Sunday, November 11, 2007

THE TIME OF HIS TIME. The quotes offered in the New York Times obituary of Norman Mailer are such a poor introduction to readers who have no experience of him that I am compelled to type out a section of Why Are We In Vietnam?, published in 1967, in which the narrator, Texas teen D.J. Jethroe, tells about an encounter with his hardass father, Rusty:
Yeah, Rusty's a competitive prick, you know, he played for TCU, third All-American AP 1930, 1937, like back in there! look it up! and he was showing D.J. something few years ago on the back lawn of the Dallas ass mansion we inhabit, father and son -- details on request, pen pal! -- and he demonstrated to me I could not run around him. Well, of course D.J. did just that for a while, he ran the fucking ass off and around Rusty cause D.J. at thirteen had a presumptive hip dip halfback's butt about as big as Scarlett O'Hara's waist and he could use it like a double pin universal swivel, and Rusty had acquired a considerable amount of dead ass sticking his brave plunger up all blindly into the cunt-refined wickedness of Hallelujah's sophisticated rumps and vaginal radar rays masers and lasers. I mean, he was like the Charge of the Light Brigade, not so light, and she was one with all those Houris and fakirs and Cossacks and Turks up in the hills who wait to pick each zippy point of meat-nip and therefore know where to cut on down on the Light Brigade and cut off a piece of that charge for themselves. O Kuklos, great god of the seasons, bring back the fox trot, cause D.J.'s embarrassed to tell what's next, how, he, thirteen-year-old swivel ass flunkout in classics at the time, was running Third Team All-America TCU tackle Rusty Deathrow's middle-aged dead ass into the Dallas lawn fertilizer when D.J. made a fatal misestimate of reckoning -- he felt sorry for his dad. He let him tackle him just once. Just once -- right in the dry linty Dallas old navel of Texas. Rusty was so het up, he flung D.J. and -- mail in your protests -- he bit him in the ass, right through the pants, that's how insane he was with frustration, that's how much red blood was in his neck, and man, he hung on, he nearly lifted D.J. up in the air with his deathly teeth -- he would have if he hadn't been a deacon at St. Martin's. That poor D.J. He was a one-cheek swivel ass running on one leg for the next ten minutes while Rusty tackled him whoong! whoong! over and over again. Trails of glory came out of head each time he got hit. "Randy," said Rusty, afterward, "you got to be a nut about competition. That's the way. You got to be so dominated by a desire to win that if you was to squat down on the line and there facing you was Jesus Christ, you would just tip your head once and say, 'J.C., I have to give you fair warning that I'm here to do my best to go right through your hole'"...
Critics generally prefer Mailer's more disciplined books like The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost, in which Mailer's madness is a thrumming engine set safely deep inside the work, sending energy steadily up into the well-ordered prose, with sudden power surges occasionally electrifying the surface. In passages like this one, we see what Mailer was like when nothing was stopping him. It's the first Mailer book that grabbed me, and I still like it. There's glory in it as well as absurdity; it's compelling and not quite convincing; it is colloquial without being conversational. It is inventive to a fault.

Why Are We In Vietnam was his fourth novel. He followed his blockbuster debut, The Naked and The Dead, with a couple of difficult books that were hard to like, maybe even hard for him to like. At the same time he built a career as a public intellectual, or a public nuisance, depending on how you looked at it. He made himself available for ten rounds on any subject: theatre, poetry, drugs, race, technology, female sexuality, what have you and whether or not he knew anything about it. More often than not, at the end of each bout he would climb bloody and exhausted from the canvas and raise his arms in victory.

The way I read it, Why Are We In Vietnam has its roots in The White Negro, in which Mailer commenced a labored, often farcical mission to comprehend black culture, not as a separate reality, but wholly into his own Jewish-American, Harvard- and World War-educated, high-falutin' and bar-brawling perspective; having encompassed so much, he thought he could contain that, too. James Baldwin, among others, spanked him soundly for it, but Mailer had his teeth in his subject, so to speak, and would not let go. Ten years later, Mailer created D.J., inheritor of a distinct culture and surfer on the shock-waves of the 60s, a slicker and a cracker who also imagines himself to be a black disc jockey: the fullest literary flower of Mailer's grand cultural reclamation project.

