MARCH 4, 2017
FROM THE VERY BEGINNING of his career, Norman Mailer was captivated by the idea of violence and crime, and particularly by the dividing line between the criminal and the civil. You could say his approach to the topic constitutes the through-line running from his earliest works — like his breakthrough story, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” about a young man who escapes a beating after fleecing a group of thugs at pool — to his last.
Even Mailer’s “novel biography” of Marilyn Monroe remakes the movie star into a murder accomplice in some of its fictional passages, artificially implanting in her an impulse to violence. “There was something in me that didn’t show itself to others,” Mailer has Monroe confess in a fictionalized inner dialogue. “Like: I’m ready to commit murder.”
It was a crime that took place a year after Mailer’s birth in 1923, a murder so sensational it transfixed the United States and transformed the literary genre of true crime in American culture, which may have had the greatest influence on Mailer’s ideas on the topic, both in its real and literary manifestations.
In 1924, two affluent University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Albert Loeb, motivated by a pseudo-Nietzschean belief in themselves as Übermenschen, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old called Bobby Franks. Never before had the country been confronted with a crime as heinous as the murder of a child, motivated not by material gain, political ideology, poverty, or passion, but by a perverse act of the will.
The trial that followed was billed as the “Trial of the Century” (as were two other high-profile trials of that period, one of them being that of Sacco and Vanzetti). Both Leopold and Loeb received life sentences. In 1956, author and journalist Meyer Levin turned the story of Leopold and Loeb into a novel, Compulsion, which was rereleased in 2015 by Fig Tree Books with a foreword by Marcia Clark, a prosecutor from yet another American murder-focused “Trial of the Century.”
With Compulsion, Levin developed what he called a “docu-novel,” openly blending fact and fiction in order to explore the moral and psychological dimensions of a true crime, and in the process creating the literary antecedent to the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s, of which Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s own The Executioner’s Song are examples. Mailer would come to take something of a lifelong interest in Compulsion and its author, eventually listing Levin as one of four living writers deserving of the Nobel Prize (the other three were Nabokov, Henry Miller, and, of course, Norman Mailer). Thirty years after the book’s publication, Mailer backed a stage production adapted by Levin.
For Mailer, Compulsion’s marrying of a new novelistic form with sensational content constituted a “line,” as he would later write to Levin, of murder-centric American fiction that thread Dreiser’s An American Tragedy to Mailer’s own The Executioner’s Song. The book provided Mailer, then reeling from the disappointment of his two previous novels, with a model for using fiction not just to explore true crime in a completely new way but for smashing the boundaries that were limiting to his talents — and ambitions.
With his fourth novel, An American Dream (1965), the first he wrote after the publication of Compulsion, Mailer would invert the model Levin had presented. Rather than using fiction to explore the inner dimensions of true crime, Mailer would draw on his personal experience as a perpetrator of violence to explore the outer limits of his fiction.
An American Dream tells the story of a sexually and spiritually stymied former American congressman and talk-show host named Stephen Rojack who, one night, brutally slaps his estranged wife after she tauntingly admits she’d been unfaithful. Rojack’s wife, Deborah, fights back, trying to knee him in the groin and then attempting to “mangle” his “root.” Curiously, Deborah’s physical description closely matched that of Mailer’s third wife, Jeanne Campbell, whom Mailer married while writing the book.
Enraged, the former war hero Rojack strikes his wife on the back of the neck and slips her into a chokehold. As he chokes her, Rojack imagines he’s straining against an enormous door until an orgasm of violence
came bursting with rage from out of me and my mind exploded in a fireworks of rockets, stars, and hurtling embers, the arm about her neck leaped against the whisper I could still feel murmuring in her throat, and crack I choked her harder, and crack I choked her again, and crack I gave her payment — never halt now — and crack the door flew open and the wire tore in her throat.
Disposing of his wife’s body by pushing it out the window of their 10th-floor apartment, Rojack sets off on a spree of violence and sex that culminates in a roof-top confrontation with his deceased wife’s incestuous and sexually abusive father, who tries to push Rojack off the roof. Keeping with the absurdity that characterizes much of An American Dream, Deborah’s father abruptly changes his mind about his daughter’s murderer, telling him, “You’re not bad.”
Rojack then heads to Vegas where he wins enough money to pay off a debt, buy a car, and set off into the sunset on a road trip to Mexico, thus proving the thesis laid out at the beginning of the book: “Murder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual.”
Mailer wrote An American Dream three years after what is called the “stabbing” of his wife, Adele Morales. But with a stab wound piercing Morales’s pericardium — missing her heart by millimeters — and multiple wounds to her back, the attack can more accurately be described as attempted murder.
