When I was young I turned a corner and there was Norman Mailer; some other kid turned a corner and there was Nabokov. Life gives you what you get and that’s that. At times I would have preferred getting someone else. When I saw Mailer on the Dick Cavett show a couple of years ago insisting that he pushed Gore Vidal across a room farther than Vidal had pushed him, I really wished I had gotten someone else; I mean, would Nabokov argue on the Dick Cavett show? Would he even appear on Merv Griffin’s? And I’m not talking about a love-affair with Mailer’s writing either. God knows that if he can’t write badly, he can write mediocre books, middling enough to make you ashamed of your admiration. Still, Mailer knows what shame is. Now that’s a marvel!
I’m sure it all started with Advertisements for Myself and not The Naked and the Dead. Actually, when I read The Naked and the Dead I was too young to fully understand what was going on inside it. Advertisements was something else though. Was it any good? I don’t know, to tell you the truth; I don’t remember. Its secret was that it was like me; more like me than myself. For here was an adult acting like a kid, pushing himself into a conversation because he knew what nobody else in the conversation knew. He knew he was right. I loved to turn the pages and see the dark ink of belligerency, the self-mockery, all that pride of pen. There was lots of junk but it was called junk — what Mailer seemed to be saying even back then was: this is my junk and as such it is a little dazzling. How many times has Mailer been mocked for just that kind of remark by men and women whose junk doesn’t keep you awake? Anyway, the advertisements were everything you wanted out of a sleepy time — witty, ripe, tough, and charged with thunder. It was my first real glimpse of those empty rooms which were to be the home of my promised American future. It was my first description of our peculiar airlessness. Mailer’s distinction between what was hip and what was square hinted at a magical rifeness outside of everybody’s plans for my future. For someone about to go to college it was distracting to read in a book that a “guided tour” was square but “reconnaissance” was hip. What was meant and did it have anything to do with me?
Scouting the enemy’s territory had to do with me, of course, but it takes a long time to name the enemy. With Mailer’s help I named him for myself: whoever closes off the water, the man in the control tower with his hand on the spigot, draining the riverbeds because he’s frightened of the noise of tumbling water and because the force of its coming is a mockery of his own unempowered life.
Who knew these things years ago, but who didn’t sense it? Unlike other writers who came to me in the joy of culture, Mailer came to me while I slept in the garden and poured something into my ear.
If Mailer’s passion is for a generalship, that is, as one who mounts battles to conquer lands or to recapture them, then his style or anyway his love of it, forces him to be something else, a sharpshooter perhaps, or one given to reconnaissance. The great generals, after all, are solitary strategists with only a few major passions, men like Proust and Faulkner. Something gracelessly obvious in the “passing show” has come to offend their deepest nature, my guess is they stick to their guns and don’t care whether they have a “good” table at Elaine’s. Not so Mailer, an odd man of the world who frequently skates along the rim of an English accent holds birthday parties at The Four Seasons. Does this mean that at times Mailer’s vision will be overwhelmed by his skills?
Now that I think about it, I prefer reconnaissance to sharpshooting. What sharpshooter works for himself? Mailer, even though he often pays court to the wrong goddess, pays no such time to any man; all right then, a scout, reconnoitering. One who works under cover, and, in that deep and dark terrain, for himself. Give him that: his eyes see like an eagle’s on a hazeless day. Mailer’s secret, in fact, is that he’s God’s wild man brought here for the same purpose as Lawrence and Henry Miller: to open the doors of our seeing because our civility has made us blind; not a bit less. Nothing so well argues for the range of our spirit than the fact that Mailer, this barroom grandee, cohort of the haute monde, pal of the repetitively successful, a would-be TV personality, is actually a saint whose eyes teem with images of paradise. For no other writer in the last thirty years has so carefully bemoaned the lost harmonies of existence, the vanished symmetry of head and heart; and deeper still: that connection between the choices of our life and the lines in our face, the ultimate ground of metaphor itself. Who else has so eloquently noted time and again that in our century interruption has destroyed mood, that the spirit of the artificial and the inorganic has left us breathing a dead air which suffocates the cry of our best selves? Mailer’s prose has become a wizardly instrument to play the fugue of our losses — the loss of the American dream itself, that mixture of querulous good-sense and experimentation, reduced now to the timorous sleep of unhappy functionaries; the communities of our cities transformed into rows of unloved and unadorned buildings, all of them looking like kleenex boxes — modesty bids me stop here out of simple respect for Mailer who has turned the catalogue of woe into an American elegy which shouldn’t be paraphrased. Suffice it to say that if the dreadful has already happened to us and we have let the brave American enterprise piddle down into that small-time greed which has turned a gorgeous untamed landscape into the worst impulses of a carnival thief; and if we have let our fears and poisons turn us into a nation of drones and shut-ins and television addicts who no longer carry in our bones the spirit of play and experimentation; and if we are in fact dying of cancer without our lives being lived fully and our dreams being answered bravely, then there is no question that Mailer is our writer. There are even times in my life when the more successful novels of our time, beside the fury of his prose and those rallying glimpses into our lost world, seem like small stuff indeed.
