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Sound and Fury

Norman Mailer's anger and towering ego propelled-and undermined-his prodigious output

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I mention Bernstein's birthday party also because it drew together at least three elements of Norman Mailer's later universe, the period of his assumption into that media heaven where the snarling and tedious old bruiser becomes a "cultural icon" and his once irreconcilable hatreds and rages and controversies dissolve in the urbane opulence of Celebrity. The three interlocking elements gathered in Bernstein's apartment were, one, Big Journalism (the host himself and his old partner, Bob Woodward, Nixon-slayers long ago; Lesley Stahl, Abe Rosenthal, many others); two, Big History (Oswald, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate), and three, Big Chatter, the flashing Manhattan snickersnack (author Mailer briskly flicking his blade at the "stupidest f---ing book I ever read").

That line was a risky one for Mailer, of all people, to allow himself: whatever my admiration for the energies of his style in such books of reportage as The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, works that showcased his gifts as what might be called a magnificently observant Big Foot narcissist, I can think of a half-dozen of Mailer's other books on which, over the years, I have pronounced the same verdict that Mailer delivered at the birthday party ("the stupidest...").

In 1979, I was professionally compelled to read every word of the 1,056 pages of The Executioner's Song, about the life and, in 1977, death of Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. The volume was heavy, and I nearly dislocated my shoulder when I threw it across the room. It made a dent in the plaster. Still, it was an interesting piece of work, though somewhat contaminated by the fact that Mailer had assembled it from many hours of tape-recorded interviews with Gilmore by another man, Lawrence Schiller. Mailer couched the book in an aimlessly meandering American white trash plainstyle that was a departure from the extravagant metaphors and densely energetic (if sometimes sophomoric) metaphysics of other works. The plainstyle was praised as genius, but I suspect Mailer was simply being faithful to the flatness of the Schiller transcripts.

Now Mailer is dead. I have his literary legacy piled on the desk, a formidable massif—46 books, an impressive body of work. Mailer, for all of the drinking and fistfighting and marital disorder of his early and middle years (married six times, father of nine children), was a prolific, indefatigable writer (in part, of course, to pay alimony and child support). He kept at it to the last. Only ten months before his death he published the novel The Castle in the Forest, a creditable study of Hitler's childhood and the formation of evil.

Still, Mailer and a lot of his work are dated now—as dated as Doris Day (who came from the same time but a different planet). If Mailer is dated, what was his "period"? He had a number of them. Mailer had a gift for psychic mimicry, and he tried out different voices, different personas, at different times. In his ghastly book on Marilyn Monroe, whom he described in the very first paragraph as "our angel, the sweet angel of sex" (it gets much, much worse from there on), he quoted Virginia Woolf: "A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as one thousand."

Mailer's obituaries tended to settle for the nil nisi hokum note. With indignant exceptions, they were excessively and even unthinkingly generous. Mailer was "a giant of American letters." Compared to whom? The Executioner's Song was a "masterpiece." The obit writers were taken with the paradox of diminutive Mailer being a "giant"—thinking subliminally, I suppose, of strutty, puffing Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant"—and they unfailingly took note of the author's "giant ego." They used the phrase affectionately. The huge ego was presented as a virtue (in somewhat the way that the comedian Don Rickles, whose shtick is insult, is thought to be endearing).

I am not sure about the ego. On the evidence of his writing and of the gaudy hype that he managed to churn up around himself and his books, his ego was an unpleasant and a poisonous thing. Perhaps the ego—another of his paradoxes—was a facet of his mimicry: by impersonating his characters, his imperial ego would simultaneously ingest them.

His ego was first of all a reflection of his character as an American. Mailer unceasingly criticized America (the "cancer" of metaphysical Eisenhowerism, and Vietnam and so on), and yet in his own ways he embodied America's worst faults: self-indulgence, bullying, sense of entitlement, irrelevant belligerence, the obnoxious American self-importance that is a corrupted Emersonianism—Emerson without the sweetness, the calm, the brains, the transcendence. Mailer was a true American cosmic rube, as was that other fanatic, Captain Ahab. Mailer was a perfectly American loudmouth, braggart and blowhard. To all of this, he added a distinctly American profligacy (serial marriages, drug-taking, violence). Like America, Mailer in his own small, furious way emitted the sort of imperial-individualist energy that, among other things, disables humility (that great neglected virtue) and self-understanding and excites a certain wonder and loathing in the world.

In his recently published Journals, the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. remarked in an entry dated May 15, 1985: "It is interesting to see how much Norman fits into the American literary tradition—and how little aware he is of that tradition. He is what Tocqueville prophesied—'strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths and errors brilliant enough to rouse [the readers] up and then plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject....Style will frequently be fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, almost always vehement and bold...immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations....Man himself taken aloof from his country and his age and standing in the presence of Nature and of God.'" As with much else, Tocqueville had Mailer down avant la lettre.

In Mailer's work, one feels more in the presence of energy and virtuosity than of truth—another difference between Mailer and Emerson, or for that matter, between Mailer and Whitman. Except for some journalistic bull's-eyes in the reportage (riffs on politicians like Nixon and Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy), Mailer simply does not feel true. Reading some of his more strenuous cosmic exertions is a little like watching an actor onstage who picks up a suitcase that is supposedly full, but is, in fact, empty: the actor by body English tries to make the bag look heavy, as Mailer tries to make the sentences profound. But the audience knows.

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