The Boston Phoenix
September 2 - 9, 1999

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My moment with Mailer

After 50 years, two Pulitzers, 31 books, and a sheaf of headlines, Norman Mailer's still promising us the big one.

by Chris Wright

I: Provincetown

The tail end of a Friday afternoon in Provincetown. A thick skirt of rain is sweeping tourists into shop doorways, and me into the Governor Bradford bar. Outside, seemingly oblivious to the downpour, a traffic cop does his thing, not so much directing traffic as choreographing it, flailing his arms and twirling like a disco queen. A guy sitting next to me follows my gaze and remarks nonchalantly, "Oh, the Dancing Policeman." Such is P-town in the summer.

In the daytime, the Bradford is a workmanlike bar, given to maritime décor and Keno screens -- the kind of place where to rest your elbows on the bartop is to risk wet elbows. Its windows, though, open up to the retail and sexual excess of Commercial Street -- the dolled-up drag queens, the shopped-out Nebraskans -- and the bar's patrons diligently adopt the air of having seen it all before. Which, of course, many of them have. I ask the bartender -- a large, gruff, shaven-headed guy from Louisiana -- if he ever sees Norman Mailer in here. Not personally, he says, though he knows that Mailer was drinking in here when Reagan got shot. That's what some guy told him, the bartender says, anyway.

I down my third Tetley's Bitter and remind myself to slow down. I have an event to cover this afternoon: a panel discussion in which Norman Mailer will be -- for lack of a better word -- performing. Oh well: I order another beer, mark up a Keno card, and wait for a break in the rain.

The Provincetown Art Association and Museum -- where tonight's discussion is taking place -- is an almost oppressively bright building. The main hall is capped by a huge skylight, the color scheme is light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel white, the walls are bedecked with the colorful pandemonium of post-war Abstract Expressionism. Behind a long table, two of the evening's panelists -- novelist Marcie Hershman and "psychohistorian" Robert Jay Lifton -- sit facing the audience, solemn as a parole board. To the far right, the evening's moderator, Provincetown Arts founder Christopher Busa, leans over and worries a little stack of notes. The third panelist, Mailer, has yet to arrive. It's very, very hot in here. The P-town cultural elite stews in stackable chairs, its anticipation measured in rills of sweat. But these people are nothing if not enduring.

Provincetown has been a cultural hot spot for a hundred years. To celebrate that fact, the town is hosting a summer-long symposium called Forum '99, a series of panel discussions revolving around P-town. Flocks of writers -- Mailer, John Dos Passos, Eugene O'Neill -- have wound up here over the years, and so tonight's topic is "Life, the Book," a study of the ever-blurring line between fact and fiction in modern literature. With Mailer on board, it promises to be . . . unpredictable.

Not that the other panel members are chopped liver. Hershman wrote Tales of the Master Race, a fictionalized account of real-life Germans during the Holocaust. Lifton, whose nonfiction books bear emotional titles like Destroying the World To Save It, plows the field of human endeavor in search of psychological motive. But Mailer -- well, Norman wrote the book, quite literally, on History as a Novel/The Novel as History. That was the subtitle of his The Armies of the Night.

It's a timely topic. One need only make the short trip down Commercial Street to the Provincetown New Art Cinema -- where the shockumentary The Blair Witch Project is playing -- to get an idea of just how blurry the line between fact and fiction has gotten. Journalist-novelists, novelist-journalists, literary memoirists, and poet-documentarians: for many of today's writers -- and readers -- fact and fiction behave less like relative terms than like prankster twins. And it's all thanks, in large part, to Norman Mailer, whose muscular fiction bled into his journalism. As other journalists hovered above their subjects with forensic objectivity, Mailer stomped about, leaving his mark, treating historical events as though they were the product of his own fevered imagination.

When Mailer finally walks in, supported by a cane, my first thought is: "He's old." There is no burst of applause, no flashing cameras -- after all, Mailer has been a part of the P-town scene for 50 years, and the crowd at the sweltering Arts Museum, like that at the Bradford, has seen it all before. But it's not every day you get to share six cubic centimeters of breathable air with a legend. And so, perhaps a little uncoolly, I am transfixed.

