June 1997

[Book Reviews]
| Reviews | Literary Calendar | Authors in town | Events by Location | Hot Links |


Norman Mailer and his ex-wife both have books out this season. Each tells its own version of the gospel.

by Paul Kafka

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON, by Norman Mailer. Random House, 242 pages, $22.

THE LAST PARTY: SCENES FROM MY LIFE WITH NORMAN MAILER, by Adele Mailer. Barricade Books, 400 pages, $25.

Norman Mailer's new novel, The Gospel According to the Son, arrives in bookstores this spring at the same moment as his ex-wife's memoir, The Last Party: Scenes from My Life with Norman Mailer.

In The Gospel According to the Son, Norman takes on the voice of Jesus of Nazareth to tell, from the inside, what it's like to be the son of God, and to sacrifice oneself for the good of all sinners. The Last Party is Adele Mailer's chronicle of a decade of drug- and alcohol-fueled abuse and codependence, which led up to the fateful night when a psychotic Norman Mailer stabbed her, the mother of his two little girls, nearly to death. Beneath the surface of the two books -- one a novel, one a memoir; one a work of art, the other an act of vengeance -- lies a tangle of questions. What is fiction and what is memory? What rights does an artist have, and what rights does that artist's wife or husband have? Has the practice of writing changed, and the practice of marriage, since the days of the misogynist Beat Generation writers who made up Norman Mailer's circle in the 1960s? And finally: which book is the better read?

Despite having received a barrage of savage reviews, The Gospel According to the Son is the polished altarpiece of a mature artist. Norman Mailer writes a thoughtful, original exploration of the synoptic gospels, a book that challenges readers on the religious right and the atheist left with equally rich interpretive tasks. Adele Mailer's The Last Party, which has received hardly any attention, is at times barely literate. Her prose is crude and badly paced. Her narrative is truncated rather than finished. She doesn't have a plan, but simply moves from memory to memory along a loose chronological path. Yet, despite these textual scars, Adele's first and only book is in several respects better than Norman's 30th. Her characters are flesh and blood, her story naturally gripping. Most important, her own playful, at times melodramatic, voice is more interesting than the warmed-over King James diction of Norman-cum-Jesus. Consider two passages, one in which Adele describes her crucifixion by Norman, the other in which Jesus describes his crucifixion by Roman centurions:

Norman was dirty, his bullfighter's shirt as torn and bloody as his face. . . . I hardly recognized him, his face was twisted, and he was out of his head, so drunk I don't think he knew where he was. I . . . taunt[ed ] him, my drunken anguish and fury matching his. . . . "[C]ome on you little faggot, where's your cojones, did your ugly whore of a mistress cut them off, you son of a bitch!" Then we met in that last tango, our little dance of death. . . . He gored me near my heart and in my back with a dirty three-inch penknife he had found somewhere. . . . "Oh dear Jesus, help me," I said and I fell. . . . "My God man," [the last guest] said to Norman, "what have you done? We've got to get her to a hospital. . . ." I felt Norman kick me. "Get away from her, let the bitch die."

One of the soldiers took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and forced it between my lips. He jeered at me. . . . Yet now I felt less pain. For I had learned that I did not wish to die with a curse in my heart. I had told my disciples: "He who kills you will believe he is performing service for God," and those words came back to me -- a comfort in this extremity. I said, "My Lord, they do not see. They came into the world empty and they will depart the world empty. Meanwhile, they are drunk. Forgive them. They know not what they do."

In a recent interview over breakfast at his suite in the Four Seasons Hotel, Norman Mailer described to me the emergence of his interest in writing the Jesus story. He'd had only a passing knowledge of the New Testament, and as he reread the synoptic gospels for the first time since college, he was struck by how poorly they were written: full of contradictions, the most dramatic scenes sketched out in the most cursory way. The works were obviously the product of a committee, Norman said, and the result was like Hollywood at its most indecisive. (No stronger condemnation can come from the mouth of a working novelist.) Norman knew he could do better. His writer's instinct, honed by 50 years of steady application, led him to the first-person voice.

Another pivotal moment came when he visited the Southern hometown of his current wife, Norris, who is the daughter of a fundamentalist minister. Norman attended an adult Bible-study class at her father's church. Several of his classmates had never met a Jew, and, as Norman told me, they seemed to expect that he would have "inside knowledge" of the story of Jesus. After all, the Jews had played so vital a role in Jesus's origin and death.

I did not interview Adele, but her own motivation for writing emerges clearly from her book. One truth is plain: Adele's marriage to Norman is the most exciting thing that ever happened to her. The Last Party is not only a cry of long-withheld pain and bitterness, but also an evocation of a great love that, despite everything, has survived.

Adele, a painter, actress, and writer, is justifiably furious about the way the world regards her near-fatal stabbing as Norman's tragedy -- the proof of his tortured genius, or just an interesting chapter in his development. The Last Party endeavors to show the world just how nasty and brutal a guy her husband was. But in the end, the book reveals another Norman, a loving and gentle man as well as a cruel and dangerous one. In the early '60s, after all, Adele and Norman were in love with each other and with their life together.

There were more surprises from my lover. . . . To my delight, he moved the bathtub from the living room into the kitchen, built a partition around it, redid the antiquated plumbing, and even installed a hot water heater. It was beautiful, a kind of Rube Goldberg creation. . . . A few months after we'd set up the apartment, I quit my job. Norman said there was no need for me to work, and he opened a checking account for me. It was my first ever. . . . There would be more time for me to paint, and more time to play house. . . . I disliked housework . . . and kept it to a minimum. . . . Later on in our relationship, in other places, there were always maids.

It is a fortunate accident that these two books should appear simultaneously, for each sheds light on the other. The Gospel According to the Son explores the author's fascination with the problem of evil: Norman Mailer's major departure from the synoptic gospels is in positing a Father whose powers are not sufficient to shield His son from Satan. The Last Party, meanwhile, attempts to account for one man's cruelty toward the woman he loves. Books are not in competition with each other, even books by divorced mates; each must be accepted on its own terms. Still, I'd reach for Adele's first. In his evangelist zeal to reach Christians and skeptics alike, Norman Mailer has created a Jesus who ends up sounding too much like the one we already know. Adele just tells the gospel truth in her own angry, loving voice.

Paul Kafka's novel, LOVE.ENTER, won the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize, and is now available in paperback.