By the time of the attack on Morales and the book that followed, Mailer had been nurturing his views on violence for two decades, since his days as an undergrad at Harvard, where he took his first steps as a serious writer. “At [that] point, what became Mailer’s lifestyle was now breaking out around the edges, where he was doing shocking things or saying things that were far out of the ordinary,” says Harold Katz, the writer’s junior-year roommate at Harvard.
Katz had arrived at Harvard from Terre Haute, Indiana, and had become friendly with Mailer through the writer’s freshmen-year roommate, Martin Lubin. Quartered together at the country’s most elite college where, as Jews, they faced the same subtle prejudice and, as sons of working families, they were separated by a veritable chasm from Harvard’s entitled upper echelons, Mailer and Katz became close.
“We were poor boys among the rich boys whose fathers and grandfathers went to Harvard and Exeter and Andover,” Katz says. “We were taught in public schools, some adequate some not, and grew up in households that emptied the cookie jar to try pay for our education.”
As Mailer’s roommate during a pivotal time, and as someone who called Mailer a friend through subsequent decades, Katz not only came to know both halves of the famous Mailer dyad — the bright, iconoclastic Jewish boy from Brooklyn and the self-conscious, scandal-rousing literary entertainer — but is one of the very few people to watch firsthand as the one developed into the other.
Katz, today a 94-year-old bon vivant who effortlessly quotes Dickens from memory and has a passion for the food scene in and around Tel Aviv, close to where he lives, was approached over the years by a number Mailer biographers and scholars but had refused to give an interview without the writer’s consent, which was never sought or never granted. Now, feeling there’s no longer much risk to damaging Mailer’s reputation, he agreed.
“At the time, I wasn’t alarmed by his idiosyncrasies or I wouldn’t have agreed to be his roommate,” Katz recalls, laughing. “Because Norman always was — with all of his meshugas — he was a warm guy. And there are some aspects of him that made him sort of a loving guy. There was a sweetness about Norman when he wasn’t putting on an act.”
Katz remembers a typical incident involving Mailer. He was sitting in the Dunster House dining hall with Mailer and some other boys one day after getting a phone call from a Radcliffe girl who wanted to set up a date. Preoccupied with his studies, Katz had gently declined. When Mailer asked how the call had gone, Katz said he hadn’t been interested. In response, Mailer spurted, “What’s the matter? She got a wooden tit?”
Though the comment seems to be a clear, if minor, expression of the kind of casual misogyny for which Mailer would become notorious, in Katz’s mind it was motivated not so much by an animus toward women as by a persistent and almost overwhelming need to prove his freedom from the restraints of society. “Foul language loudly stated in the midst of unsuspecting people was another way of saying, ‘You guys are all uptight and I’m liberated, so let’s talk about the real world and go fuck yourselves, all you,’” Katz explains.
Raised as the son of an Orthodox rabbi who’d immigrated from Romania, Katz was in many ways precisely the antipode the young writer needed. While Katz worked as a waiter and struggled to buy kosher food on a full-ride scholarship (awarded to him by an accountant named Alex Vonnegut, who, in addition to being chair of the scholarship committee of the Harvard Club of Indiana, was also the uncle of a budding fiction writer called Kurt), Mailer was struggling to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior.
But it was this contrast that provided Mailer an opportunity to test out the shocking views and opinions that would become a hallmark of his persona. If an idea, act, or view bounced off Katz, Mailer would have been able to assume it had the power to offend any well-formed sense of decency.
One example in particular stands out for Katz. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1942, when Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub was engulfed in flames, killing almost 500 people. Authorities asked the relatives of the missing to come identify the remains of loved ones at temporary morgues around the city. Most of the bodies were burnt so badly they could only be identified by the personal effects found on them.
Passing himself off as a relative of one of the deceased, Mailer took the opportunity to sneak in and have a look around. “I said to Norman, ‘That’s outrageous. That’s an invasion of the most intimate moment a person has publicly. I remember the look on his face, he gave me a kind of a bland look, and I think he knew what I was getting at, he was baiting me in a way. He looked at me as if to say, ‘Why not? That’s experience. That’s human experience. Why not?’”
It was this core intuition to free himself from any kind of restraint — “A grandiose declaration of macho freedom,” in Katz’s words — that shaped Mailer’s understanding of himself and of his role as a writer, especially when it came to the topic of sex.
“There was a time,” Katz says, still registering dismay seven decades later, “that he had gotten me and [Mailer’s then girlfriend and soon-to-be first wife] Bea [Silverman] into a room, saying Bea was willing to have sex with me on the theory that I had to be introduced to sex, and it had to be done in the right way. And, magnanimously, Bea would consent to instruct me, and Norman would not be offended. And, indeed, I suspect even now that Norman wanted to stand around and observe.”
