Stormin’ Norman Mailer Says He’s Soured on Giuliani
Stormin’ Norman now walks with two canes. In any other 76-year-old, this might be taken as a sign of old age, testament to the ravages of arthritis; in Norman Mailer, it looks more like the spirit of willful contradiction. He was a Brooklyn Heights ornament, a cannonball of pure urbanism, twice candidate for mayor (in 1961 and in 1969); now he lives in Provincetown, Mass., a country squire in a big house on the water. Still–he could turn the page quick as that. The grizzled patriarch, the proudly priapic prisoner of sex, could come charging back into town, agitating–who knows?–for gynecocracy: a new Mailer for a new millennium.
And what’s on Aquarius’ mind lately? Back in January of this year, according to Mary V. Dearborn’s new biography, Mr. Mailer told Manhattan File that Mayor Giuliani “made it his business to give us a city where the streets would be safer. He would relieve us of this sense of the poor encroaching on us. After all, what if the poor decide to become violent? Whereas, if we don’t see them, we’re reminded less of them … People want to be able to go to sleep at night without feeling guilty. Every time a beggar approaches you, if you give him money, you can never know for certain if the act derives from the goodness of your heart or you are just slightly afraid of him. Giuliani delivered us from much of that.” (That retrograde ramble from a man who 51 years ago campaigned for Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party.)
But, lately, Mr. Mailer’s opinion of the mayor has plummeted. He told The Observer on Nov. 29, “I think the war between Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum may be described as the fracas between the swamp flies and the scumbags.” But if he were registered in New York–he says he’s not–how would he cast his ballot in the Senate race?
“I might not vote,” he said, then relented: “I’m a lifetime Democrat, so there might be a sludgy movement of my feet toward Hillary, but no enthusiasm.” Here’s his beef against the first lady: “Like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Al Gore and Maggie Thatcher, Hillary has one overbearing flaw–she is full of cant. She always says what is most immediately useful politically to say.”
As for Mr. Mailer, he’ll say almost anything: “With Norman Mailer you expect the unexpected,” Ms. Dearborn told The Observer , accepting the notion that the subject of her unauthorized biography may in years to come behave in ways that mock her conclusions. “I have no secret information about how he’s going to conduct himself for the rest of his life,” she admitted cheerfully.
“He’s had a kind of lackluster decade, but he’s capable of a comeback; he’s done it before, spectacularly, around 1960, with Advertisements for Myself .” Ms. Dearborn added, “His mind is 100 percent there.”
Though they hate to admit it, longevity is the bane of biographers who choose a living subject. A decade ago, when he started his life of Saul Bellow (born 1915), James Atlas would have had the actuaries on his side, the law of averages nudging toward the grave the author of Seize the Day and More Die of Heartbreak . But the Nobel laureate (a kind of anti-Mailer whose staunchly conservative convictions perdure) is clinging stubbornly to life: Mr. Bellow has a new novel in the works, and his fifth wife is about to give birth to his fourth child. Mr. Atlas, eager to document the latest developments, has postponed publication until fall 2000.
For Ms. Dearborn, whose biography of Henry Miller appeared in 1991, when the author of Tropic of Cancer had been dead a decade, live subjects are the way of the future. “The old way of doing biography is changing,” she said. Technological advances and changes in modes of communication mean that writers are less likely to leave a clear paper trail. In the future, sifting through archives may be less important than gaining access to living friends and family. The biographer’s role will be, as Ms. Dearborn put it, “to download the minds of everybody who knew the subject.”
Gather news of the screws–then wait? “In the best of all possible worlds,” Ms. Dearborn admitted, “I guess you’d put it away until he died.” But obvious practical considerations force the biographer’s hand: “I have to make a living,” she pointed out.
In one respect, Ms. Dearborn is banking on a sea change. The tide of literary opinion has been running against Mr. Mailer lately. The lowest low came two years ago with the publication of The Gospel According to the Son , which spawned a legion of humiliating reviews.
But Ms. Dearborn, who has a Ph.D. in American literature from Columbia University, thinks Mr. Mailer’s reputation will rebound. “He’s a writer who’s going to be known for the body of his work rather than particular books. With Ernest Hemingway, he’s one of two writers who define the century, and I give Ernest the first half and Norman the second.” His public stature adds weight to his writing. “Whether or not we like it, he has spoken for Americans and shaped what’s happened to us–though that was more apparent in the 60’s and 70’s than it is now.”
