Writer as Fighter: Mailer and Us
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
Two years ago Norman Mailer came to Portland for a big book event portentously marketed as WordStock. Mailer had been battling his failing body for the last couple of years. He inched his way across the stage on crutches and lowered his frail bones down in a big chair. Then he launched into a white-hot excoriation of the Bush administration and the complicity of the Democrats. The mind was still as lethally sharp as ever.
After the talk, women huddled around him. One of them was my wife, Kimberly. I was in San Francisco that weekend, hawking my own books, and she was out flirting with Norman Mailer. Mailer told her they came from the “same tribe.”
Kimberly gushed to Mailer that she had read all of his novels, except for The Naked and the Dead, Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.
“But, darling,” Mailer said slyly. “Those are my best books!” Still a salesman even at 82.
Of course, Kimberly bought the most expensive collector’s copy of The Naked and the Dead. And that thick book squats in a position of honor on the bookshelf, its pages still unblemished by a single fingerprint.
For some reason, Kimberly told Mailer she was my wife. Mailer responded warmly about the vital service CounterPunch had performed during this dark decade. She said him she would gladly send him some of our books (anything to get them out of the garage). “No,” he interjected. “The last thing I need is more fucking books. Have Jeffrey send me the email edition of CounterPunch.” I did as I was told.
I met Mailer for the first time in 1978 in Indianapolis, where he was giving a reading before a thin and bland crowd. Somehow Mailer had offended his host, who had abandoned him after the event. I offered to take him to dinner (secretly hoping he would pay, which, of course, he did) and drive him to the airport for a late flight to Chicago. I was twenty then, and almost certainly not the type of company he may have been longing for that evening. If so, he didn’t let on. He was generous to young writers–generous to a fault, which is how he landed in so much trouble with Jack Henry Abbott.
Somehow we ended up in that architectural artifact of the Seventies, a fern bar. There was so much foliage creeping through the place that it could have been a scene from The Naked and the Dead. I was braced for Mailer to begin draining a vast amount of alcohol, fretted over whether I could keep up and still get him to the airport. Instead, he ordered a nice bottle of French wine, a vintage he said Jimmy Baldwin had recently recommended to him-a minor miracle that such a wine was available in an Indianapolis fern bar. We eased into a relaxed conversation about music, movies and Muhammad Ali, who I had just met a few days earlier in an elevator at the Hyatt-Regency.
At some point, I told Mailer that I was working feverishly on a novel. “Imagine An American Dream, set in a cow town like Indianapolis,” I said.
He laughed loudly.
“Novel?” he said. “Hell, don’t you know the novel is dead? Give it up, Jeffrey. Go write a screenplay or a book about The Clash. Just get out there and mix it up.”
This advice was coming from a man who hadn’t written a novel in ten years. Of course, in the next decade he would publish three big ones, The Executioner’s Song, Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.
I met Mailer again six months later at Blues Alley, a jazz club in Washington, D.C., where I was bussing tables trying to pay my way through college. Mailer was there to hear the great saxophone player Dexter Gordon, who was then making a radiant American comeback after a decade of exile in Paris. Although Mailer wasn’t sitting at my table, he recognized me, called me over between sets and introduced me to the most beautiful woman in a room of beautiful women. I don’t remember her name, but she looked a lot like the woman who would soon become his wife, Norris Church.
“How’s that novel coming, Jeffrey?” Mailer inquired to my astonishment.
“But … ” I began, trying to explain that I had followed his advice and incinerated 500 pages of my juvenile novel about sex, death and black magic (none of which I knew much about at the time) in the crossroads of America.
“Oh, forget that all that crap. Just write, man. And do it every fucking day.”
Mailer lived his own advice in that regard. He wrote furiously against implacable deadlines, which in his case weren’t set by publishers and editors but came in the form of mercilessly scheduled alimony payments.
Some of those texts don’t stand up all that well: the Picasso biography reads like notations from an art history lecture at the MOMA, Tough Guys Don’t Dance a mediocre Ross McDonald novel, The Deer Park, his novel about Hollywood, should have been better, the Marilyn books are almost as pathetic as his long-running obsession with Jack Kennedy.
Still for fifty years Mailer stood at the top of the pile: The Naked and the Dead, Barbary Shore (a novel about official paranoia that is perhaps more relevant today than when it was published), An American Dream, Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Harlot’s Ghost. All better books than anything written by that favorite of the book critics Philip Roth. Only Vidal comes close to Mailer’s long-running achievement.
It’s hard to name a better novel written in the 1970s than The Executioner’s Song. Even Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow seems dwarfed by that sprawling portrait of Gary and Nicole Gilmore and the inexorable descent toward the firing squad in that spooky prison outside Provo. It’s a big book with an immediate voice: clear and chilling. Among other virtues, Mailer captures the strangeness and beauty of life in Utah better than any book since Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country.
At the news of his death, I found myself drawn to the oddities: Advertisements for Myself, Cannibals and Christians, The Faith of Graffiti and, most of all, Ancient Evenings. After a prolonged drought of fiction, in 1983, Mailer unloaded a 700 page novel set in the decadent Egypt of Ramses the Second. All the old obsessions are there: sex, war, violence, scatology, architecture, mysticism, power and the existential life of an individual poised against the imperial state. The prose is dark and elegant. I think of Ancient Evenings as something of a tweak to his old rival, Gore Vidal. You want a historical novel, Gore? Well, take a bite out of this.
Here’s a taste of Mailer at full-throttle from Miami and the Siege of Chicago. He’s writing about the origins of the Yippies and the entropy eating at the American soul:
So the Yippies came out of the Hippies, ex-Hippies, diggers, bikers, drop-outs from college, hipsters up from the South. They made a community of sorts, for their principles were simple-everybody, obviously, must be allowed to do (no way around the next three words) his own thing, provided he hurt no one doing it-they were yet to learn that society is built on many people hurting many people, it is just who does the hurting which is forever in dispute. They did not necessarily understand how much their simple presence hurt many good citizens in the secret valve of the heart-the Hippies and probably the Yippies did not recognize the depth of schizophrenia on which society is built. We call it hypocrisy, but it is schizophrenia, a modest ranch-house life with Draconian military adventures; a land of equal opportunity where a white culture sits upon a Black; a horizontal community of Christian love and a vertical hierarchy of churches-the cross was well designed! A land of family, a land of illicit heat; a politics of principle, a politics of property; nation of mental hygiene with movies and TV reminiscent of a mental pigpen; patriots with a detestation of obscenity who pollute their rivers; citizens with a detestation of government control who cannot bear any situation not controlled. The list must be endless, the comic profits are finally small-the society was able to stagger on like a 400-lb policeman walking uphill because living in such an unappreciated and obese state it did not at least have to explode into schizophrenia-life went on. Boys could go patiently to church and wait their turn to burn villages in Vietnam.
I don’t believe we will ever see writing with that kind of electricity again.
A few years back, Ishmael Reed titled one of his books, “Writin’ is Fightin’.” That phrase could also serve as a fine epitaph for Mailer, who slugged it out to the very end.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon, and Born Under a Bad Sky, which will be published in December. He can be reached at: email@example.com.