Mailer is built like a big, hairy thumb. Dressed in a blue shirt, tan pants, and white shoes (no socks), he takes his place at the table. Plonked between the stately Lifton and the stylish Busa, he looks out of place, like a clam digger at a cocktail party. As Busa begins his introduction, Mailer assumes an expression of stern concentration, then seems to sink into a reverie. Only when Busa concludes his remarks does Mailer perk up.

"Marcie Hershman and Bob Lifton are like bright stars in a literary firmament where a full moon looms," intones Busa. "And that full moon is Norman Mailer."

Quick as a whip, Mailer responds, "That sounds vaguely pornographic." Everyone laughs.

In the week leading up to "Life, the Book," I read a book on Mailer's life: Mailer, a new unauthorized biography by Mary V. Dearborn. It's strange that Busa should choose this lunar metaphor, because I've been thinking about Mailer in similarly outlandish cosmological terms. It seems as if just about every luminary of the last 50 years puts in an appearance on the pages of Dearborn's biography. Even if Mailer wasn't the brightest among them, his life was the largest, large enough to have accommodated the likes of Lowell, Liston, Warhol, Plimpton, Breslin, Styron, the Ramones. . . . Looking into that book I felt small, as if I were gazing into a universe.

Dearborn's biography isn't particularly flattering. She gleefully dwells on Mailer's petty, boorish side, and glosses over many of his biggest hits -- painting the picture of a man whose every success has been balanced by an equal and opposite fuck-up. But the hits are there: Norman going head to head (not literally this time) with JFK. Norman sparring with Muhammad Ali, bickering with Gore Vidal, flirting with Gloria Steinem. Norman winning the Pulitzer (twice), running for mayor of New York (twice). Norman stabbing his wife (twice, one incident). Not always a commendable life, but a bloody big one. This made me sad for reasons I couldn't quite put my finger on.

And I feel that again tonight. Busa, Hershman, and Lifton are on their game -- epigrams and insights are stacked like chips on the table. But I can't take my eyes off of Mailer. Go on, Norman, I think, give us a show. I don't know, say "Fuck Updike" or something. But Mailer behaves impeccably. A bit rambling at times, he argues with moderate conviction for the importance of imaginative speculation in historical writing. Flashes of the old bite emerge every now and then -- he is often extravagantly yielding to the other panelists, for instance -- and he takes a few jabs at the media, but then he wouldn't be Norman Mailer if he didn't.

It's a good evening, but I can't shake this damp melancholy, which is heightened whenever Mailer, grown hard of hearing, asks people to speak up. For me, those enormous ears have always symbolized the enormousness of the mind between them. If they can falter, what hope for us tiny-eared folk? This, I realize, is what's been getting to me. Norman Mailer at 76 is a billboard that says: OLD AGE, INFIRMITY, EVENTUAL EXTINCTION.

II: Norman

Norman Mailer doesn't get out much these days. "I've got to that age," he says, "where if I want to get some work done, and I do, then I've got to live a monastic existence." With this he gestures at his lavishly appointed house and says, "Of course, you could say this is a sybaritic monastic existence." He laughs, and a layer of my bad mood peels away.

It was a different story earlier. I had come to the Mailer home -- a brick mini-mansion in Provincetown's east end -- on Saturday morning, and had stood before its door prickling with a nervous hangover. Mailer's wife, Norris, greeted me at the door, led me into a plush, well-lit sitting room, and brought me a mug of coffee. As I sat and fidgeted, I could hear Mailer's sonorous voice in the kitchen. On the wall was a portrait of Mailer, staring into the middle distance from the sort of golden-gothic frame usually reserved for religious icons. Finally, the man emerged. "Let's do this in the bar," he said, leading me into a little barroom with a spectacular view of the ocean. "I do my best thinking in bars."

Mailer takes his place on the business side of the bar. He is wearing a denim shirt, unbuttoned enough that a spume of white chest hair is visible. He seems relaxed, almost convivial, and we spend an alarming amount of interview time simply chatting about his beloved P-town.

Eventually, with the kind of eye-flickering anticipation one feels when over-inflating a balloon, I decide to tell Mailer about my morbid thoughts on age, decrepitude, and death. I fear he might not react well. Someone once said that the best-kept secret in literature is that Norman Mailer's a nice guy, and his performance at the previous evening's discussion bore that fact out. And so far, he's been very much the genial host.