Ms. Dearborn can be sharply critical of the man whose life and work she spent five years studying. For example, she told The Observer , “when I saw Norman deciding that the C.I.A. was a force for the good in our society, after he’d been so vocal and effective in the 70’s criticizing the C.I.A.–that got me riled.” She was also appalled to uncover Mr. Mailer’s embarrassing entanglement with Senator Joe McCarthy’s former chief counsel, Roy Cohn–a relationship, she notes in her biography, that Mr. Mailer “would strive to keep … hidden at all costs.” According to Ms. Dearborn, Cohn got Mr. Mailer together with his old friend S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr. Cohn “facilitated” deals that landed Mr. Mailer massive book contracts and lucrative gigs writing for magazines; thanks to Cohn, Mr. Newhouse, through his company, Advance Publications, helped pay for that big house in Provincetown–in return, Mr. Mailer rented out the guest house to Cohn.
Waving aside failures of judgment and vexing inconsistencies, Ms. Dearborn reminded The Observer that Norman Mailer “is a very attractive guy–the blue eyes are as piercing as Paul Newman’s ever were.” She is indulgent about his waffling; his praise of Mayor Giuliani, for example, she dismissed as “laziness”–”that’s a harsh word,” she acknowledged, “but Norman’s living a very comfortable and settled life. I’m not sure the comment is an indication of where he stands politically.”
Is Donald Trump for President a farcical replay of Norman Mailer for mayor? Mr. Trump’s wacky, squirm-inducing candor is a fun house echo of Norman on the hustings three decades ago. Ms. Dearborn guessed that Mr. Mailer “would love the idea of Trump running for office. He’d admire his more outrageous statements. They’re signs of life. Norman’s always believed that the most important thing is for politicians to have imagination.”
Candidate Mailer had plenty of that. He hoped to forge what he called “a hip coalition of left and right.” His 1969 platform proposed, among other things: statehood for the city; a ban on private automobiles in Manhattan; legalization of gambling; provision of free bicycles in city parks; and the establishment of “Sweet Sunday”–one day a month without electricity, all traffic stopped, all comings and goings, by plane or train or boat, halted.
Thirty years later, you can only hope that Norman Mailer hasn’t frozen himself into some everlasting Sweet Sunday. That would deny Stormin’ Norman, and New York, his shot at a 21st-century comeback.
– Adam Begley
Mailer: A New Biography Captures This Vexing Creature
There is an advertisement currently doing the rounds for an on-line encyclopedia, which is using a dictator-size photograph of Norman Mailer to help sell itself. Looking gently wounded, his fine eyes focused on a suitably menacing abstraction, the celebrated writer is seen polishing his spectacles, as if preparing for serious thought. But there is no daintiness or effeminacy, of course: His denim shirt is filled like a sail with his strong belly and is open at the neck to reveal a vigorous little copse of chest hair. His cherubic lips are set in a macho moue . To the side are the words: “Norman Mailer wonders if cloning will delight the devil and offend God or offend the devil and delight God … go to genetics, ethics … at britannica.com.”
Mr. Mailer has always had a weakness for vulgar Manicheanism, but never has that interest seemed less earned than in this advertisement. The flippancy of the context somehow guarantees the flippancy of the opposition; the theological language is meaningless. The very idea that anyone could formulate so easily such alternatives suggests that they are not real alternatives; the sweat of dilemma has been glibly washed away by money. What poses as either-or is nothing of the kind, but merely both-and, with a guilty conscience.
Mr. Mailer last announced an interest in matters theological two years ago, when he published The Gospel According to the Son , and told an interviewer, “I’m one of the 50 or 100 novelists in the world who could rewrite the New Testament.” He went on to say that he could identify with Christ: “I have a slight understanding of what it’s like to be half a man and half something else, something larger. Believe it if you will, but I mean this modestly. Every man has a different kind of life, and mine had a peculiar turn. It changed completely at 25 when The Naked and the Dead came out. Obviously, a celebrity is a long, long, long, long way from the celestial, but nonetheless it does mean that you have two personalities you live with all the time.”
So this “half a man and half something else”–what is this but a kind of celebrity centaur?–is still messily with us, still daring or, as he would melodramatically have it, still “risking” nonsense and nonsensical utterances. Mr. Mailer has been unavoidable for 50 years; he is like the man who insists on cutting his nails in Rousseau’s presence, as in The Confessions . He has still a digit or two to go. Which is why Mary V. Dearborn’s excellent and exhaustive biography Mailer: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin, 478 pages, $30) is so welcome, for it offers the shapeliest and most efficient tour yet of Mr. Mailer’s antics, taking us smartly and irreverently through the crowded Mailer decades–the fazed 50’s, the savage 60’s, the sour 70’s, the easy 80’s and the null 90’s.
