view_column Goodbye Norman Mailer: A Brief Retrospective

by Duff Brenna

Published in Issue No. 126 ~ November, 2007

Norman Mailer was born in Long Branch, New Jersey in 1923 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He was educated at Harvard, where he took a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1943. He had an I.Q. of 165. While attending Harvard, Mailer became interested in writing and wrote two novels. One was set in a mental institution, where Mailer worked for a short while. The novel was entitled A Transit to Nacissus. It was called melodramatic and publishers turned it down. It wasn’t brought out until 1978. Mailer was very famous by then. It helps to be famous.

Mailer was drafted into the army in 1944 and served in World War II in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry. He could have gone to Officers Candidate School (OCS), but instead he chose to become a rifleman. Eager for action, he went out on patrols, but eventually the climate and routine and reality of war, the overwhelming presence of death and danger got to him. He said of this time that the hot sun, the heavy pack, the “ever present fatigue and diarrhea” killed any desire he had for action. He was emotionally drained and physically depleted and by early 1945 he was in a hospital in Manila suffering from jaundice. Mailer took part in no major battles in the army, but out of his experience came his first bestseller, The Naked and the Dead (1948), considered to be one of the best and most important novels written about World War Two. The novel depicts his disdain and hatred for authority, its abuses of power, its lack of humanity.

The Naked and the Dead has been called a deeply pessimistic novel and an antiwar book that describes the idiotic waste of human beings who go into war with hardly a clue as to what they are about to experience. Some of them go crazy. Many of them die. Many more are wounded. No one comes back unchanged. Most of the changes are negative. War warps the human heart, according to Mailer.

The Naked and the Dead, after initially being turned down by Little Brown because of its raw language (Mailer used the word “fuck” a lot, which just wasn’t done in those days), was finally published by Rinehart in 1948 (after changing Fuck to Fug) and rose quickly to the top of the bestseller list. Mailer was 25. Like Lord Byron, Mailer woke one morning to find himself famous all over town. Before the year was out, he was famous from coast to coast and eventually around the world. Heady stuff. And it went to his head. He took to drink and drugs, especially marijuana, and made himself notorious for bad boy behavior in public places and shouting matches and fist fights. Drinking and the experience of war brought out the worst potentialities in his personality. This is a common story. Nothing about it surprises us except, perhaps, that Harvard-educated geniuses can be just as wrongheaded and ill-mannered and loutish as the rest of us who drink stupidly and find ourselves firing on three cylinders when we’re wired for six.

The Naked and the Dead was followed by Barbary Shore (1951), a novel dealing with paranoia about the growing power of right-wing politics, Big Brother is watching, or at least trying to watch. The novel was blasted by the critics. This phenomenon often happens to anyone who is too successful, especially first-time novelists, the critics praying for a failure, so they can bring out their razors. A decade later, in Advertisements for Myself, Mailer wrote about the failure of Barbary Shore: “I suppose I might have learned to take my return ticket to the minor leagues without weeping too much . . . except I was plagued by an odd intuition . . . that I was working my way toward saying something unforgivable . . . was leading toward the violent and orgiastic. I do not mean that I was clear about where I was, it was rather that I had a dumb dull set of intimations that the things I was drawn to write about were taboo.”

The Deer Park (1955), a novel about Hollywood, was Mailer’s next effort. It reestablished him as a powerful writer, one who could cut to the heart of the human condition. Its main theme is the coupling of sex and power. At first, no one wanted to publish it because its sex scenes were too suggestive, especially a passage in which a woman is manipulated into giving oral sex to a man. Mailer was told to cut that passage out, but he didn’t. Rinehart refused to publish the book. Mailer sent it to several major publishing houses, but they all turned it down. Then Putnam made an offer. Putnam’s thinking was that the book was so controversial by then that even if it wasn’t very well-written, the controversy alone would sell lots of copies. When it was published it sold 50,000 copies and went to number 6 on the bestseller list.

Advertisements for Myself followed in 1959, a collection of essays, stories and commentary, some of which talked about sex, greed, and violence in America, themes Mailer took up again in An American Dream, (1965). The year 1968 saw the publication of Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Armies of the Night, a rendition of his experiences at the 1968 Stop-the-War rallies in Washington D.C. Mailer’s second Pulitzer came with the publication of The Executioner’s Song (1979), a creative non-fiction novel that portrayed the lives of Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend, Nicole, before Gilmore killed two helpless men in cold blood in Provo, Utah. After he was caught and sent to prison, Gary Gilmore and Nicole made a suicide pact, setting a date and time when they would kill themselves. Nicole came very close to succeeding by cutting her wrists, but ultimately she survived. At his own request, refusing to file any appeals, Gilmore was later executed by a firing squad. Mailer wrote about it all in a language as terse and tough and brilliant in its minimalism as anything Ernest Hemingway had ever done: “She felt as if somebody had socked her right on the side of the head. She could hear his voice ringing in her brain. It spoke in a terrible anger, as if he was capable of biting his teeth clear through his tongue. He didn’t want her ever to get with a guy again. Didn’t want to have those thoughts in his head. `Don’t fuck those cocksuckers. It makes me want to commit murder again. If I feel like murder, it doesn’t necessarily matter who gets murdered — don’t you know that about me?’ Way inside, a part of her felt extraloving. It was important to him (351, Little Brown, First Ed).

