Norman Mailer’s Greatest Hits

“In America, poetic truths have real-life con­sequences, and Mailer is one of the few American intellectuals to perceive this fact as both fundamental and fundamentally good”


The Time of His Prime Time

Any biography whose subject is still alive is suspect. Nine bombs out of 10, we get to choose between two brands of meretriciousness: sensationalism or sycophancy. Certainly our Norman, who has a talent for sending the most sensible heads into wild yawing, offers rich pretexts for either. Hilary Mills has avoided both. How? The gods of biography (they’re the ones that look like shoe clerks, halfway down the big hill) clap each other on their backs at the joke. By all appearances, it never occurred to Mills that having an opinion about Mailer might be to the point, or just handy. Now, indifference still ranks as one of the odder incentives for undertaking a biography. We have to look elsewhere for Mills’s purpose, as a (the hit car skids wildly around the corner) minor-league purveyor of bookchat, in making Mailer the first flag she nails to her mast. I fear — I revel in it, actually, but the forms have to be observed — that the book is an act of pure career-making: Mailer’s name is First National in the literary marketplace, and any young litterateur looks for targets of opportunity, hang caring. (The car now gets a quick paint job, in a safe garage.)

For Mailer to be used this way has its rough justice. Saul Bellow, turning even his idiosyncrasies impersonal, can make himself a classic while still breathing — when you light upon him saying “After all, I am not Goethe, and this is not Weimar” in the Times Book Review, you know it’s not because the interviewer asked him if he was Goethe and this was Weimar. Mailer, by contrast, only thrives in the up-for-grabs media-age thick of things. You may think this is a polite way of saying he has a knack for making an ass of himself on talk shows, but there’s more to it than that. What distinguishes pop art from high art is its sense that the real aesthetic moment exists in the collision between work and audi­ence. Mailer conceives of his own work, in tandem with his public persona, as only half of a continuing relation­ship that his audience completes. And he knows that by claiming a relationship with you, he forces you to have a relationship with him. For Mailer, the neurotic appeal of writing as a vehicle for imposing one’s consciousness isn’t art’s necessary evil but its whole value. His work is so subjective that it’s justified solely by his audience’s equally subjective response — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is why Mill’s reportorial synopsis falls short — the way Norman has set the terms, not to have a poetic view of him is to have no view at all. But she’s a victim of the People mentality: facts (exhaustive) plus quotes (copious) equals truth. Needless to say, she misses her target completely. Certainly, she’s labored hard and conscientiously at putting the facts and quotes together, and much of it is interesting — fascinating, if you happen to be on an airplane. But she’s so tone-deaf to Mailer’s sensibility that when it comes to the heavy stuff, she’s reduced to rote-mouthed para­phrases of Mailer’s writing that diagram its sense while canceling its personality — in other words, its substance. Here’s Mailer, in Advertisements for Myself, talking about a sad time in his career: “My mood of those poor days was usually tied to the feeling that I had nothing left to write about, that maybe I was not really a writer — I thought often of becoming a psychoanalyst. I even considered going into business to get material for a novel, or working with my hands for a year or two.” And here’s Mills: “He was beginn­ing to feel he had nothing left to write about. At one point in that depressing win­ter Mailer thought of becoming a psychoanalyst or even going into business to garner new experience for a novel.”

Indeed, Mills’s comprehension can slip so low that when Mailer describes an un­finished novel of his as “rather mechanical,” she quotes “mechanical” as if it were the term for a new genre. But I’m not bringing this up just to attack her mundane writing style. Style, as critic Samuel Hynes ob­served, is nothing less than the writer’s sense of reality; few writers have gone so far as Mailer in seeing style as the pure expression of personality, and personality as the only valid vehicle of insight. The claim he stakes that his unsupported sensibility can not only explain reality but take it one-on-one in a wrestling match. Mills seems unable to grasp this fundamental idea. Her transcription of the data leaves unexplained a life’s progress that only makes sense as bravura media psychodramatics; her reduction of Mailer’s ideas into neat, accessible little formulas, about cancer, totalitarianism, etc., also misses the point. Mailer doesn’t use his obsessive personal craziness to feed his intellect, but puts his intellect, like everything else, in the service of obsessive personal craziness.