Ms. Dearborn treads rather lightly on the work, and is sometimes not hard enough on Mr. Mailer’s trash, and other times not appreciative enough of his finest writing. She has apparently read all of Mr. Mailer’s work, for which she should be beatified, but she does not seem to think her readers are very interested in it. Yet the attention she pays to Mr. Mailer’s public and performing selves–those dolphins of delirium–is always intelligent and sharply focused, and frequently astringent. In its way, her book is exemplary and should give no comfort to its subject.
Like Mr. Mailer, Ms. Dearborn is mindful of the shadow cast over his life by the early success of his great novel, The Naked and the Dead . This was when a shaken Norman Mailer was handed his first cup of celebrity, and instantly began to spill from it. He was in his mid-20’s, and his novel was at the top of the best seller lists. His first royalty check was for $40,000. It is often implied that this youthful exposure disturbed Mr. Mailer’s balance and gave him an unquenchable thirst for attention. More prosaically, and more damagingly, it was money and readers–lots of both–that would become Mr. Mailer’s twin goals, and it was this race for reward that would consign Mr. Mailer’s novelistic work to the less-than-great, to the commercial, the vulgar, the blowsy.
Famously, Mr. Mailer tried, in the 1950’s, to revisit the garden of his first success, and failed–disastrously, with Barbary Shore , and modestly, with The Deer Park . Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, he would talk about “the big novel” he had inside him, the one that would narrate the entire American experience; in 1974, Little, Brown parted with a million dollars as fuel for this hugeness. (Anyone remember Ancient Evenings ?) But to look again at the early fiction is to be both impressed and corrected. At his best, Mr. Mailer gives us the sense that he has listened to a big, bleeding tranche of American life, and listened above all with quivering sensitivity to the way certain Americans speak: “Brother, I can tell you, once you’ve been bed-wise with high-class pussy, it makes you ill, it makes you physically ill to take less than the best.” Mr. Mailer is a fine psychologist of power in those early works; his fascists and pimps and commanders talk like power, but in reality the corridors of power are honeycombs of insecurity and are about to collapse into their own waxy vacuums.
Yet one notices all that Mr. Mailer cannot do as a novelist. His grotesques, with their sour mental prosperity, are vivid enough, but never quite alive: There is not in all of Mailer the successful fictional portrait of a busy consciousness. Not being alive, his characters exist with one another but rarely live through each other, that crucial test of a novelist’s electrical currents. The early novels have a certain bold, klaxoning power; but they lack the sensitivity, the fine precision, the lyrical delicacy that makes the truly artistic. Indeed, there is a sense in which Mr. Mailer–who has never been very interested in the esthetics of the novel, who has been content with sturdy, hand-me-down mid-century realism–is not literary in the highest sense. Reading The Deer Park recently, I decided that the tone and prose of the book were commercial rather than literary; it was Raymond Chandler rather than Ernest Hemingway. Listen: “My father left me a bum’s inheritance; underneath his drunks and his last disappointed jobs and his shy hello for me, in all those boardinghouse rooms where he watched the wallpaper curl and the years go down in one hash-house after another, he kept his little idea. There was something special about him, he had always thought, someday, somewhere …”
Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr. Mailer began to drift away from the novel after writing The Deer Park , which was a kind of brilliant journalistic portrait of the Hollywood scene rather than a great novel. Journalism provided the right gladiatorial sand for Mr. Mailer to kick up. Journalism was the true medium for a writer possessed of a fabulous prose style but with essentially static powers of description, for journalism proceeds statically, paragraph by glittering paragraph, in a starry shuffle. It is not a dance, but a continually interrupted performance, and this was, and always has been, Mr. Mailer’s real mode–short flights and circular flights, as T.S. Eliot once said of Matthew Arnold’s essays.
And what circularity! Excepting the great journalistic triumphs– The Armies of the Night and the first few hundred pages of The Executioner’s Song –has any major writer in the history of literature, any writer who writes as well as Mr. Mailer does, produced so much intellectual effluvia? There is no idea so fine that Mr. Mailer cannot violate it. What one holds against him is not that he was sometimes wrong, like anyone, but his proud commitment to incoherence and irrationality, which seems an inversion of the writer’s proper task, as if a doctor were found giving cocaine to his patients.
Of course, a certain amount of Mr. Mailer’s literary production in the 1950’s was undertaken in a fever of drugs (and after that, drink took over). Ms. Dearborn is at her best when snapping us through some of the intoxicated outrageousness of these years: Mr. Mailer denouncing Waiting for Godot in his Village Voice column before seeing the play (and then, with appealing and characteristic honesty, admitting to his mistake once he had seen and liked the play); Mr. Mailerstabbinghiswife, Adele, at a party in 1960, afterparanoically dividing the room into those for and those against him; Mr. Mailer running for Mayor of New York in 1969, and drunkenlyattackinghisownsupporters–”Fuck you”–as a bunch of “spoiled pigs”; Mr. Mailer and Germaine Greer at the Town Hall “debate,” in which he praised his own essay, “ThePrisonerofSex,”as”probably the most important single intellectual event of the last four years”; Mr. Mailer and the “literary” murderer, Jack Henry Abbott (a promising writer), who was released from prison in 1981 and then swiftly murdered someone, prompting Mr. Mailer to defend him with the infamous phrase, “Culture is worth a little risk” (a characteristic irrationality: not that culture, and not that risk). And on and on, the adventures and trips and scandals and shamelessness and affairs somehow bleeding into each other into one great, wounding, arterial gush.
