down (the first 100 pages of it struck me as much more memorable than *Miami*, now that I think about it). I will do *Armies* again and finish it, and I’ll think about the others you mention also (though as an approaching-50 year old father of two kids, neither of whom have yet reached grade one, I have a different problem these days when it comes to books: I simply can’t open one without falling asleep within a page or two — unless it’s a music book, oddly enough — so who knows).

  3. I appreciate you finding and linking Allen Barra’s review of the Mailer bio, Scott. Barra’s more of a manjack than I am, to have read so many of Mailer’s post-1968 books, but he seems to have reached the same conclusion I had in my earlier readings, that Mailer is often more interesting as a concept than as a writer — and that ironically, his off-target aim at the Great American Novel is what made him such a commanding New Journalist.

    I was impressed by Barra’s report of Marilyn Monroe’s (not a literary critic I ever imagined citing) comment that Mailer was “too impressed by power,” which is absolutely true. One aspect of this obsession-with-power I’ve always noted, which Barra doesn’t mention, is that the adolescent Mailer became entranced with Ernest Hemingway’s manly-assertive fiction, but then had to deal with Hemingway’s anti-semitic hostility toward his Robert Cohn character in “The Sun Also Rises”, which seemed to say that Jews like young Norman just weren’t cut out for the running of the bulls and all that macho horseshit (so to speak) Hemingway loved. So it’s long seemed to me that Mailer was trying all his public life to prove to Papa (even after Hemingway was dead) that he could be just as manly as any goy, by pursuing extracurricular foolishness like boxing, making sure he fathered at least one child by each of his many wives, etc., etc.. Relax, Norman, Hemingway was just reflecting the common early-20th-Century prejudices of his privileged WASP background, you had him beat as a writer on many an occasion in my book. (Even if you were a Yid Mama’s Boy at heart.)

    I’d never seen this quote before Barra’s review: “As Gore Vidal famously cracked, ‘Norman uses existential like a truck driver uses ketchup.’” Almost exactly!

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