But Mills isn’t just writing an extended magazine profile; her book also reflects the attitudes of the literary establishment at its most highbrow. On both levels, Mills’s book is an attempt to rationalize Mailer — which for the masses means laying out his career with Connect-the-Dots simplicity, and for the literary mavens means categorizing, exp­laining, and filing away his literary output by the usual received literary methods. But such explications, good or bad, don’t really work with Mailer, because you have to read his books for him. One quality he shares with a number of great writers is that he is forever outside of literature. This is why the people who run writing in this country like him only when they have to: the books that work as crucibles of embattled sensibility violate their notion of the way books ought to behave, while Mailer’s career traduces their idea of how to understand writers’ lives — as a polite and regulated trajectory that Mailer himself once described as “They are born with a great talent, they exercise it, and they die.” Of course, this mindset exemplifies the timidity that has kept the American literary establishment secluded from the swarm of American life Mailer so insistently plunges into. To understand Mailer you need a pop sensibility that responds to the rules he plays by — and accepts the game itself as valid.

Well, to work.

It’s a dirty job, but some people really love it, you know?

Obviously, a poetic view of Mailer doesn’t have to mean a rapturous one; many people find him valuable precisely for being such a perfect symbolic embodiment of everything they can’t stand. For those of us in the far trench, though, “rapturous” is ex­actly the right word. At 13, watching my parents visit some friends of theirs, I came on Advertisements for Myself amid the alien shelves. Reading that startling opening soliloquy, near-Marlovian in its cumulative rhythm — “Like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I be­gan” — I knew this was the first book I was ever going to steal from anybody. I had never run into writing that threw its character into my face so directly; right then, books stop­ped being a scoundrel’s last refuge and be­came, instead, a means of hacking one’s way through the world. The impact had next to nothing to do with content — it was like get­ting off on the beat first, and sitting down with the lyric sheet later.

Of course, by the time people my age started reading, Mailer had already arrived. In 1963, The Presidential Papers defined the existential hero as “a consecutive set of brave and witty self-creations”; six years later, he was tossing off self-creations faster than alimony payments. The late ’60s saw Mailer at his most dramatically fulfilled — ­his prismatic sensibility gave new curves to every light that entered. In fact, I was sur­prised to find out later on that he hadn’t always been thought of as such a bellwether; conversely, his intermittent ups and more frequent downs since the ’60s have always taken that status for granted.

It may help to take the definition of the hero above, and replace the word “existen­tial” with “media-age” — or “pop.” This may be the key, in fact, to understanding Mailer’s version of existentialism. To Mailer, any event whose end is unforeseen is “existential.” By his own admission, that description could apply to a trip to the dentist. But add the modern media fishbowl to that “existen­tial” sense of events, modify that definition of the “existential” hero with the media notion of the hero as pure public image — in short, remember that trips to the dentist don’t get shown on prime-time TV — and boom. In other words, the Mailer hero, whether it’s himself, Jack Kennedy, or Stephen Rojack, makes sense only as a cele­brity, and his philosophy makes sense only within the media arena. Mailer has said that what “thrust” existentialism on him was his coming to grips with his own fame, Q.E.D.

One virtue of Mills’s work is that she supplies enough graph-points of narrative to chart Mailer’s path whole, instead of being dazzled/appalled by whichever episode is currently in style. What we see — although she doesn’t seem to — is that Mailer’s rela­tion to his own pop celebrity provides the continuity in his life. The most intriguing parts of Mills’s book reveal unlike Nor­man Mailer Mailer was at the start, and how many “uncharacteristic” veins of timidity, conventionality, and plain wrong guesses marble each successive slice of attempted rebellion before they cohere, almost despite themselves, into transformations. There’s plenty here for any debunker, but only a thoroughly smug and scared age sees all attempts to be larger than one is as quackery. To grab center stage first, and count on luck, talent, and wit to measure up later, is as basic to a media-age protagonist’s self-creation as losing the sled was to Citizen Kane’s.