Unlike other writers who came to me in the joy of culture, Mailer came to me while I slept in the garden and poured something into my ear.
We don’t take a writer into our hearts the way we take a friend whose words and moods are constantly with us year after year. Writers give us little bits at a time to remember them by, and if, after a long period of time, those little bits weld together into one of those shapes, or into a variety of those shapes, by which we have come to recognize ourselves, then we may say that we have established a kind of symbiosis with that writer whereby the rereading of his book is like scanning a map of one’s self, recalling how this torrent in one’s life began at this small trickle, or conversely, how this still freshwater pond, say, the appreciation of a certain kind of face, found its origin in a rivulet accidentally struck off a rushing mountain stream. These bits of language and these moments of self-clarification are really the point of culture itself — we read to become ourselves. Becoming intelligent or informed comes later and is a less lively event — for without first a self our intelligence is only an intricate piece of machinery in a landscape of sleep.
So what I remember now, thinking about Mailer, are those notions of his, phrases, moments, perceptions, which helped me constitute that most helpful idea which I now call my self. Here are some of them. They are bright pieces of stone taken out of the larger mosaic. For me these notions, these gems, were more often than not just seeds and signals. I believe every one of them. This is what comes to mind when I think of Norman Mailer: that boredom is a logjam in a river which needs to flow; that a good heavyweight faces death every time he steps into the ring and that Hemingway may have faced it every day; television can give you cancer, along with rancor and fear and too much courtesy; that the stench of our bowels can be a Cassandra telling us of the choices we murdered the day before; that the name we give ourselves may represent our best shot; that a dangerous new man is here for whom a good conversation does not exist until he sees it or hears it on a tape; that is if a man’s face ends up looking like a slab of meat, then we may know something about his life; that among the poor of this world, the body and its talents can be a swift or a slow form of intelligence; that our own nausea can be so compelling that only the gutter can redeem us; that nuance may be the point; that an artist must always be practising his craft, even while running with the bulls of Pamplona; and that totalitarianism is a form of sightlessness and a way of ending arguments before they get going.
Or a night comes to mind, a night in June 1968 when I was thinking of leaving for Canada to avoid the draft and a friend of mine was just killed in Vietnam. I am staying with a friend in Washington in her small apartment on Connecticut Avenue. That night she holds a cocktail party for two friends in the Peace Corps who have just returned from a two-year stay in a small African nation. The timing is bad. Out in California Bobby Kennedy is not dead yet, but he will be in a few hours. Over my friend’s television hangs a picture of Hubert Humphrey inscribed with his slogan, the Politics of Joy. These two friends are clean-cut, handsome, short-haired. They speak of their last two years abroad, how they loved the African people under their care; someday they want to live there again. We speak of the woe that is America. I mention Mailer’s name, something he wrote recently. My friend says to me, “Oh God, not Mailer again. It’s just his kind of cynicism we don’t need now.” Everyone else is quick to agree. I sense that for these subtle people there is something too obvious about Mailer, something that can ruin a party like this. I am exhausted and say little more. A few hours later I dream of a living room in a suburban home. A long table piled with wedding gifts stretches across the room. There is a silver tea service, kitchen appliances, leather brief cases, dinnerware, clocks, folding TV trays, matching towels. I walk beside the table feeling a little embarrassed by this quiet glimpse at somebody's things. Below me I hear a rustling and I realize that children are playing beneath the floor, their eyes occasionally gazing at me through the cracks. The children whisper and rustle. They giggle incessantly. I don’t know if they ask me to play with them, but I am compelled to join them, and suddenly I am in the dark small room where a girl with blond hair kissed me romantically for the first time in my life, a kiss on my cheek that left me dizzy for days until a gym-full of fourth-grade girls rhymed a song about my kiss, and in this room we are laughing and whispering. Above me in another room a bride and her groom are gathered with friends and relatives, opening up more presents. The groom opens up a small white package which contains a grapefruit spoon, and he begins to laugh until the tears roll down his face. And then I receive my kiss. And I wake up crying because I have heard over the radio that Bobby Kennedy is dead. I leave the apartment and never see my friend again.
Or I remember a time five years later when my friend Danny and I are together on the last night of our friendship. It is summer in Chapel Hill and we sit outdoors, drinking beer. Danny talks.
— Women are the worst victims of society.
— That’s absurd.
— They’re set up to be exploited by men. Their education, cultural expectations.
