Bogging down in J. Michael Lennon’s biography of Norman Mailer, A Double Life, just about the point where I’d have expected. The Naked and the Dead is a bestseller and Mailer’s trying to cope with his newly acquired celebrity---mostly by sleeping with as many women as he can find time to---hanging out in Hollywood, looking to sell the screen rights and struggling to come up with an idea for his next novel.
Which puts him in the same position he’ll be in for the rest of his life. A celebrity writer whose fame and reputation rest on his being a great novelist but who has no more great novels in him to write.
I should say the position he held when I first became aware of him almost thirty years later.
A sad way of looking at that is that at fifty, Mailer was still what he was at twenty-five.
A better way of looking at it is that at twenty-five he'd achieved a literary and intellectual prominence very few American writers of any age have come close to achieving and none has since Mailer left the stage.
Either way you look at it, it's still the case he didn't have that next great novel in him. And that seems to have been apparent from the moment he cashed his first royalty check from The Naked and the Dead.
I was hoping he book would help me better appreciate Mailer's other novels, Barbary Shore, The Deer Park, Why Are We in Vietnam?, even An American Dream and Tough Guys Don't Dance. Doesn't look like that's going to happen.
At this point in the story, he's toying almost aimlessly with ideas for his next book, none of which are grabbing him. It's likely he was intimidated by the expectation that he had to come up with something that would top The Naked and the Dead or at least prove it wasn't a fluke. It’s also possible he was distracted, having too much fun enjoying the perks of his fame and fortune. His friend Marlon Brando thought so. On his way out the door at a party Mailer and his wife were throwing for a house full of movie stars, Brando stopped to upbraid Mailer.
“Norman, what the fuck are you doing here [in Hollywood]? You’re not a screenwriter. Why aren’t you on a farm in Vermont writing your next novel?”
Probably though it was simply that he didn't have any stories of his own he felt compelled to tell. Having decided for reasons he doesn't appear to have been able to make clear to himself or anyone else, he left himself no options but to find stories in other people's lives or hope to live out a good one himself.
Turned out he was able to do both but both led to great journalism not fiction.
At the time though, he claimed he was on the lookout for a subject that would give him the chance to capture the historical sweep of the moment, an ambitious but vague goal. But he was thinking of himself as the heir of his literary hero. No. Not Hemingway. John Dos Passos. The Naked and the Dead owes more to the novels in Dos Passos' USA trilogy than to A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls, something I'd never thought of until Lennon pointed it out.
The big subjects were there. The return of the G.I.'s to civilian life. The rise of McCarthyism. The Cold War. The early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Mailer tackled the first in Barbary Shore but lost his thread in the mélange of sex, politics, and Kafka-esque surrealism. (James Jones eventually made it his with Some Came Running .) He intended to take on the second in The Deer Park and I guess it's in there somewhere, although all I remember is the clumsy and self-aggrandizing attempts to make his fictional alter-ego, Sergius O’Shaughnessy, a better Hemingway hero than any of Hemingway's heroes. He didn't get around to the Cold War until Harlot's Ghost in 1991.
And thus he let the fifties and his reputation get away from him.
So it appears that what I have to look forward to is how Mailer recovered his status as celebrity novelist and public intellectual after turning out two weak novels during a decade when Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, James Baldwin, James Jones, Carson McCullers, Herman Wouk, and Irwin Shaw were coming into their own and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos were still alive and productive.