In ’48 Mailer bounced in with The Naked and the Dead only to find that, as John Updike remarked, the party was already breaking up. Thank God. If his youth hadn’t kept him from vested interest in a version of literary success outmoded by World War II, he’d be Herman Wouk by now. For my money, Naked is his worst book — because it’s the only one that somebody else could have written. But what bad timing. The previous generation’s literary rebellion had been co-opted into respectability by the time young Norman developed a yen to emulate it at Harvard, the “New Criticism” was handily covering up the passing of the critical baton to the academics, and for the first time in the century writers were ex­pected to be society’s boosters and not its natural enemies. On top of that Mailer’s private psychological disorientation — fa­mous at 25; call the sanatorium — was oper­ating as a heating coil on his public ideology. Cut off from the safe norms of Brooklyn, Harvard, and earnest-young-writer, he lunged toward whatever could locate him, and became, as Mills paraphrases Norman Podhoretz, the only American liberal whose response to the cold war was to embrace revolutionary socialism. Hence Barbary Shore, in which political commitment and neurotic psychological dislocation engage in a frantic chase to turn the other into a mirror — probably the strangest, loneliest, and most tortured novel published in Amer­ica since Pierre.

What follows over the next several years are the flailings of a mind determined to have an impact on its time, and finding no new fissures in the time’s huge blandness. Mailer had always wanted to be larger than life (see The Naked and the Dead’s trans­parent Great War Novel ambitions), but had a hard time accepting that society offered no polite way of doing so (ambitious or not, a man doesn’t get disillusioned easily with a system that lets a Brooklyn boy discover literature at Harvard). Mailer, to a degree surprising in a figure who appears so self-sufficient, seems to have yearned, then and maybe later, for the cosseting safety of being part of a group. His attraction to socialism may well have rested in part on its being the institutionalized way to rebel. How else to explain the attempts, which Mills recounts, to gather a Village salon around himself after Barbary Shore? Or his plummy satis­faction in finding the ’60s a time so Maileresque that he could comfortably criticize its excesses? Or for that matter the sycophantic retinues he’s surrounded him­self with for 20 years? The worst crisis he faced in the early ’50s was the realization that he was going to have to go it alone — his eventual strategy was to convert necessity into opportunity.

For a biographer, 1951–55 is the crucial period of Mailer’s career. He goes in at one end as (to enlarge the context of his own description in Advertisements) “a cornered rat,” and comes out the other as a recog­nizable Norman Mailer, first working model of “existential” world-view firmly gripped in fist, ego tilted combatively over one eye. This is also where Mills not only skips peb­bles across the surface of her subject as usual, but (through no real fault of her own) skimps on the biographer’s basic job. We know, in outline, that Mailer’s alchemy had something to do with sexual experimentation, “galloping” self-analysis, and drugs, but the specifics of who, when, and what happened necessary to a full understanding of the process and the results are private, which they ought to be, and so Mills’s revel­atory moment doesn’t, can’t, exist — she can only repeat Mailer’s own cautious gener­alities about it.

The record we do have is metaphorical­ — in the running battles of the developing Mailer prose style. After writing one book in “no style, best-seller style” (his words), and another whose overheated, near-hallu­cinatory raw material had incinerated its own genteel literary aspirations, he was fi­nally beginning to learn from Hemingway’s genius (where before, like thousands of others, he had only tried to ape Heming­way’s mannerisms). For Mailer at this time the most important lesson of the master was that the style, like it or not, really is the man, and if one’s manhood — neither of them would de-genderize that word into self-­hood — is seen as a search and not a possession, then every risky adjective becomes the equivalent of coming on to a policeman’s wife. Mailer’s style, even now, listens to itself; it’s constantly alert to its own poten­tial nuances.

