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Sound and Fury

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

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That's a reason I do not think his work will last—do not believe that he will be much reread, as, say, Dickens or Tolstoy or Forster are reread. Too much untranscended ego. His enormous novels on the CIA (Harlot's Ghost) or on Gary Gilmore are impressive exercises in research and mimicry (which amounts to the egotist's presumption that he can appropriate another person's life and thoughts), but somehow the "giant ego" is a prison. His unreadable Ancient Evenings, starring pharaohs and mummies, is, in Thomas Hardy's phrase, "the deadest thing alive enough to have strength to die." Not for nothing (to use a Mailerism) did the author adopt Jack Henry Abbott, the literary convict who published a furious book titled In the Belly of the Beast. Mailer helped to get his mascot Abbott released from prison, and very soon thereafter Abbott murdered a restaurant waiter on New York's Lower East Side.

Something in Mailer identified with Abbott, with violence and murder, which he closely, gruesomely, associated with various acts of sex. As with Ezra Pound, one has the problem of critically and morally disentangling the author's behavior from his work. In November of 1960, Mailer repeatedly stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife. It happened at the end of an all-night drinking party. She was badly wounded in the abdomen and back but refused to press charges. (The stabbing was not as bad in its consequences as what William Burroughs did to his wife one night in 1951: Burroughs shot her dead in Mexico City in a drunken game of William Tell and the apple. One difference was that Mailer went at his wife as if he actually meant to kill her; Burroughs made an evil mistake while trying precisely not to shoot her.)

But all experience is material for the thrifty writer, and having stabbed his wife, Mailer went on to write the novel An American Dream, in which the hero, Rojack, in quick succession strangles his wife; walks downstairs to the bedroom of Ruta, the German maid, and buggers her interminably (she is, of course, grateful); and then throws his wife's corpse out the apartment window and into traffic on East River Drive some stories below. After murdering his wife, Rojack reports, "I was weary with a most honorable fatigue, and my flesh seemed new. I had not felt so nice since I was twelve." (Take a bow, Marquis de Sade.) In his notorious essay "The White Negro," from 1957, Mailer argued that "courage of a sort" was necessary when "two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums...beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper...for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property....The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown."

Mailer had a disagreeable fascination with foul smells—a metaphysical attraction to the mephitic. His books reek with loathsome stenches. His primary sense-resource as a writer was sight—his visual images are vivid and strong. But a strong (horribly strong) second was the sense-resource of smell. Mailer had a hound's nose that picked up every rotten trace and extracted from each stench some new sophomoric wallow of debasement. Here's the narrator of Harlot's Ghost: "I was chilled in my mind, chilled in my heart, and not without the beginnings of some lively [homosexual] disturbance below [that is, in the groin]. The nearness of sex to urine and feces seemed a monstrosity, as if some mongoloid of the Devil had been there at the Creation dictating nether anatomy. The smell of drains, prevalent in these nocturnal Berlin streets, was in my nose." Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement. Oh dear, oh dear.

The French novelist Paul Bourget sent one of his books to Henry James; James read it and wrote to Bourget: "In a word, all this is far from being life as I feel it, as I see it, as I know it, as I wish to know it." Prissy, of course. But what was prissy to the hip may become as it were a new context. In the world that is coming—we see it already, bringing with it soberingly inescapable global absolutes—an entirely different set of virtues and interests will come into play, and in that new perspective, the works of Norman Mailer will seem, I would guess, an almost total irrelevance.

Mailer spent too much time in incoherent but grandiloquent flirtations with absolutes that he was unequipped to handle. For 60 years he banged about the stage as Glendower: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep!"

But they never came when he called them. Not once.

Lance Morrow's most recent book is Second Drafts of History. He is now working on a biography of Henry Luce.

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