Copy of J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life arrived yesterday. Seven hundred and sixty-three pages of text to confront. (A hundred pages of notes!) But as far behind as I’ve fallen in my other reading and book reviewing, I’m wading in. I owe it to Mailer.
Mailer’s far from one of my favorite writers. I don’t dislike his work. Much of it’s brilliant, and you simply cannot make even a stab at understanding life in these United States until you’ve read The Executioner's Song. But I never took him to heart. I even can’t say I have a literary opinion about Mailer one way or another. That would be like saying I have a literary opinion about the Brooklyn Bridge or hurricanes. All my consciously intellectual life Mailer has just been there, a monument and a force of nature. He first came to my attention as a public figure rather than as a writer, more of a celebrity than an artist or even the public intellectual he was. He was on my TV long before he was on my bookshelf, and on TV he usually came across as a nut or a clown. Scratch that. He was usually portrayed as a nut or a clown. For a long time all I knew of his reputation as a writer was that he’d somehow “failed” as novelist. He was a Hemingway wannabe, aping the worst qualities of his hero, unable to get past his own gigantic ego to sit down and write anything but paeans to his own genius. Then there was his eroticization of violence and his raging misogyny.
I’m not going to get into the Jack Abbott fiasco, except to note that at the time it was used as an example of everything that was “wrong” with Mailer, while few noted it all began with an act of generosity on Mailer’s part. I remember it as another of many warnings that Mailer wasn’t somebody to take seriously except as an enemy of the intellectually and artistically righteous.
As if there was such a thing.
Oh, and he’d stabbed his wife.
All this was happening during the years when I was deciding I was going to be a writer, and the effect on me was that I didn’t read his stuff at a time when it might have had some influence on my development as a writer. It didn’t help that in the year I was setting off for grad school he published his first true novel in over a decade.
John Updike had won the Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit is Rich the year before. William Kennedy won it the year after for Ironweed. Saul Bellow was winding down his career with The Dean’s December, and Philip Roth was in the middle of re-assessing and redirecting his with the Zuckerman cycle. And Norman Mailer had written a 700 page doorstop on the liberating joys of anal rape.
Reincarnation figured in it in some lunatic way too.
Anyway, that’s what I remember of the reviews. I’m just telling you what I remember, not what I know to be what was going on.
By the way. I knew only one person at the Writers Workshop who’d read Ancient Evenings. A woman who grew up on a farm outside Paducah, Kentucky and went back there after earning her MFA. She claimed it was her favorite contemporary novel and she kept it on her desk to dip into for inspiration.
I didn’t read it. Still haven’t. Probably won’t ever at this point. But when I say I didn’t read Mailer’s stuff in my salad days, I mean his fiction. For reasons I can’t remember, while I was giving his fiction the skip, I made a point of reading his journalism. Over a period bridging high school and college, I read The Armies of the Night, Of A Fire on the Moon, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and The Fight. (I read The Executioner’s Song later, in my thirties.) I liked all of them but they didn’t inspire me to check out his novels. So based on the small percentage of his prodigious output I knew, I thought of Mailer not as a novelist---except as a mostly failed one---but as a journalist, a fine one, although not as fun to read as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
Mailer didn’t see the distinction. He wanted it all to be taken as all of a piece, the novels, the journalism, the essays, the speeches, the interviews, the attempts at poetry, probably the movies too. And it wasn’t until I’d failed as a novelist myself---no consoling quotation marks around failed for me---and taken up blogging, that I began to see his point and appreciate it.
So you could say that what I owe Mailer is the solace of being able to see what I do here as being as literary and creative a pursuit as my filed away novels and multiply rejected short stories. I can tell myself that I didn’t give up being a writer to become a blogger. I just changed genres and found a new platform. I can take a pride in the sort of writing I do here I wouldn’t have thought any self-respecting creative writer could or should take back when I was young and green and arrogant enough to feel dismissive towards Norman Mailer.
I’m not very far into the A Double Life. Mailer’s at Harvard and already he’s a writer, in his heart and in fact, prolific and driven even at seventeen. At this point, he seems on his way to becoming Philip Roth, ten years before Roth himself started getting around to it, a chronicler of the second generation Jewish immigrant experience, and I wish he’d written his own Goodbye, Columbus before moving on, just to know what he’d have made of his dapper, English-accented gambler father. I wonder why he didn’t. Did the War change his direction? Was it as I was led to believe back in the day that sudden and spectacular and too early fame derailed him? Guess I’ll find out. I’m enjoying the book but I’d keep going even if I wasn’t. Like I said, I feel I owe it to Mailer.
But, see, what I owe him is due to something more than a possibly constructed literary influence. It’s a little more direct. Due to another act of generosity on his part.
Before Jack Henry Abbott, there was another beginning writer Mailer helped get started.
In 1972, a student at Frostburg State College in Maryland sent Mailer a copy of an article he’d written for the college paper about Mailer’s infamous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show with Gore Vidal. Mailer was impressed. Impressed enough to write to the editor of the Village Voice recommending he give the kid a job.
You know that if you’ve read James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out.
You probably know me, know this blog anyway, because thirty-odd years later Jim linked to one of my posts on his blog.
Jim was a precocious talent and it’s probable he’d have worked his way to where he is or somewhere very close by without Mailer’s help. But it’s hard for me not to see it this way. I’m here because Jim is where he is and he’s where he is because of Mailer.
Over at the New Yorker, Richard Brody's wondering the same thing I wondered, why Mailer never wrote his own Goodbye, Columbus, although Brody thinks that Mailer's "failure" as a novelist is due to his never having mined his Brooklyn roots for his fiction. Read The Novel That Norman Mailer Didn't Write.
Also at the New Yorker, also by Brody, Norman Mailer at the Movies.