by Richard Poirier
Viking, 176 pp., $2.25
by Norman Mailer. Pictures by the World’s Foremost Photographers
Grosset & Dunlap, 271 pp., $19.95
“Yeah, that beast was huge and then huge again, and he was still alive.”
Why Are We In Vietnam?
There is a passage in The Armies of the Night which has become something of a set-piece for Mailer’s critics. Mailer describes his lack of satisfaction with himself as he comes across in film:
For a warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter—he had on screen in this first documentary a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable—the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. Something in his adenoids gave it away….
Mailer may be saying many things here: that he is a nice Jewish boy at heart, whether he likes it or not; that he retains embarrassing traces of that personality, although he has largely escaped it; that he has escaped it completely, although its unfortunate stigmata still show. The length and quality of the catalogue, the discreet hyperbole (“fatal taint,” “absolutely insupportable”) and the context (he is talking not about his character but about his screen personality) make the whole business very funny and very oblique. The one thing we can’t see him as saying, it seems to me, is that he simply finds the personality of the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn insupportable (and therefore, of course, to be repressed and fiercely compensated for). Yet this is just what Richard Poirier, in his lucid and generous book on Mailer, wants Mailer to be saying, and I suspect that Poirier here represents many of Mailer’s admirers. The nice Jewish boy, Norman the good fellow, literally pays for Mailer the bully and wild man, saves him for sanity and civilization and literature.
Poirier insists on the literary nature of Mailer’s mind, and shows brilliantly how Mailer, by risking himself and his style at every turn, eluded the safe and sterile literary career that his early books seemed to promise. Poirier thinks, as I do, that An American Dream, Why Are We In Vietnam?, and The Armies of the Night are Mailer’s best works and constitute a more than sufficient claim to substantial fame; and Poirier has some extraordinarily eloquent and subtle pages on Why Are We In Vietnam?, which he calls the “most dazzling and most incomprehensibly slighted” of Mailer’s novels. I couldn’t agree more. And yet my feeling is that Mailer is a much more dangerous animal than Poirier will quite allow himself to see. If he is infinitely more talented than his detractors seem to realize, he is infinitely more brutal and unruly, even as a writer, than his academic fans wish to acknowledge.
I don’t mean to say that Mailer is not a good fellow, and immensely attractive. What I mean is …