Of course, both men’s sense of the quest as an exclusively masculine domain can make much of it sound distasteful now. I’d argue that at least part of the problem is terminology — if the words for risk-taking self-fulfillment have been largely male-ori­ented up to now, do you ditch the value, or change the words? — and that, in the Eisenhower ’50s, when most men were, symbolically, as much repressed housewives as their partners, the value of the stance outweighed its dubious aspects. But even so, enough of it was more than terminology, and remained part of Mailer’s thinking, to get him into trouble later on.

At any rate Mailer had to plough through a thicket of bad writing — by turns clunkily earnest and facelessly hacklike, full of re­ceived political jargon, before he began to find his own voice (and subject, and world­view, and everything else that grew out of the voice). He may defend the famous revision of The Deer Park, all elegance dumped in favor of a one-three offbeat, in terms of not wanting to imprison Sergius O’Shaugnessy’s character. But the real jailbreak was his. The first version of the novel was about a tough, cocky young parvenu who told his own story — in a gen­teel voice that reflected Mailer’s lingering aspirations to literary respectability. Preserving that style would have made everything he was trying to grow into im­permissible etiquette. So O’Shaugnessy’s voice lost its manners, becoming colloquial, rough, and fliply tough-minded enough to make Papa himself proud. The new voice isn’t always convincing for Sergius either, but as Mailer discovering his own style by bashing in his bridges under him, it’s com­pletely believable. Literarily, the book is his crossroads; playing by the rules of the conven­tional novel, it reveals a growing sense of fiction, and maybe of all writing, as a set of useful masks and devices for the expression of pure public persona. Which may help explain why it’s also The Great Lost Mailer Book. Mailer’s detractors point to its dual nature as proof of his failure as a novelist; his admirers, who don’t care about such things, put it down in order to boost An American Dream, which brings the earlier book’s tentative authorial persona brazenly front and center.

The Deer Park, with its quasihipster hero, also obliquely marked Mailer’s entry into the Beat movement. The subculture had already been around — old Beats would insist that the life of On the Road was dead a decade before the book came out. But Mailer’s relation to such phenomena is that of a surfer to the wave — he catches it just as it begins to curl into mass consciousness. Even Mailer’s wildest ideas are idiosyncratic refractions of some presence becoming man­ifest in the great collective con. This is not necessarily calculated: in his relation to the culture, Mailer is a born counterpuncher, and the first quiver of an oncoming trend out there triggers his pop instinct. The same instinct instantaneously redefines the trend in terms of his own sensibility. But he has next to no use for fringes, at least when they stay that way. For Mailer, there are no he­roes in basements; for better and worse it’s one of the most American things about him.

Hip worked for Mailer two ways: as an intellectual framework it abetted his self­-excavation more than socialism or Studs Lonigan; as a public posture it allowed him to make raids on the national awareness with the illusion of armies behind him. And crucially, since the Beats used pop artifacts as ideological referents and pop mass communication as their playground, Mailer was also learning new, nonliterary and nonintel­lectual ways of marshaling his ideas and putting them across. When, in Advertise­ments, he does his existential-semiotics delineation of the philosophical merits of T­-formation over single wing, you feel his al­most palpable exhilaration at realizing that something as unliterary and universal as football can fit into his sensibility. But as usual — starting with his immediate substitution of “Hip” for “Beat” — Mailer’s involvement with the Beats rested much more on its temporal value to him than on ideological solidarity. “The White Negro” is a brilliant analysis, but it’s so much Mailer’s version of what Mailer wishes the Beat movement were like (him) that its con­siderable merits hardly have anything to do with the movement’s actuality. He must have realized the alliance’s drawbacks when Capote capped their talk-show argument about Kerouac with that’s-not-writing-only-­typing: to be punctured like that when you’re not even talking about you, but about another writer you don’t even like, out of revolutionary camaraderie — well, you start thinking that the only movements worth belonging to are the ones you start yourself.