But Mailer is also notoriously mercurial, egotistical, and violent when irked. And he is no great lover of the press. In Advertisements for Myself, Mailer wrote: "I always seem to get into disagreeable situations with reporters -- they sense no matter how pleasant I try to be, that I do not like them . . . " Cripes. Though he's obviously mellowed with age, there's no telling how Mailer may react to being called over the hill, even if this isn't quite what I intend. Still, writing a story called MAILER PUNCHED ME IN THE EYE might not be such a bad career move. So I do it. I tell Mailer that his aging seems like a violation.

Without missing a beat, Mailer responds, "Oh, I agree with you entirely," and lets rip with the chesty laugh that punctuates much of his conversation.

Growing up, I had three vague images of Norman Mailer: he was a philosopher, he was a barroom brawler, and he was a womanizer. I was partially right on all three counts; sex, violence, and philosophy are interlocked in Mailer's work and life.

Intellectually, he came of age in the '40s and '50s, and his thinking was immediately gripped by the philosophy of existentialism. Mailer took to heart the existentialist's first precept: existence precedes essence (or, crudely, actions speak louder than words). From the very beginning Mailer's actions became at least as important as his ideas; he used the world as a testing ground for his peculiar brand of power-existentialism, and so it followed that Mailer's life became a big part of his getting his ideas down on paper. His nonfiction often placed him at the center of events, as protagonist, helping to usher in the reign of novelistic nonfiction, or New Journalism.

Mailer never made it as a serious, influential philosopher; he was too emotional, too cavalier, too keen on the shifting metaphor (cancer, for instance, hops in his work from the figurative to the literal at a dizzying rate), and too good a writer. But he made up for his lax methodology with bull-headed courage and a knack for looking into the future. While America reacted to the horrors of World War II with tight-assed rationalism, Mailer celebrated "the art of the primitive." As America cowered under the coattails of authority and conformity during the height of the Cold War, Mailer embraced sex, drugs, and rock and roll (or at least jazz). While the rest of the country was throwing its hat in the air for the first moon landing, Mailer grimly held on to an anti-technological world-view. As Americans rushed off to dredge through their formative years, Mailer dropped his pants in the face of the great god Psychoanalysis. And Mailer was a pioneer of the use of the word "fuck" in serious work. ("Now," he says, "you can't see a play or a movie without hearing `fuck' about 45 times in an hour.")

From the get-go, Mailer seemed to delight in going against the grain, and his unconventional views often aroused shrill condemnation. In his otherwise acclaimed 1959 essay "The White Negro" -- in which he posited the first punk rocker, the "Hipster" -- Mailer famously, and infamously, proposed that senseless brutality could be an instance of existential courage. He took a lot of flak for the essay, and to this day he is sensitive about the subject.

"Let me hit that right on the nose," he says grumpily, seemingly unaware of the irony in his metaphor. "I should have known what I was doing when I started talking about it. What I was saying at the time was that individual violence was an expression of outrage against the oppression of the state, you see. You could almost measure the intensity of oppression by the absence of violence. It's not that -- how to put it -- it's not that I approve of violence. What I'm saying is that when the oppression is subtle, then the form it takes is individual violence."

"Essentially," Mailer says, "where the violence occurs today is in the suburbs." Mailer has long held a violent distrust of what he once called "the faceless plastic surfaces" of suburbia. "The last time I was in the suburbs I was shocked," he says. "It was so boring, you couldn't walk in it. Everything's too smooth, as if there's not enough connection to life. All the streets were laid out in French curves, they were just designed to wind before they ever saw the land they were going to be put on. It's that sort of takeover, I think, that begins to create an atmosphere of violence."

Then he adds, wearily, "I don't know whether I have anything profound to say about violence anymore. I've talked about it for so long."

Mailer's aversion to suburbia is grounded in his long-standing distrust of things "plastic." "We divorced ourselves from the materials of the earth," he wrote in one of his early essays, "the rock, the wood, the iron ore; we looked to new materials that were cooked in vats, long complex derivatives of urine which we called plastic." The term "plastic," though, also carried over into metaphor for Mailer, standing for all the artificial constructs -- social convention, processed food, immunization, modern architecture -- by which society attempts to do away with the muck of human existence and replace it with "a tasteless, sexless, odorless sanctity." Mailer called this "the simple embodiment of social cowardice," lamenting the fact that we had "turned our back on the essential terror of life."