Writing that book seems to have calmed him a little. This time, after declaring himself victorious, Mailer had the good sense to get out of the ring (for the most part and the time being), and he embarked on a more fruitful literary enterprise. Tom Wolfe had pioneered new journalism, but Mailer saw what it was missing: Norman Mailer. He made himself the central character (aka Aquarius) and attended an anti-war protest, political conventions, a space launch. He got some good books out of it.

Journalism, even a la mode, couldn't hold Mailer, but it did focus him and give a new, cumulative force to his expansive talents. History removed the onerous obligations of fiction by providing him with characters and a plot. Had Mailer invented Spiro Agnew, he might have been tempted to overdraw him; seeing Agnew before him, he was content to observe that his eyes were like slits in the turret of a tank, and that tells us enough. When stirred, as he was by the Democratic Convention floor in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, to the operatic, Mailer takes care to begin at the quotidian base, then build his way up to a soaring aria:
The Ampitheatre was the best place in the world for a convention. Relatively small, it had the packed intimacy of a neighborhood fight club. The entrances to the gallery were as narrow as hallway tunnels, and the balcony seemed to hang over each speaker. The colors were black and grey and red and white and blue, bright powerful colors in support of a ruddy beef-eating sea of Democratic faces. The standards in these cramped quarters were numerous enough to look like lances. The aisles were jammed. The carpets were red. The crowd had a blood in their vote which had travelled in an unbroken line from the throng who had cheered the blood of brave Christians and ferocious lions. It could have been a great convention, stench and all -- politics in an abbatoir was as appropriate as license in a boudoir. There was bottom to this convention; some of the finest and some of the most corrupt faces in America were on the floor. Cancer jostled elbows with arcomegaly, obesity with edema, arthritis with alcholism, bad livers sent curses to bronchiacs, and quivering jowls beamed bad cess to puffed-out paunches. Cigars curved mouths which talked out of the other corner to cauliflower ears. The leprotic took care of the blind. And the deaf attached their hearing-aid to the voice-box of the dumb. The tennis-players communicated with the estate holders. The Mob talked bowling with the Union, the principals winked to the principals, the honest and the passionate went hoarse shouting through dead mikes.
This has the quality of a fine Hogarth or Gillray cartoon: monstrous, vulgar, arguably overdrawn, but with the humanity behind the metaphors preserved.

Mailer did not then cease to scrap, as Gore Vidal could tell you. He didn't entirely cease to be ridiculous, either. He ran for Mayor of New York, presided over the public collapse of the New York intelligentsia chronicled in Town Bloody Hall, tried to hatch a "Fifth Estate" of what would much later be called citizen journalists, championed and helped win parole for an imprisoned writer who then killed a waiter.

But he kept writing. He took up novels again, and if they were not always successful, the long exercise of his talents certainly showed in them. If you dig through any of his work, you will find evidence of his gifts. I recently encountered his very long Evergreen Review essay on Last Tango in Paris, "A Transit to Narcissus." It is full of ripe 70s Mailer hogwash: e.g., "[Maria Schneider] is every eighteen-year-old in a mini-skirt and a maxi-coat who ever promenaded down Fifth Avenue in that inner arrogance which proclaims, 'My cunt is my chariot.'" Ugh. Yet when Mailer talks about the effect of retrofitting Brando's improvisational style to the film's original script, one thinks: oh, wait, he knows what he's talking about.

An editor might have got us to the money shot more quickly. But Mailer was long since past the ministrations of editors. He aimed high -- who else had the nerve, in our earthbound era, to seek to explain Jesus and Hitler? -- and was perhaps dizzied by the thin air encountered in his journeys. He was smart enough to know this was happening, but what was the alternative? His energy and ambition were obviously boundless: he thought big, wrote big, did everything big. If he sometimes found a vehicle or medium that channeled his energies, he could be grateful for the improving effect of the ballast and still be painfully aware that something was holding him back. To wish he had shown greater wisdom about the use of his power is to presume that you would know better what to do with it. Nobody knew how to be Mailer but Mailer.

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