So even though Advertisements’ hun­dred-and-one topics are formally justified as a preview brochure for oncoming Hip, that’s just window-dressing for a personality on the verge of not needing any wrapping larger than its own skin. What does connect all those subjects, and give them meaning, is Mailer’s continuing story of his experience as a postwar American writer/culture hero/Jeremiah in the wilderness, and the fact that he perceives such ego display as intrinsic to his attack on ’50s America. The style has also come into its own. A man who goes out to the limits of experience may come back with a richer sense of the limits than of the experience — what the orgy ultimately gave Mailer, it seems, was a sense of irony. Now a new balance came into play, which in­tensified the game’s stakes instead of vitiat­ing them — unlike those academic contem­poraries for whom irony was a means to shrink life until it could comfortably fit their desk tops, Mailer, like Stendhal, used its zigzags to get further and say more than a straight man could.

Of course this formula makes neat a tran­sition whose reality was chaotic. Mailer’s sense of the edge still remained too in­fatuated to be unerringly accurate; “The Time of Her Time” is a comic masterpiece of sexual knowingness (and capping a book like Advertisements with a story in which every intellectual assumption of the ’50s is quite literally buggered is an act of wonderful pop mindfuck). But another piece in Advertise­ments, the “Prologue” to the same novel that “Time of Her Time” was to be part of, smothers insights in rhetorical adolescent posturing. And parting with his hipster-­phase hope for a sexual and social revolution that would start tomorrow morning (Mailer was the only one who thought a sexual revolution ought to include a Reign of Terror) wasn’t easy. Along with new confidence, there was plenty of dreck, fear, personal confusion, and an overwhelming sense of lost possibilities, all of which seem to have come to a head in the ugly episode of his near-fatal stabbing of his wife in 1960. To analyze something like this in purely literary terms might seem unseemly but if the man himself can have both the intellectual honesty and the outrageous insensitivity to say, “After that, I felt better,” surely a mere writer of wrappings for dead fish can point out that the aftermath of the stabbing coincides with Mailer’s shift, as a writer, from radical confrontation to gadfly opposition.

For which the Kennedys supplied the perfect occasion. Mirroring his cold war embrace of socialism, but this time on purpose, Mailer reacted to the institutionalization of liberalism by nurturing the conservative ele­ments in his thought. That his radicalism now flourished at precisely those points where the Administration stayed conserva­tive also suggests that he was charting his course in dialectical response to American culture, expanding his own persona into a pop symbol more pointedly and confidently than ever before. But his playing the vision­ary clown in Camelot depended on an animal awareness in both camps that their turfs overlapped — if Jack and Jackie hadn’t been so sexually interesting, on the ’50s rebound, Mailer might never have jumped ship from Hip to history. Kennedy believed that the president’s role as a nation’s mirror had more effect than his actual policy; Mailer believed that the artist’s role as the antenna of the race had more artistic value than just writing books. They were made for each other.

The ’60s, the era that literature (or any­way “literature”) fumbled, will stand in­stead as Mailer’s decade. After struggling for a dozen years to flesh out the notion that existence is not only a war but a just war, that every event is a crossroads of choice between cheating life and intensifying it, and that the self is best defined as a kinetic relation to experience rather than a static bastion, Mailer found American culture coming into a parallel alignment with the same principle. The ’60s, after all, were one of the rare periods when the buried symbol­ism of American life upset the platitudes and practicalities that usually act to stifle it. Mailer did not in the least stop being a gadfly and outrageous eccentric — what he did was go from being an amateur to being a professional, because the times had changed a step behind his changes and now the ’60s were ready to install such a man as a seer. Suddenly, nothing in the culture seemed alien to Mailer’s sensibility. His lonely grap­pling with the paradox of being a literary outlaw — in society for his celebrity, exiled from it for his stance — had also, unwittingly, given him the key to the pop consciousness that was now (in the one decade in which pop culture became culture pure and simple, and almost politics pure and simple) uniquely apt. Laid end to end, The Presi­dential Papers, An American Dream, Can­nibals and Christians, Armies of the Night, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago add up to a single sustained chain reaction without any real parallel in our culture, unless it’s Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde, and John Wesley Har­ding. (To shift the analogy, but not by much: Why Are We in Vietnam? is Ringo.)