One gets the sense that Mailer isn't out to save the world from itself any longer, nor to get to the heart of terror. During our conversation, his most impassioned assault on plastic sounds more crotchety than revolutionary. Magazines, he says, echoing a conventional wisdom of our time, have become ad-fueled "glitzbags."

The essential Mailer

"Quantity changes quality," says Norman Mailer, and for 50 years he has lived by his dictum, churning out dozens of books on subjects ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Jesus Christ. For the first-time reader, the sheer quantity of his work can seem prohibitive. Here, then, is a selection of quality Mailer to guide you:

The Naked and the Dead (1948). Widely held to be one of the finest war novels ever written, Mailer's first book put him on the map and caused him to be haunted by performance anxiety for years to come.

Advertisements for Myself (1959). Mailer responds to his critics with a brilliant literary sucker punch, collecting tidbits of his much-panned work, adding a running commentary, and creating a masterpiece.

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History (1969). Mailer locks arms with antiwar protesters for a march on the Pentagon, gets thrown in jail, writes about himself in the third person, wins a Pulitzer Prize, and creates a new genre of literature.

Of a Fire on the Moon (1970). Mailer -- or "Aquarius" -- plays journalist-protagonist again, this time for the Apollo 11 mission. Despite its forays into apocalyptic poetry, the book reveals the first moon landing to be a soulless, geeky affair.

The Prisoner of Sex (1971). Mailer rolls up his sleeves and initiates a slugfest with the women's movement. Scathing, funny, and ultimately futile.

The Fight (1976). At once comic and profound, this "entertainment" takes us to Zaire in 1975 for Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's immortal "Rumble in the Jungle."

The Executioner's Song (1979). This Pulitzer winner doesn't only reveal the sad, banal horror that lies at the heart of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, but reveals him to be a product of sad, banal backwoods America. Gilmore's girlfriend, Nicole, emerges as a hugely compelling character.

Ancient Evenings (1983). This jaunt back to ancient Egypt may be Mailer's most ambitious book. In fact, with its amorphous plot and its cast of unpronounceably named characters, it requires ambition just to read it.

The Time of Our Time (1998). This big, fat, oddly arranged anthology features 50 years and 1216 pages of pure, unadulterated Mailer.

"It used to be that when you wrote for a magazine there was an impact," Mailer says, "it was exciting. Now you find that as your story goes from page to page the color of the page changes, the texture of the page changes. I used to complain bitterly when I'd be printed in Playboy because I'd have two pages of glorious prose and wham!" -- he slaps his palm on the bar top -- "there'd be a vagina on the next page. Now I look back on it and see that was really an innocent form of interruption. These ads! You've got to wade through the ads."

But Mailer can be forgiven for having grown tired, for having dropped the blazing standard of insurgency and taken up the quiet gripe. He has been railing against the "corporate" for half a century, leading a fight he has seen as nothing less than a battle for the soul of America. And it's a battle, Mailer admits, that is being lost.

"Everything has changed so profoundly," he says. "None of us foresaw what was coming. Nobody believed that the corporation would take over everything. When I think back on it now, after all these years, the corporation, collectively speaking, had such a superior instinct to all those scholars. The people with whom I agreed, that little mythological army that we formed -- we just lost all over the place, we're in retreat all over the damned place. The corporation has triumphed, hypocrisy and mediocrity have triumphed, politics is worse than ever. The hypocrisies and glaring inconsistencies of the present time are mind-boggling. If I were a young writer today, I'd be going out of my mind."

Of course, Mailer isn't a young writer today -- and if he were to go out of his mind, it wouldn't be for the first time. In the introduction to his 1959 masterpiece Advertisements for Myself, Mailer declared that he would "settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." This was Mailer in his Napoleonic period, near-mad with a sense of his own power. But "our time" has come and gone, and the failures Mailer sees in American social and political life are, in some sense, very much his own.

"Well, yeah, I think I've failed, obviously," he says. "What have we got going on now? The guy who raises the most money is going to be president. That's not creating a revolution in consciousness. Or maybe it is, it's just not my revolution."

