Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Reading Mailer’s Mail; Suffering with Saul Bellow

Of all the extraordinary items in the selection from Norman Mailer’s correspondence served up in the Oct. 6 issue of The New Yorker, perhaps the most astonishing is the letter Mailer wrote to Don DeLillo in 1988, when Libra (Penguin, $15), Mr. DeLillo’s novel about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, had just been published. Mailer, who was 65 at the time, and writing to a younger, less famous novelist, is generous, accurate, revealing, insightful, characteristically feisty and very nearly humble, all in 200-odd words:

“What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, ‘this son of a bitch is playing my music,’ but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. Whether history will find you more wrong than right is hardly to the point: what counts is that you brought life back to a place in our imagination that has been surviving all these years like scorched earth, that is, just about. It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.”

 

IN THE MIDST OF the turmoil in the financial markets, spare a thought for poor Tommy Wilhelm, the sorry protagonist of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (Penguin Classics, $14), who’s just gambled away the last of his money on lard and grain futures. He’s been swindled by the sinister Dr. Tamkin, who introduced him to the “crowded theater” of a Broadway brokerage office. The quick sketches of Wilhelm’s fellow speculators are unforgettable—some of Bellow’s finest thumbnail portraits—but for me the great moment in this, my favorite Bellow novel, comes when a newly penniless Wilhelm stumbles out onto the street:

“On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence–I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want. Faster, much faster than any man could make the tally. The sidewalks were wider than any causeway; the street itself was immense, and it quaked and gleamed and it seemed to Wilhelm to throb at the last limit of endurance. And although the sunlight appeared like a broad tissue, its actual weight made him feel like a drunkard.”

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Reading Mailer’s Mail; Suffering with Saul Bellow