If Nabokov’s faith was that one individ­ual’s spirit could supersede and dismiss the whole machine of history — to him wit and playfulness were a desperately serious transcendence of evil — Mailer, altogether Amer­ican, sought to perform the same alchemy not by transcending the machine but by going to the mat with it, on its terms but also as its equal. If the battle royal for the Ameri­can Soul was being fought out on the top 40 and the evening news, then Mailer was going to be the news and top 40 all to himself. The best line in Mills’s book comes during her description of the march on the Pentagon that inspired The Armies of the Night: “By moving from the drunken, obscene-talking revolutionary provocateur of Thursday night to the man of action stepping boldly across the police line on Saturday to the humble lover of Christ on Sunday, Mailer had managed to encompass the spectrum of American sensibility within himself.” That isn’t literally true, as Mills no doubt knows, but it is exactly what reading Armies, or its fellows, makes you feel.

In the long run, this was a quixotic gamble, and even at the time many of its manifestations were simply foolish. But then nothing appeals to Mailer unless it holds out the chance of chivalry — and one thing we always risk forgetting about the ’60s is that for a good many people the decade offered a baby-boom lifetime’s only chance to feel romantic, or heroic. Few ob­servers had as many suspicions of the Chi­cago demonstrators’ style, assumptions, and ability to relate intent to result as Mailer; he thought much of their stance was posturing, and their antics counterproductive. But in­stead of dismissing them for that, he em­braced them — in that wonderful, absurd moment in Miami and the Siege of Chicago when he sees himself, at long last, as general of a countercultural army. How could he not? The whole guerrilla theater of the ’60s might be said to have begun on the night in 1960 that Mailer waved at a Provincetown police car, and called out: “Taxi!” The Yip­pies’ intuition that the real event of Chicago wasn’t what actually happened there but the media version of what happened, and their theatrical restaging of reality to make subversive use of that fact, was like a vastly expanded and streamlined version of what Mailer had begun reaching for, as the only viable personal style, years before. And since they were doing all this while engaging in a week-long running battle with the Chi­cago police, Mailer saw even their worst miscalculations as brave — which, for him, outweighed everything else.

Of course, many reasonable people would, and did, dislike that standard. As a yardstick it’s risky, and it also mucks up the issues. But Mailer has never had much use for issues in that sense. In his view, America is the least ideological country in the world — the founding fathers were being good post-Enlightenment types in borrowing from Locke, but they showed their real Americanness by finding Locke romantic. The country’s real (which is to say submerged) politics are cultural, symbolic, and primally intuitive, and what propelled them to the forefront in the ’60s was the McLuhanized conception of media-filtered public image as the real nexus of events. (We know, for instance, that most New Left radi­cals had little use for hippies, and that the New Left itself was a spectrum of factions — but to most of America at the time, it was all one big happy counterculture, and had more impact for being misapprehended that way.) In America, poetic truths have real-life con­sequences, and Mailer is one of the few American intellectuals to perceive this fact as both fundamental and fundamentally good. Certainly he’s the only one who has set out to turn himself into one of those poetic truths.