This sense of failure certainly pervades the new biography. Though Mary Dearborn's portrayal of Mailer's dud-studded life is not the kindest analysis, there's an element of truth to it. Throughout his life, Mailer has been besieged by personal and artistic struggles, often brought about by his own boundless ambition, his monstrous ego, and his never-ending quest to go beyond himself. Then again, these struggles culminated in many of Mailer's greatest literary triumphs -- in particular Advertisements for Myself. Indeed, Mailer's successes and failures -- his faults and gifts -- could not exist without each other.

"They do have a, a, a dialectical union, don't they?" Mailer laughs.

In the Advertisements introduction -- which reads like a cross between the confessions of Rousseau and the apologia of Nixon -- Mailer's prose frothed with defiance. Anger, he wrote, "has brought me to the edge of the brutal." Many critics -- appalled by the rampant aggression in Mailer's personal life as well as in his work -- had already written Mailer off as a flash in the pan. But Mailer made it very clear that he considered himself far from finished, writing, "I would go as far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, I am the fool who will pay the bill."

Despite the chest-pounding, there was a hint of insecurity in this assertion. Now we're down to insecurity with a hint of chest-pounding. "There's a kind of a tightening-of-the-belt feeling," Mailer says. "Keep working, don't decide the failure's absolute. You never know when some of your ideas might be taken up 20, 30, 40 years later. I've been inveighing against plastic for the last 40 years, and now they're beginning to discover: `Oh yes, yes, you can get cancer from plastic.' Another 20 years and there'll be scandals about plastic, you watch. I don't know if they'll disinter my bones and make a tomb for me" -- Mailer lets go another of his frequent laughs -- "maybe a mausoleum."

There are many, though, who would gladly build that tomb for Mailer right now, or at least for his ideas. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently called him "irrelevant," which is one of the most cutting things anyone could say about Norman Mailer. Reviewing the Mailer collection The Time of Our Time in the New York Review of Books last year, Louis Menand sniffed, "[Mailer's] views made few converts in their time, and they deserve none today."

But perhaps the worst barb came from James Wood, a senior editor of the New Republic. Reviewing Mailer's 1997 novel The Gospel According to the Son -- which was written in the first person, from Jesus's point of view -- Wood wrote: "Jesus warned us about Norman Mailer. There will be imitators, false prophets, fake messiahs, he said." The headline for the New Republic piece was: HE IS FINISHED.

Mailer, however, still insists we shouldn't write him off just yet, though his claims are a little more modest than they have been in the past.

"The one thing that remains clear in my mind," he says, "is that quantity changes quality. That's the most useful three words I know, maybe even more useful than `I love you.' " And, as always, he lives by his words. Mailer has written 31 books -- not to mention countless plays, movies, articles, poems, essays, and speeches -- in his search for greatness. And, at 76, living his monastic existence in Provincetown's east end, he's still searching.

"I'm starting a very ambitious book sometime in the next few months," he says. For decades, Mailer has been promising his public the Big One, the magnum opus that will bring us finally to our knees. Mailer won't say whether his next book will be the one. "I haven't even told my wife about it," he says, "because it's the sort of book that if I started saying what it is, the questions would be endless."

This evasion might reveal little about Mailer's literary plans, but it speaks volumes about his knack for PR: Mailer is still a master at generating mystery, baiting the public with bits of himself.

As many critics have pointed out, Norman Mailer's life achievement may come not from what he writes so much as from how he writes. Mailer might not have made a revolution in consciousness, but by placing himself in the middle of history and writing about events with a novelist's imagination, he certainly revolutionized the way we look at the relationship between fact and fiction.

Mailer is old now. He may or may not produce the Big One. He will never be president of the United States. He will never win an Oscar or be heavyweight champion of the world. Maybe he'll never even head-butt anyone at a cocktail party again. Strangely, Mailer seems at ease with this. What happened?

"Age relaxes the ego," he says with a chuckle that quickly deteriorates into a cough. "Actually, getting old isn't that bad. For one thing, just naturally there is more calm, because you know now what you can and what you can't do. So in a sense your life gets very simple. You don't have to engage in as many species of competition. You're just in one: just see if you can still write a good book." Then he adds, defiance still burning in those bright blue eyes, "That's a question that I can't answer."

Chris Wright can be reached at cwright[a]


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