— It’s obscene to talk about the plight of blacks and women in the same breath.
— Because stuck inside a bad marriage is nothing like being born in a slum.
— It’s not that simple.
— It is that simple.
— What about wages. The national income of—
— They should organize and get higher wages.
— You read too much Mailer.
— Mailer’s arguing for a nuance.
— He’s against the pill and abortion. Doesn’t he know women have a right over their own body?
— Look, no one’s telling women what to do with their bodies. The question is what they’re doing with unborn babies.
— You’re against abortion too!
— No, but I don’t like to pretend that abortion clinics have anything to do with the Bill of Rights.
— Are you against abortion?
— You’re getting right-wing.
— That’s ridiculous. Things should be clear. If a woman goes to bed with a jerk because she’s on a pill, something’s lost, a choice. I’m saying that’s too bad.
— You’re a puritan.
— That, too?
— Mailer talks like a fraternity man. Masters and Johnson have proved that there is no such thing as—
— If a yogi can walk on coals a woman can have an orgasm in her ears.
— You’re quoting a man who says it’s better to rape than masturbate.
— He meant—
— He said that.
How do you defend Mailer at times? Of course he was using a metaphor to explain that the worst sickness of our time is our willingness to exchange the real and dangerous and palpable world for the safety of fantasy, but how do explain such a metaphor to someone who believes that art is a second-rate activity because women have to clean up after artists? Danny and I end like this, a cold summer’s night of exchanges, a major loss for both of us. We look at each other across the limited distance of an affection. Mailer was costly at times. I don’t even believe that friendship should be about these things.
I’ve seen Mailer a couple of times in my life. The first time was at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City somewhere around the end of the Sixties when he was running for the mayoralty of New York. I remember only a couple of things. In his speech he pitched for getting the cars and trucks out of New York, maybe one day a week, maybe three. He said this had been done in a northern European city (I can’t recall which one he said — Oslo?) and within a week a scarlet bird had been seen in the city’s sky for the first time in twenty years. He also said that life at its best occurred when we could walk with someone we love across a flowering meadow, and that politics was created to make that possible for anyone with the imagination to believe it.
I saw Mailer only one other time, at his own New Year’s party a couple of years ago. A friend of mine who was invited asked me to come along. On the third floor of his Brooklyn Heights apartment I met the author, a short, barrel-chested man in a blue-velvet suit, very much at home in the middle of the room, surrounded by friends, his free hand cupping the air as he made a point. Prepared for anything, I was delighted to find myself at a gathering of friends and family, a party where children, young and old, moved in and out of rooms. I was a stranger to the room, one of the few, so I looked for celebrities, ate a sandwich, had a few drinks, and met some friends of my friend. Later on, feeling easy, I moved into the center of the room to have a more precise meeting with Mailer. Is there a shame in pointing out that I knew already what I was going to say? Twelve years ago Mailer’s theory of illness had changed my life. In a section of Cannibals and Christians called “The Argument At Last Presented” Mailer had written about the successful attempt of modern science to strip disease and illness of all metaphor. According to Mailer, since the renaissance, science has been reduced to the pure methodology of the laboratory which admits no metaphor into its system of things (metaphor being assumptive and unprovable by experiment), and thus had managed to reduce the moral and philosophical complexity of disease to a mere description of its symptoms. And these symptoms, according to that same methodology, were without meaning! It follows, of course, that the modern treatment of illness has nothing to do with recognizing below the illness a disharmony of being for which these particular symptoms might be a metaphor. Of course the essay is richer than my description of it; in fact to this day I consider it to be the clearest piece of inspired prose I have ever read — and for me, well, this glimpse of Mailer’s into the interconnectedness of fact and being through the medium of metaphor was that moment of enrichment, or revelation, which began that process by which I was lifted out of the contemporary despair, that cynicism of things which is so deep that it does not recognize itself. So I would walk up to Mailer and say that it was illness of children which still puzzled me, children who can’t be said to have earned anything . . . but I never got the chance. Standing beside him I hear him say to someone, “Look, excuse me. I’ve been standing in the same spot for thirty minutes. I’ve got to greet some of my guests. I’ll talk to you later.” I watch him walk across the room, too shy to stop him. Did I care? No, not really. What do I care about chatting with Mailer? For twenty years I have read his books, and that’s enough. In those books, because I was willing to admire, I got the best, white-hot part of him, the truth as he successfully or unsuccessfully tried to work it out. Writing, he is God’s wild man, and his books have helped preserve in me a region of wilderness which seems to have been under siege since the day I was born. That’s good enough. A half-hour later, leaving Mailer’s apartment which faces Manhattan like the prow of a ship, I shake hands with the author at the door. “Thanks,” I say. “I enjoyed it.”