But it’s pretty much inevitable that if you play the one-man zeitgeist of the ’60s, you’re going to flounder in the ’70s. Mailer started the new decade with The Prisoner of Sex, promptly blowing the counterculture cachet he’d spent the last one accumulating. Of course, if you remember where the coun­terculture ended up, getting out in 1970 starts looking like a good idea. But in fact, a large part of Mailer’s inner motive seems to be suppressed panic at the realization that he, Norman, the writer who knows more about alienation than anyone in America, has somehow managed to omit the single largest alienated segment of the country’s population. As it works out, Prisoner‘s ac­tual argument isn’t Mailer versus the feminists so much as romanticism versus totalitarianism. If you read the book care­fully (I can hear the rustle of all of you rushing off to your libraries), it’s obvious that Mailer doesn’t think he is opposing women’s liberation per se — what he argues against, typically, is its style, its refusal to envision liberation in the individualist, ro­manticized terms that, well, he imagines he would have cast it in, had he been born a woman. The truth is that he thought The Prisoner was an admission of defeat; what’s funny is that the form his surrender took was, unavoidably, gentlemanly — with a drunk’s courtly bonhomie he was figur­atively holding the door open for women all over again, and they, having seen that be­fore, strung up the doorman.

But the more serious problem with The Prisoner of Sex (and most of the rest of Mailer’s ’70s work) lay in Mailer’s own post­-’60s status. The Heisenberg principle of re­bellion is that it’s automatically vitiated if the authorities permit it; “always the challenger, never the champion,” as Brock Brower put it. Mailer’s sensibility was al­tered by altered circumstances. (The come­back to this, of course, is that turnabout is fair play; instead of his using the circum­stances, they used him.) The self-absorption of his work had always been justifiable as the strategy of an outsider with no other re­sources but himself to fight with — now, fa­mous, fifty, and flush, he could hardly be seen as a challenger to anything by anybody. And the creative use he had made of his celebrity, using it to express his own dis­sidence and alienation, no longer stood out against an establishment that had as­similated such guerrilla tactics (as indeed they had co-opted much of the countercul­ture) and reduced them to wacky, bad-boy fun. When the Bernsteins have the Black Panthers over to dinner, how much ruckus can a middle-aged Jewish novelist be expected to make? For a combative tempera­ment, the ’70s were a pillow fight with wet pillows. America had become a nation of hip hobbyists, and if being a zeitgeist was your particular bit, well, that was nice.

Having more or less achieved his desire to be a pop lightning-rod to the country, only to discover after he had erected himself and plugged in that there was no more lightning, Mailer began writing, a little wistfully, about other American icons, to get that pop magic secondhand. But Marilyn Monroe, once archetypal, had by then dwindled to the coffee-table status that Marilyn only con­firmed; when Mailer finally got around to a book on Muhammad Ali, Ali had lost his grip on the national subconscious and become as empty as any other conventional politician. Well might Norman, seeing how the ’70s cult of celebrity had sapped celebrity of its totemic power, have sighed with Picasso that you do it first, and then somebody else does it pretty.

It took Gary Gilmore to make celebrity dangerous again. Betcha as a novelist he’d have been better than Genet — no one has ever articulated the con’s inversion of soci­ety’s moral scheme more forcefully, or used his Warholian 15 minutes to such disrup­tively threatening effect. No need here to write another blurb for The Executioner’s Song — you see, reader, we are now heaving within landfall of a media-age attention span — but I ought to point out that Mailer could write about Gilmore without (for the first time in 20 years) invoking Mailer be­cause Gilmore was so much the activist ver­sion of Mailer’s sensibility. (Which is not the same thing as saying that writing about the meaning of violence is the coward’s way of indulging in it. The two men’s world views had some remarkable affinities; certainly they both had a dramatic intuition of the uses of fame in enhancing and expressing those world views; but that’s as far as it goes.) And Gilmore’s world — haunted and matter-of-fact, dull and yet teeming with karmic mysteries — was the everyday man­ifestation of a country that Mailer had previously only inferred as a subconscious vision. It may have been Utah, but to Nor­man it must have seemed like Brigadoon. The Executioner’s Song is Mailer’s last book written in collaboration with America, and it connects on an even more mutual and accessible level than before, because instead of telling the country what it might secretly be, he’s simply telling it what it is.