Sex is at the center of Mr. Mailer’s “philosophy,” and, appropriately, and in proper measure, Mary Dearborn is both gossipy about, and analytical of, his sexual entanglements. We read of various “threesomes,” of Mr. Mailer’s failed one-night stand with Gloria Steinem (he kept on asking, so she said Yes, but the event fizzled, by her account), and of how Mr. Mailer first consummated a long-term affair “in Bungalow Five at the Bel Air Hotel.” (No one could accuse Ms. Dearborn of what Mr. Mailer once called “bringing a trombone to the boudoir”; she has brought binoculars, surveillance equipment and lots of yellow legal pads.)
More vulnerable is Mr. Mailer’s intellectual involvement with sex. In his essay “The White Negro,” and in that shocking novel An American Dream , the orgasm–or rather, the good orgasm–is promoted as the royal road to the palaces of liberated consciousness. The “hipster,” or white Negro, encourages “the psychopath in oneself” and obeys only “the rebellious imperatives of the self.” What defines this self, writes Mr. Mailer, is an “inner unconscious life” which various writers have called “energy,” “life” and “sex,” and which D.H. Lawrence called “blood.”
For Mr. Mailer, this force is “the paradise of limitless energy and perception just beyond the next wave of the next orgasm.” But his orgasm frenzy does not really resemble Lawrence’s doctrine of blood. Mr. Mailer, one feels, is always trying to pack as much as possible into the sexual act; Lawrence radiated outward from the sexual act, searching humans for their “living flame,” which was “the quick of life.” And for Lawrence, this search was inseparable from a simultaneous search into the means of representing this living flame. For Lawrence, the question of sex was always at the same time the question of the novel. Mr. Mailer has never been interested enough in how one represents sex, which is (after the act itself) the most interesting thing about it.
Mr. Mailer’s fabled “existentialism,” which he waved gaudily in the 50’s and 60’s, and which he still revives from time to time, was really nothing more than sexistentialism. It was always the feeblest notion of freedom, and the vaguest idea of rebellion, and an insult both to his readers and to the true founders of existentialism, like Karl Jaspers and Albert Camus, who nobly fought for true metaphysical freedom, in terms and language whose clarity and devotion to rationality should have embarrassed Mr. Mailer into silence. Mr. Mailer’s existentialism was an early version of “having it all.” In a revealing passage in “The White Negro,” he writes, “To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself–one must know one’s desires, one’s rages, one’s anguish, one must be aware of the character of one’s frustration and know what would satisfy it.”
Know what would satisfy it : This is the creed of Stephen Rojack, the hero of An American Dream . It is nothing more than the spoiled yearning of 1950’s American individualism, the mothered little baby of teaty capitalism, its hands stretched out begging for more, more, more. Camus, one recalls, demanded the exact opposite of his existentialism–that it be a perpetual struggle, a never-ending dissatisfaction: “a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation) and a continuous dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest),” wrote Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus . Immature unrest, indeed!
Still, still … it is hard to dislike Mr. Mailer, even at the close of this acutely critical biography. His recklessness, his generosity, his mind always gloriously uninsured, despite its fooling–all this is oddly impressive and appealing. Mr. Mailer has always had the surest instinct for the rip tides of his age, and has swum with them, sometimes almost drowning in the process, sometimes, like Shakespeare’s Antony, showing his back above the element he lived in. That his life has been a kind of archive of postwar American experience can be quickly proved by reference to Don DeLillo’s Underworld , which, in recounting the major American neuroses, anxieties and events of the last 40 years, inadvertently recounts Mr. Mailer’s: the bomb; paranoia; the C.I.A.; J. Edgar Hoover; Vietnam; graffiti (Mr. Mailer wrote a book about graffiti); standup comedy (Mr. Mailer as Lenny Bruce?); Jack Kennedy and the Zapruder film; Hollywood; Truman Capote’s black-and-white ball (which Mr. DeLillo describes, omitting, however, that at it Mr. Mailer asked McGeorge Bundy to “step outside”); and, above all, New York. The sadness is that Mr. Mailer is not the author of Underworld , but only, as it were, a silent performer in it.
– James Wood