Sound and Fury

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

Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times and Norman Mailer stood talking at Carl Bernstein's 50th birthday party. It was Valentine's Day, 1994. The room in Bernstein's apartment in the meatpacking district of Manhattan was illuminated with votive candles. They caused Mailer's backlit nimbus of wiry white hair to glow with an ecclesiastical radiance. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet in the boxer's way he had, a rhythmic motion meant to conjure menace, as if he wished to let you know that while he had one foot safely on the brake, the other was pressed on the accelerator, his motor that if he chose, he might release the brake and hurtle across the room and smash through the brick wall and cause God knows what mayhem in the world outside.

On the other hand, Mailer had aged (he was past 70), and when he paused to reflect on a point in the conversation, his belligerent, impatient rocking might grow benign, as if transformed into a kind of davening. "Menace" and "dread" and "doom" and "terror" and similar items out of the hipster and existentialist vocabulary of "The White Negro" from decades earlier remained stage effects he brought out from time to time. But mostly those had given way, in private, to the Prospero's twinkle. Surely his quest for the "apocalyptic orgasm" had been abandoned.

Rosenthal and Mailer were gladiators of old, independently famous for ferocity in the arena, Rosenthal as the off-with-their-heads autocrat editor of the Times, Mailer as the media's idea of the American writer as Tasmanian devil. They were brawlers emeritus now, two old pros; Mailer affected a banker's three-piece suit. Their talk was mellow and thoughtful (still more speculation about the Kennedy assassination—Mailer was just back from Moscow, where he had been researching a book on Lee Harvey Oswald).

Lesley Stahl of CBS News wandered over and listened for a moment, and asked Mailer if he had read a certain book that dealt with the subject.

Mailer's eyes kindled, and cut sidelong at Stahl. His mouth cut sidelong as well. He growled—it was actually a quick bark, one dog warning another to stay away from his dinner bowl—and said, "Stupidest f---ing book I ever read."

Stahl paled and said, softly, "My husband wrote it." (That was the journalist Aaron Latham.)

Half-second's pause. Mailer stared straight ahead, weighing whether to repent and apologize—his manners had improved; the everyday Mailer now was usually courteous and kind, in private anyway, which gave him one-sixth of the virtues in the Boy Scout Law. So his inner Boy Scout had a tussle with his nasty controversialist instincts. He considered, and then he fired off his decision, out of the corner of his mouth: "It's still the stupidest f---ing book I ever read."

He resumed rocking back and forth, his banker's vest all but bouncing off Abe Rosenthal.

Stahl (who declined to comment for this article) drifted away, a little stunned.

I tell the story, though I realize, sheepishly, that in recounting it, I am guilty here and there of the sincerest form of flattery, unconsciously adopting a bit of the manner and style of Mailer's own storytelling. That may happen when you write about a powerful writer; after reading and rereading his prose for a while, his resonances and rhythms get into your mind; the same effect may occur if writing about Hemingway or Nabokov. Whatever else Mailer may have been, his was a distinctive voice, and his excesses and peculiarities belonged to his time.

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.

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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