One of those coincidences that could make anyone believe in synchronicity is that Gilmore’s moment of fame came within weeks of the Sex Pistols’ first single. I can remember, in college, reading Gilmore’s death-row Playboy interview while the Ramones’s first album played on the stereo; the murderer’s confession, spliced into the usual T&A, and the joyous blast coming from the speakers, felt like the negative and the positive of the same risky, disturbing new wind. To someone who thinks the punk movement was the single most worthwhile cultural event of the late ’70s, it’s no great leap to call The Executioner’s Song Mailer’s punk book, and see it as his finger’s return to the cultural pulse. But if part of punk’s ethos was energizing and conflating cultural negatives into positives, and part of its method, as Greil Marcus suggested, was to leap from the smallest personal experience to the widest social conclusions, then the parallel extends to Mailer’s career; and his sense of pop culture as an arena, the place where rebellion and acceptance, celebrity and subversion, come together in such a way that one man’s work can make an enormous difference, is directly analogous to rock and roll. I bring this up not just for the personal pleasure of introducing my tastes to each other (even though any taste worth its salt almost demands such continuity), but to make the point that Mailer’s inhabiting Elvis Presley’s frame of reference rather than John Barth’s does make him a better writer, precisely because it makes being a writer more valuable: it’s a recontextualiza­tion of literature that makes literature feel crucial again, while most other American writing since Faulkner has made it more ephemeral.

The more you look at what used to be called Mailer’s self-advertisements and gen­eral imposition of himself on American life (when, people implied, he ought to be home hard at work), the more it seems not only intrinsic to a revolutionary notion of a writer’s role in his culture (I mean, this is the real postmodernism), but in some ways his greatest accomplishment. Mailer turned on end the debilitating self-awareness brought into modem life by everything from psy­choanalysis to television by subsuming it in a flamboyant new romantic self-conscious­ness. He used his own media-age modernity to open up the subconscious currents of American culture as showily as Orson Welles opened up movie tricks in Citizen Kane, and to much the same effect. Enormous amounts of expressive material were recast in newly knowing terms, then treated as jumping-off points for new explorations, instead of op­pressive dead ends crossbreeding entropy in the data banks. Mailer treated the cultural and historical givens of the age, which tend to reduce all its events to triviality, as mate­rial to be encompassed and dominated by his own sensibility. The result may succeed or fail; the gesture is a transvaluation that speaks volumes.

In that sense, Mailer’s job is probably done. I’m sure I’m not the only one who, whenever the forthcoming Ancient Eve­nings (announced for this spring) is men­tioned, thinks apprehensively of Faulkner’s A Fable. But even so, it’s the last, the perfect Mailer joke that after nearly 30 years of being our great media showman, our only literary pop star, he really is bringing out the “big book” he promised, just like Joyce and Proust, the book no one thought he would actually get around to writing. Inevitably, though, that pretty picture is defaced by the handful of shit lobbed into its center. The Abbott case served painfully to remind that when Mailer talks about taking chances, he’s not being rhetorical; it also served to remind that, in many ways, his gorgeous roman­ticism can be excruciatingly naive, wrong-headed, and simply foolish, and can have ugly consequences. It was an episode bound to bring out all our contradictory feelings about what Mailer represents — quixotic nobility in the midst of hideous error, the battle for culture fought out in the midst of a media circus, admiration and rage going hand-in-hand down the primrose path to hell.

Which is how the story has run all along. By that gauge, Ancient Evenings rightfully ought to confound everyone and be the best book Mailer’s ever written — good enough, even, for the critics to attack it, instead of bringing out the nostrums and encomiums they’ve already prepared. But that prospect makes life too difficult. It’s infinitely easier to wrap things up like this: look, that old man is turning 60 this month, and he’s publishing a 1000-page novel about ancient Egypt; and say happy birthday, pop, in spite of everything; because the fact of the matter is that I never really did get over reading Advertisements for Myself when I was 13. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2020

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