“In the first place, the whole thing is so insanely bizarre that it puts you off,” Katz continues. “You really see these people are crazy, and you don’t want to deal with them. All I remember is being closeted in this suite with Norman and Bea and getting the hell out of there. It was just so insane, so crazy, so ridiculous. But that was Norman. And that was no longer a surprise.”
That Mailer at age 18 believed he knew “the right way” to approach sex gives pause not on account of its naïveté but because it was an attitude he carried through the rest of his life and career. Mailer so rigorously asserted his views on sex — often followed by howls of outrage, as when he called contraception an “abomination” — that what might have otherwise come across as a sexual radicalism became a moralism of its own kind.
It’s this moralism, which we might call the Sexual Credo of Manly Action and Experience, that helps explain many of Mailer’s more bizarre outbursts, like ones he made at the infamous “Town Hall” debate in 1971 where, sweaty and defiant, he took on fellow panelists Germaine Greer (whom Mailer introduced as a “formidable lady writer”), Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling on the topic of feminism. Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Betty Friedan, and Elizabeth Hardwick quipped and challenged from the audience, with Ozick at one point asking what color ink Mailer dipped his testicles in. (The answer was “yellow.”)
In the heat of the debate, Mailer turned to the topic of murderous violence and the male will, answering an audience member’s question about biological determinism by saying:
When a man is sworn that he will not strike a woman, and the woman knows that and uses it and uses it. She comes to a point where she’s literally killing that man, because the amount of violence she’s aroused in him, it’s flooding his system and slowly killing him. So, she’s engaged to that point in an act of violence and murder even though no blows are exchanged.
Far from a spontaneous expression of his frustration with feminism, Mailer’s comments on male violence had evolved into one of the underpinnings of his philosophy. In 1957 (a year after the publication of Compulsion), Mailer laid the groundwork for these ideas in “The White Negro,” his heralded essay on American hipsterism, in which he argued that if a man “cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love, his being is frozen with implacable self-hatred for his cowardice.”
Reaching this state of love meant having to “replace a negative and empty fear with an outward action, even if — and here I obey the logic of the extreme psychopath — even if the fear is of himself, and the action is to murder.”
With “The White Negro,” Mailer laid out his ideas on murder as sexual liberation and as a pathway to love. But it was with An American Dream, published eight years later, that Mailer was able to give the idea of murder-as-freedom a perspective — and a voice.
Far from being rejected by the United States’s elite literary and cultural circles, these ideas were widely embraced. Joan Didion, in her review of An American Dream, called the book a nearly “perfect novel” and “perhaps the only serious New York novel since The Great Gatsby.”
The eminent critic Richard Poirier wrote that, with An American Dream, Mailer (in addition only to Robert Lowell) had “created the style of contemporary introspection, at once violent, educated and cool.” Poirier went on to argue that, looking back, people would later turn to the language of Mailer “to determine the shapes our consciousness has been taking.”
Diana Trilling took on the question of Mailer’s views on violence in an essay entitled “The Moral Radicalism of Norman Mailer.” Trilling cited an interview Mailer had given to, of all places, Mademoiselle magazine in which where he described a “hate-filled human” who, “grinding his boot into the face of someone, […] in the act of killing, in this terribly private moment,” experiences “a moment of tenderness, for the first time perhaps in all of his existence. What has happened is that the killer is becoming a little more possible, a little bit more ready to love someone.”
Though Trilling condemned this rationale for violence, to her it wasn’t representative so much of a moral radicalism, as her essay’s title suggests, but, as Mailer himself would argue, an antinomian return to a true morality that had been obscured by a tradition of falsehood.
“If we listen closely,” Trilling wrote,
we perhaps hear his insistence [on violence] as less the expression of personal authority than a call to a time when religion was still a masculine discipline — a call, that is, to a Hebraic world, still molded in the image of the stern father, Moses. From Moses to Marion Faye [a character in Mailer’s The Deer Park], with a stopover at Marx: Mailer’s religious route is surely a strange one. But the braver efforts of culture are not always straightaway and simple.
Despite all the praise, there was at least one powerful dissenting voice who saw in these ideas not a braver effort of culture but something uniquely and disturbingly dark. In her classic work of feminist theory, Sexual Politics, Kate Millett offered a devastating criticism of An American Dream by locating the blackness at the heart of the book.
“The humanist convictions which underlie Crime and Punishment (the original and still the greatest study in what it is like to commit murder), may all go by the board,” Millett wrote.
Both Dostoyevsky and Dreiser, in An American Tragedy, gradually created in their murderers an acceptance of responsibility for the violation of life which their actions constituted, and both transcend their crimes through atonement. Rojack has some singularity in being one of the first literary characters to get away with murder; he is surely the first hero as homicide to rejoice in his crime and never really lose his creator’s support. [Emphasis added.]
While Rojack may have been the first unrepentant “hero as homicide” to appear in American culture, he certainly was not to be the last. With the advent of Stephen Rojack a new kind of American cultural antihero began to emerge.
From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, he would be a single, explicitly white loner (a “white negro,” in Mailer’s terms) who seizes control of his own fate by committing an act of senseless violence, often murder. Stuck in an absurd routine and constrained by laws and ethics he sees as arbitrary, this loner adopts an introspective voice, “at once violent, educated and cool,” in order to place himself at the center of a story of epic retribution. As with Rojack (and perhaps his author), the ensuing bloodbath is an unleashing of the “true self” on a womanish society that for too long had kept it caged.
One of the many remarkable things about Norman Mailer was the skillfulness with which he was able to manipulate his own image. When he needed to don the cloak of madness, he could slip it on with relative ease. And when the image of a sober, serious thinker was called for he could simply shrug it off.
Years after Harvard, Harold Katz, then a leading Boston attorney fighting to advance civil rights alongside the city’s progressive mayor (and the mayor’s young chief of staff, Barney Frank), asked Mailer to come speak to a group of young politicians and lawyers active in Massachusetts politics. Mailer, who had just participated in the 1967 March on the Pentagon, agreed.
“He came and he spoke,” Katz says. “We had fun. But the thing about Norman was, by this time, he spoke — at least in public — in a kind of clipped English, as if he were trying to sound British and not Brooklyn. And it was a patently fraudulent accent, as if he were holding his lips and biting off his syllables. And it was sad, in a sense, because it wasn’t Norman. It wasn’t natural.”
“When he was having a conversation with you, he would instinctively start to bob and weave as if he was a boxer,” Katz says of Mailer at that time. “It was as if, in these moments, his literary efficacy failed him and so he communicated with body language what he couldn’t quite communicate with words. The bobbing and weaving was a way to supplement with body motion what he was really trying to say: Mailer is a macho guy.”
Asked if he ever boxed with Mailer or saw him in the ring, Katz, who boxed throughout high school and wrestled for Harvard, says no, not once. The reason was simple: “He was not a boxer.”
It was as if the writer of Mailer’s mind had to see, to do and to be everything to everyone. He was the Hemingway who boxed and boozed, the Henry Miller who scraped the mucky bottom of Paris, the Céline who chronicled the obscene futility of war, the Dos Passos who swung radically between political poles, and the T. S. Eliot who could effortlessly plumb the depths of poetry in a faux-English drawl.
But to be any of these things Mailer had to be more than them. He had to have not just great experiences, but also great experiences not had by those who’d come before him. He couldn’t just have brilliant ideas, but he had to have the kind of brilliant ideas no one had dared to espouse.
There’s both a beauty and a freedom in the kind of transgression that can be found in the lives and the work of the writers Mailer most admired, who flouted social norms in order to advance form or drive social progress. But with Mailer, transgression was largely an end in and of itself; the need to shock seemed to have shaped his views, which, on account of this, were frequently as regressive as they were repugnant.
It’s in this light that we can better understand Mailer’s fascination with, and elevation of, the murderer — and perhaps which explains much of his work, including the limitations that seem to have been almost artificially placed on a preternatural literary talent. It was neither the suspenseful action nor the moral confrontation that murder precipitates but the transcendence of the ego — the false ideal of the self made supreme above all things — which seemed to have motivated Mailer to embrace it.
“Mailer had this cloak of insanity; he had ambitions. He simply didn’t think any controls were justified,” Harold Katz says, noting that Mailer, the Jewish novelist who began his writing career as Auschwitz’s gas chambers were being filled but never used his pen to confront the horror of the Holocaust, chose Hitler, the ultimate murderer, as the subject of his last novel.
Looking back, it’s hard to appreciate the outsized and almost total role Mailer played in American culture at a defining time for this country. For more than 50 years, wherever there was a cultural moment brewing, Mailer could be found, usually at its center, often holding a lighted match. His words had the power to draw the direct attention of sitting presidents and his ideas formed the spearhead of a rising counterculture that thrust through the conformity of the postwar United States.
With his celebrity status, the brilliance and originality of his thinking, and his uncanny ability to stir controversy, what Mailer did, said, and — more than anything — what he wrote mattered. And though Mailer had the skill needed to juggle alternating images of misfit and moralizer, philosopher and freewheeler, writer, adventurer, journalistic pioneer and countercultural guerrilla, it’s possible that the ideas he hewed into American culture by the force of his personality and the brilliance of his writing were less fleeting.
It’s possible that, much as Mailer would have wanted — but in ways he could never have imagined — the effects of those ideas can still be felt today.
Ashley Rindsberg is a writer who lives in Tel Aviv. The author of a book of short stories, Rindsberg is currently completing his first novel.
The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.
—Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself(1959)
Men of great power and magnificent ambition, men who become Presidents or champions of the world, are, if one could look into their heads, men very much like Mailer.
—Richard Poirier, Norman Mailer(1972)
Despite the central importance of truth in his fictional ethic he had the characteristic intellectual’s belief that, in his own case, truth must be the willing servant of his ego.
—Paul Johnson, on Ernest Hemingway
In 1948, when he was only twenty-five, Mailer’s war novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published. In literary terms, The Naked and the Dead ranks somewhere below the war novels of Herman Wouk and James Jones. It is more pretentious, but less well-crafted, and its narrative develops less momentum. Its heavy-handed psychologizing and use of four-letter words were thought smart in 1948; most contemporary readers will find them quaint if not downright embarrassing. Nevertheless, The Naked and the Dead was an immediate and immense success. It catapulted its young author to an atmosphere of wealth, adulation, and celebrity from which he has yet to descend. Whatever else can be said about it, the reception of The Naked and the Dead is an object lesson in the perils—what it might please Norman Mailer to call the “existential” perils—of early success. Mailer himself has never recovered.
For readers who did not witness his elevation to the role of literary-political culture hero, it is difficult to appreciate the awe with which Norman Mailer was regarded by the literary and academic establishment from the 1950s through the 1970s. A typical paean is Diana Trilling’s convoluted 1962 essay “The Radical Moralism of Norman Mailer,” which concludes by comparing Mailer to the prophet Moses “with a stopover at Marx.” “His moral imagination,” Mrs. Trilling assured her readers, “is the imagination not of art but of theology, theology in action.” Which means … ? Very little, alas, though talk of “theology in action” (as distinct, perhaps, from “theology asleep”?) doubtless sparked interesting vibrations in susceptible souls. As Mailer more or less admitted in what is probably his best-known collection, Advertisements for Myself (1959)—a title that could be used again for his complete works—he was a sucker for mystification: “mate the absurd with the apocalyptic, and I was captive.”
there is no doubt that Mailer as a literary intellectual wished to assume the mantle of ’60s youth-illuminatus, at once existential prophet and pied piper. Accordingly, his career across the decade revealed a relentless, almost obsessive wish to be the voice of ’60s adversarial culture in its broadest sense: a voice uniting the radical intelligentsia and dissenting youth in a new project of revolutionary consciousness spilling over from bohemian lofts and campus enclaves into the streets of the nation at large.
The spectacular success of works like The Armies of the Night (1968)—Mailer’s bloated, quasi-fictional account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon and his own role in the demonstration—bore witness to his gifts for literary demagoguery. Subtitled History as a Novel, the Novel as History, the book deliberately blurred fact and fiction, a procedure gratefully seized upon by a public eager to sacrifice truth to the demands of ideological zeal. Indeed, it was a procedure that characterized the intellectual—or, more accurately, the anti-intellectual—temper of a generation battened on mind-altering drugs and taught to regard any appeal to facts as an unacceptably “authoritarian” gesture. Among anti-Vietnam War radicals—which is to say, among nine out of ten establishment intellectuals—Mailer’s exercise in narcissistic psycho-history was greeted with ecstatic hosannas, and duly picked up both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (Sample from the critic Richard Gilman: “Mailer has opened up new possibilities for the literary imagination and new room for us to breathe in the crush of actuality.” From Nat Hentoff: “Mailer has won clear claim to being the best writer in America.”)
In fact, like almost all of Mailer’s books, The Armies of the Night is almost preposterously badly written. It has often been observed that Mailer’s early literary heroes were Hemingway and John Dos Passos. But his own writing totally lacks Hemingway’s lapidary craftsmanship and Dos Passos’s cinematic control. When The Armies of the Night was serialized in Harper’s, to the great excitement of the editor, Willie Morris, a young copy editor complained about Mailer’s prose and, as one witness recollects, asked, “I wonder what he writes like when he’s sober?” The unfortunate copy editor was promptly fired. But she was right: The Armies of the Night is a hyperbolic, self-indulgent mess that looks sillier and more naïve with every year that passes. Its famous third-person narrative strikes one now as a bad gimmick: “Mailer discovered he was jealous. Not of the talent. [Robert] Lowell’s talent was very large, but then Mailer was a bulldog about the value of his own talent. … Nonetheless, to Mailer it was now mano a mano.” “Mano a mano” is about as close to Hemingway as Mailer gets.
The adulation that greeted The Armies of the Night underscores an important fact about Mailer’s success. It is part of Mailer’s genius—unconscious, perhaps—to have been able to calibrate his deficiencies precisely to the deficiencies of the moment. His clichés have been celebrated as brave insights because they have mirrored exactly the defining clichés of the time. Well into the 1970s, anyway, Mailer instinctively knew exactly what register of rhetorical excess would galvanize the left-wing intellectual establishment. It has proved to be a profitable talent. By the time he came to write The Prisoner of Sex (1971), he was widely rumored to be up for a Nobel Prize, a rumor that absorbed his full attention for the first thirty pages of that execrable book.
The novel carried an additional frisson. A few years before, at a party he threw to announce his mayoral candidacy on the “Existentialist” ticket, Mailer got drunk and stabbed his wife Adele (number two), nearly killing her. (In 1969, Mailer ran for mayor again, this time on the “Secessionist” ticket, which proposed that New York City become the fifty-first state.) Adele declined to press charges, and so Mailer escaped with a fortnight in Bellevue for observation. This episode seems to have titillated more than it repelled Mailer’s circle of friends; in any event it brought very little condemnation. As Irving Howe put it, “Among ‘uptown intellectuals’ there was this feeling of shock and dismay, and I don’t remember anyone judging him. The feeling was that he’d been driven to this by compulsiveness, by madness. He was seen as a victim.” Readers who wonder how stabbing his wife could make Mailer a “victim”—and who ask themselves, further, what Mailer’s being a victim would then make Adele—clearly do not have what it takes to be an “uptown intellectual” in the Irving Howe mold.
If Mailer’s attempted murder of his wife met with little censure, An American Dream did not escape so easily. It had its admirers. But the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, in a devastating review called “Norman Mailer’s Yummy Rump,” spoke for many when he judged it “a dreadful novel,” “infinitely more pretentious than the competition,” whose “awfulness is really indescribable.”
Something similar, in truth, can be said about all of Mailer’s books. It is hard to say which is the most pretentious. In absolute terms, the palm must probably go to his most recent novel, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Mailer’s effort at rewriting the Gospel story in the first person. It is a tall order to write not simply about but as Jesus. But Ancient Evenings (1983), a phantasmagoric tale featuring reincarnation and set in Egypt around 2000 BC, is a close runner up. Mailer really indulges his fondness for buggery in this “novel,” picturing it—along with various other sex acts taking place between and among various characters as they mutate in and out of existence. Actually having a body does not, for Mailer, seem to be a prerequisite for any form of sexual congress. The one thing that can be said for Ancient Evenings is that it displays Mailer’s not inconsiderable gifts for unintentional comedy, which are on a par with those of Margaret Dumont. Mailer is funniest when he waxes solemn:
“Let me tell you again. There is the magic we invoke, and the magic that calls upon us. Do you recall that Isis dropped the fourteenth piece of the body of Osiris in the salts of Yeb, and saw battles to come between Horus and Set? That was a warning to find a proper sacrifice or there would be no peace. She heard Her own voice tell Her to slaughter a bull, but as she killed the beast, Her voice also told Her that the sacrifice was not great enough to compensate for the evil powers of Set. She must add the blood of a more painful loss. She must cut off her own head, and replace it with the bull’s face.” Menenhetet now giggled.
And who can blame him?
Ancient Evenings illustrates why readers who came to Norman Mailer in the 1970s and 1980s have a difficult time understanding the reverence with which he was once regarded by chic intellectuals. Who could take this man seriously?
“Even in the first years I knew Him, I do not believe He had many thoughts which were not of battle, prayer, Nefertiri, or His other true taste—the buttocks of brave men.
“After the Battle of Kadesh, however, He was like an oasis that finds new water beneath its palms and divides to a hundred trees where before there were three. Our good Pharaoh came back from Kadesh with more hunger for the sweet meat of women than any man I knew in all of my four lives. He must have gained the seed of the Hittites He killed, for his loins were like the rising of the Nile, and He could not look at a pretty woman without having her. But then, He could like ugly women as well.”
Menenhetet is still giggling. The truth is that Norman Mailer very quickly became a parody of himself. Since the Sixties was itself a ghastly caricature of political radicalism, few people at the time seemed to noztice just how ridiculous Mailer’s preening exhibitionism and blustering pronouncements were. But as the years passed and Mailer became more and more indiscriminate in his enthusiasms, Mailer the sage was gradually revealed as Mailer the buffoon.
The point of no return was probably Marilyn (1973), a picture-book-cum-biography of Marilyn Monroe. It is difficult to say with confidence which of Mailer’s books is really his worst: he has managed to be truly awful in several distinct ways. But Marilyn is certainly his silliest book. Over the years, Mailer’s fascination with the Starlet Who Slept with the Kennedys developed into an unhealthy obsession. As the critic John Simon observed in his review of the book, what Mailer had given us with Marilyn was “a new genre called transcendental masturbation or metaphysical wet dreaming.” In real life, Marilyn Monroe was an unhappy sexpot, a sometimes amusing but distinctly mediocre comic actress. But for Mailer she is Aphrodite and Ellen Terry rolled into one. On the one hand, he says, Monroe was a “superb” actress who “possessed the talent to play Cordelia”; she was “Madame Bovary and Nana all in one”; “one might literally have to invent the idea of a soul in order to approach her.” On the other hand, she was “a very Stradivarius of sex,” “the angel of Sex”: “she had learned by Mind,” Mailer writes, “to move sex forward —sex was not unlike an advance of little infantrymen of libido sent up to the surface of her skin. She was a general of sex before she knew anything of sexual war.” If he were still here, Menenhetet would be convulsed with the giggles.
No one in our sex-obsessed culture is likely to underestimate the importance of sexual gratification in the lives of most people. But Mailer is monomaniacal on the subject. It is not only the center of his universe, it is also the periphery and everything in between. In Marilyn, he remarks in passing that “it is a rule of thumb today: one cannot buy a Polaroid in a drugstore without announcing to the world, one chance in two, the camera will be used to record a copulation of family or friends.” One chance in two? As the critic Joseph Epstein observed, “it is a sign of the deep poverty of Norman Mailer’s imagination that the only climax he can imagine in any human relationship is really just that—a sexual climax.” It is all the more ironic, then, that Mailer should display such a profound misunderstanding of sex. It is his one true subject, but he has got it all wrong.
Indeed, if Marilyn Monroe is “the angel of Sex,” Norman Mailer is its Walter Mitty. He constructs absurd melodramas of sexual conquest and then casts himself as the inevitable hero. His ubiquitous descriptions of sex are wince-makingly embarrassing. In “The Time of Her Time,” for example—a fictional sketch that concludes Advertisements for Myself of which Mailer was particularly proud—the hero refers to his penis as “the avenger” and is taken to saying things like “For her, getting it from me, it must have been impressive.” In The Prisoner of Sex, which Mailer intended as an answer to Kate Millet and the women’s lib movement, we read about “the power of the semen going over the hill” “and the ovum [that] in its turn would be ready as any priestess to greet the arcane and dismiss the common, ready as a whore to welcome a wad or get rid of a penniless prick, ready as an empress to find a lord or turn her face to the wall.” The moral being, perhaps, that an egg’s work is never done.
Mailer’s penchant for bombast makes him a difficult writer to parody; one can never be sure that he hasn’t said something even more outrageous than one’s caricature. Still, Elizabeth Hardwick caught something essential about Mailer in the parody she wrote (under the pseudonym Xavier Prynne) of The Presidential Papers (1963) for The New York Review of Books:
This 6th note was ignored by LBJ, but attacked by the Black Negroes and the FBI. One admits that a lot of it is lousy—I was having personal troubles at the time—but I still think it lousy but good. The Bitch Goddess didn’t quite get into bed with me this round, but at least she didn’t get into bed with Bill Styron either, up in his plush Connecticut retreat. All the Bitch did was blow into my ear—one of those mysterious pre-psychotic Jackie Kennedy whispers. My answer to the FBI would run this way: The existential orgasm would make atomic war and even atomic testing impossible …
The problem with this virtuoso performance is that it is virtually indistinguishable from the writing it set out to spoof. Its perfection as a piece of mimicry renders it void as parody.
Mailer has written a great deal about political matters. But in the end, Mailer regards politics the way he regards everything else, as a coefficient of sex. As he put it in Advertisements for Myself, “the only revolution which will be meaningful and natural for the twentieth century will be the sexual revolution one senses everywhere.” Even his identity as an “existentialist” is filtered through sexual anxiety: “a man is in a more existential position than a woman,” Mailer assures us: “he has to get an erection.” (In fact, in Mailer’s writing the term “existential” and its cognates are little more than positive epithets, devoid of content: “we find ourselves in an existential situation,” Mailer writes in one typical passage, “whenever we are in a situation where we cannot foretell the end”—which is hardly more illuminating than Delmore Schwartz’s sly observation that existentialism means that no one else can take a bath for you.) It is in his ideas about sex, especially as he relates them to the rest of life, that Mailer has been most influential and most destructive. It would be difficult to overstate the crudeness of his position. In 1973, in one of the countless interviews he has given, Mailer was asked for his opinion about legalized abortion. This was his answer:
I think when a woman goes through an abortion, even legalized abortion, she goes through hell. There’s no use hoping otherwise. For what is she doing? Sometimes she has to be saying to herself, “You’re killing the memory of a beautiful fuck.” I don’t think abortion is a great strain when the act was some miser- able little screech, or some squeak oozed up through the trapdoor, a little rat which got in, a worm who slithered under the threshold. That sort of abortion costs a woman little more than discomfort. Unless there are medical consequences years later.
But if a woman has a great fuck, and then has to abort, it embitters her.
It is possible, of course, that Mailer was being deliberately outrageous. Nevetheless, this is the statement of a moral cretin.
It is one of the peculiarities of Mailers writings about sex that he seems barely to distinguish it from violent physical conflict. His depictions of lovemaking are almost always cast in terms of struggle and domination. There is scarcely any room for warmth or tenderness. Desire reveals itself first of all as a desire for conquest. No doubt this is one reason forced buggery features so prominently in his writings. Sex in Mailer is not so much an act of union as brute subordination. This is part of what makes it, for Mailer, so existential. As a macho existentialist, Mailer sees, or pretends to see, everything as a battle, a war. Indeed, despite his virulent anti-Vietnam War stand, war is one of Mailers abiding obsessions. Its part of his Hemingway pose: he likes to bluster about life being a continual strugglemano a mano as he might put itwith the void. In A Public Notice on Waiting for Godot, in which Mailer tells us that he regards Samuel Beckett as a minor artist, he writes that mans nature, mans dignity, is that he acts, lives, loves, and finally destroys himself seeking to penetrate the mystery of existence, and unless we partake in some way, as some part of this human exploration (and war) then we are no more than the pimps of society and the betray- ers of our Self. Destroys himself? Pimps of society? Mailer is clearly the captive of a debased, self-aggrandizing Romanticism. He manufactures little melodramas to ventilate the tedium of his comfortable, bourgeois existence. It is a familiar adolescent gambit. But Mailer has managed to prolong his pubescent rage into his seventies. It is what has made him so productive of comic relief. It is also what underlies his fascination with violence.
Many critics believe that The Executioners Song (1979) is Mailers best book. Subtitled A True Life Novel, it tells the In Cold Blood-type story of the arrest and execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore, a psychopathic killer who had spent most of his thirty-odd years in jail. Written in a clipped, unembellished style, the book contains some of Mailers most urgent and compelling prose. Considered as a moral document, however, The Executioners Song is profoundly repulsive. For Mailer does not simply delve into and display the humanity of the tortured killer he writes about: he in effect offers him up as a kind of hero, a courageous outsider who deserves our sympathy as a Victim of Society and our respect as an implacable rebel.
After Gilmore had been executed, Mailers attention was captured by Jack Abbott, a violent convict and self-declared Communist who began writing Mailer long existential letters about life in prison. Mailer loved them. He helped Abbott have them published, first in The New York Review of Books and then as a book, called In the Belly of the Beast (1981). In his introduction, Mailer described Abbott as an intellectual, a radical, a potential leader, a man obsessed with a vision of more elevated human relations in a better world that revolution could forge. It seems clear that Mailers interest helped to expedite Abbotts release from prison: Culture, Mailer declared at one point, is worth a little risk. Abbott had scarcely set foot in New York when he stabbed and killed Richard Adan, a twenty-two-year-old waiter. Mailer testified on Abbotts behalf at the ensuing murder trial.
Mailers flirtation with criminals like Gary Gilmore and Jack Abbott must be seen as the fulfillment of his celebration of the psychopath as an existential hero. In his notorious essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster, first published in Dissent in 1957, Mailer definitively articulated an ethic that underlies not only his own view of the world but also the view that would inform the cultural revolution of the 1960s. In tone, The White Negro is a panoply of existentialist rant. In content, it is a manifesto on behalf of moral nihilism. Mailer speaks casually of the totalitarian tissues of American society and invokes the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. The only authentic response to this situation, he says, is to divorce oneself from society and to encourage the psychopath in oneself. This is the strategy of the hipster, who has absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and [who] for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro. (Mailers stereotypical portrayal of blacks as beastlike sexual athletes is one of the many distasteful things about the essay.)
The rest of The White Negro is a glorification of the hipster and his ethic of promiscuous sex, drug-taking, and criminal violence. The hipster, Mailer explains, is part of an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite, and a language most adolescents can understand instinctively, for the hipsters intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel. Mailer conjures the imageit is what made the essay infamousof eighteen-year-old hoodlums who beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper. For Mailer such behavior is acceptable, even laudable, because the psychopath, by murdering, demonstrates his courage and purge[s] his violence. To the objection that it does not take much courage to kill someone older and weaker, Mailer explains that one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into ones life. Mailer goes on to explain that at bottom, the drama of the psychopath is that he seeks love. Not, however, love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it. Orgasm is his therapyhe knows at the seed of his being that good orgasm opens his possibilities and bad orgasm imprisons him. This is one reason that the hipster adores jazz: jazz, Mailer tells us, is orgasm. The hipsters quest for absolute sexual freedom entails the necessity of becoming a sexual outlaw.
It is not only sexual morality that the hipster discards. Hip abdicates from any conventional moral responsibility because it would argue that the results of our actions are unforeseeable, and so we cannot know if we do good or bad . The only Hip morality is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone, because that is ones need.