The Executioner’s Song was followed in 1983 by a novel about ancient Egypt in the time of Ramses the Ninth. The novel deals with power — political power, physical power, sexual power and the power of reincarnation (if you can remember your past lives, which one of the characters can). Ancient Evenings is what we might call a tour de force, which means (according to Webster’s Universal), a feat of strength, skill or ingenuity, often one that is merely clever or spectacular. Ancient Evenings is all of that — and more. It sums up many of the major themes that haunted Mailer’s work from the very beginning: courage, cowardice, bodily functions, death, and the afterlife, the meaning of love, the meaning of lust. It’s a scatological book full of (obsessed with) Egyptian sexual practices — sisters and brothers, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, grandfathers and granddaughters, homosexuality, oral sex, group sex, and sex. The point made several times over is that it’s all relative — relative, depending on the society in which you are born and raised, what its mores are, its customs and such. Ancient Evenings has one of the greatest battle scenes I’ve ever read. Mailer is at the top of his game when in a flashback he brings the Egyptians under Ramses the Second and the Hittites together in a mutual glorious slaughter at the Battle of Kadesh. The descriptive powers Mailer reveals rival those of Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace describing The Battle of Borodino, when the outnumbered Russians fought Napoleon’s forces to a standstill.

Ancient Evenings became a smorgasbord of critic frenzy, ripped to shreds by nearly everyone. But read it yourself and make your own judgments. If you are in the right mood, you won’t find it too long, too convoluted, too self-indulgent, too absurd, too perverse. The totality of the book is a warp and weft of genius Mailer-style. If you are ever caught by its rhythms, its history, its outsized characters, you might find yourself saying, “My god what a brilliant mind this man has! I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ll never forget it.”

Yes, but on the other hand, it is a tortuously mind-blowing magnum opus that you probably wouldn’t want to read again! More books followed. By my count, Mailer has written 35 so far, most successful, some not. His latest is a novel called The Castle in the Forest (2007), which is volume one of a proposed two-volume work about Adolph Hitler. The Castle in the Forest was given “mixed” reviews. I’ve read it and I understand why the reviews were not all raves. The book is, well, breathtaking in its inventiveness, its knowledge, its humor, its darkness, the cogency of its style. The problem may be the premise that there are devils and angels vying with one another for the souls of men.
Little Hitler has his own devil that keeps tabs on him as he grows up. The characters, especially little Hitler, his father, Alois, his mother Klara are beautifully and convincingly drawn. The story does what a good story should do — it carries us along and we try not to pay too much attention to the supranational elements with their medieval evocations. It is amazing and gratifying that someone Mailer’s age could have written with such verbal skill and energy. Reading between the lines it’s fairly clear what Mailer is after — the devils and angels become metaphors for those energies which move us toward what is better or worse in ourselves and in this world. What Mailer has in The Castle in the Forest is an extended study on the nature of good and evil. What we learn is unsettling, bewildering, ultimately (despite infusions of humor) depressing. Warning: this is no book for those who want the pabulum generally found on the bestseller lists.

Before his death on November 10, 2007, Norman Mailer had written hundreds of articles, reviews and given interviews, directed movies, acted in a few, ran for Mayor of New York, and written screenplays. He co-founded The Village Voice. He was president of PEN for two years. He was married six times and had nine children. Tis a full life. We had hoped he would live to be a hundred and would be blessed in the same way Joseph Conrad was blessed by sitting down to write one day and, pen in hand, dying quietly at his desk. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Mailer died of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was 84.

Some Mailer quotes: “People drink to restore their egos.” “I care about reviews. They affect your wallet in the most direct fashion.” “We didn’t win the Cold War, we were just a big bank that bankrupted a smaller bank because we had an arms race that wiped the Russians out.” “Violence is the last frontier in literature.” “I fear decrepitude.” (Novelists are) “. . . a special breed of human being. Somewhere between psychologists, historians, detectives, students of style and manner. We have a capacity to do things that other people don’t . . . we develop over the years to try and see someone as whole.”

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Duff Brenna is the author of six novels, including The Book Of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989) which won the Associated Writing Programs Award, and his most recent novel, The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell Publications, 2007). A Minnesota native who once tried his hand at running and owning a Wisconsin dairy farm, Brenna is currently a freelance writer living in Sun City, CA.