Meanwhile, I'm enjoying this Hollywood interlude, although I wish Lennon had more of a knack for anecdotes and character sketches. But you know who leaps off the page? Shelley Winters. I knew she was smart and savvy from her appearances on The Tonight Show and you can see the spark of humor and wit in even her most tragic roles from her noir days and the goofiest from her later great second career as a character actress. But it's fun reading how she bought her intelligence to bear as a young starlet. Lennon reports that she credited Mailer with her getting the part of Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun, George Stevens' updating of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Sometime shortly after the Mailers arrived [in L.A.], Shelley Winters asked for his help. She wanted desperately to get a role in an upcoming film, A Place in the Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which George Stevens was directing and producing for Paramount. According to Winters, after a dinner at a Mexican Restaurant with Mailer and Burt Lancaster (with whom she was having an affair), she asked Mailer to explain the novel to her, especially [the] factory girl who is murdered by the protagonist…(played by Montgomery Clift in the film.) After Lancaster left, Winters asked him to come to her apartment. Mailer remembered that he had his “own little agenda tucked into the middle of it. Hey, I’ll be alone with this blonde actress and maybe good things will come of it,” but Winters was “totally unsexy'” that night. She was very worried and looked “ready to go in for a strong case of the weeps,” he said. Winters was impressed by his blue eyes, and for several hours, she said, “the young handsome Norman Mailer talked to me about the inner workings of that girl’s mind and what Dreiser wanted the reader to feel about the whole American syndrome of success at any prince. Norman knew so much about Dreiser that I got the feeling he had been his protégé.” Mailer gave her the key character trait: [she] is “a girl completely without artifice.” Winters used the line with Stevens, got the role, and did a magnificent job in it. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best director, and Clift and Winters were nominated for Oscars. She told and re-told the story of he coached her many times, always acknowledging with gratitude his role in launching her career.
Mailer’s adventures among the movie people would make an interesting and colorful novel.
Too bad Mailer himself didn’t write it.
Instead he turned out The Deer Park.
Going to keep plugging away at A Double Life. Something else I’m hoping to find out---what’s the actual historical basis for my thinking of Mailer as the towering literary figure and one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s. As I wrote in my post Owing Norman Mailer one a couple weeks back, I became aware of Mailer as MAILER. He was a given. I don’t think I questioned his standing any more than I questioned Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s, with the difference being that it was my teachers who told me to revere Hemingway and Fitzgerald and it was people on television and in magazines and newspapers who were in awe of Mailer, even when they hated him and made fun of him and tried to dismiss him as a blowhard and a clown. Gore Vidal probably did more to convince me of Mailer’s importance than Mailer did himself. Ironic, ain’t it? I just figured that anybody who got under Vidal’s skin like that had to be some sort of real deal. Keep in mind I was and am a fan of Vidal in a way I never was and doubt I’ll ever be of Mailer. But when I was in eighth grade, I was more influenced by what I saw on television, and the grown-ups on my TV told me to pay attention, so I paid attention.
The question I didn’t ask and that I’m expecting A Double Life to answer, is just what those grown-ups were paying attention to.
By the way, I know how I became a fan of Vidal. A friend of mine in high school who was two years ahead of me was a fan. He could quote whole swatches of dialog from An Evening With Richard Nixon and… He pushed Vidal’s essays and Washington D.C. and Burr at me. Then Pop Mannion started subscribing to the New York Review of Books.
When I call myself a fan, though, I mean of Vidal’s style and wit as a writer and the way he played “Gore Vidal” on TV. I’ve since come to realize that as a writer he was an incorrigible liar and fabulist. He wrote things and professed to believe things he knew were not true just for the malicious fun of it. Mailer, I’ve always thought, wrote what he believed to be the truth and which, often and not coincidentally, was true.
But speaking of Vidal, did you read this sad story about Vidal’s miserable final years and his strange, almost perverse disposition of his estate in his will at the New York Times, For Gore Vidal, a Final Plot Twist?
Worth checking out.
Definitely worth checking out, the Self-Styled Siren’s appreciative eulogy for Shelley Winters, who died in 2006.
And, although it’s not directly related but since I did bring up James Jones’ novel Some Came Running: via Movie City News, an excerpt from Richard Elder’s book, The Best Film You’ve Never seen, here’s director Richard Linklater talking about Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 adaptation of Jones’ novel starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacClaine.