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Don Quixote at Eighty

1.

Norman Mailer at age eighty, with an anthology of scars, tickles, slaps, and winks for would-be writers and weary readers—not Aquarius but Gerontion, an old man in a drafty house under a windy knob…

Perhaps 7 percent of The Spooky Art is previously unpublished, although it’s hard to tell for sure as you flip to and fro from body text to source notes. You may recall that in the last mound of Mailer, The Time of Our Time (1998), 1,300 pages of recycled snippets from five decades of fiction and journalism paraded by, not in the order in which they’d been written, but in the order of the years they described. (Thus the “White Negro” essay of 1956 was immediately followed by two chapters from the 1991 novel Harlot’s Ghost, which happened to be about the CIA in the late Fifties.) At least in Spooky, the book extracts, prefaces, afterwords, interviews, speeches, talk-show transcripts, and extemp animadversions are arranged, inside broad categories of craft, genre, philosophy, and guff, to accord roughly with the many Golgothas of his long career.

Still the book feels like one of those late-night cable commercials for Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits, or Conway Twitty’s: act now, call this toll-free number, and we will also send you, at no extra charge, a cool tool to sharpen your knives, whiten your teeth, and screw your neighbors.

Craft,” says Mailer, “is a grab bag of procedures, tricks, lore, formal gymnastics, symbolic superstructures—methodology, in short.” Craft is not in the same big league as “a vision of experience,” which is what the great writers all have, and can’t be borrowed, mimicked, or faked. Craft is more like “a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued.” If you like this folksy sort of thing, there is a lot of it in Spooky, a kind of humming on the wires between rants and ruminations about journalism, pornography, critics, being, nothingness, and other writers.

Unbuttoned, he will tell us that poems are a one-night stand, short stories an affair, novels a marriage, and movies “more likely than literature to reach deep feelings in people” because film “delves into deeper states of consciousness.” That we need to do something we can write about, preferably something existential, “by which I mean an experience you do not control.” That writers ought to train themselves, like athletes, “to do a good day’s work on a bad day.” That writing on drugs is a lousy idea, but writing without cigarettes is a bitch. That, in first person or third, he has a hard time with multiple characters and passing time: “At the moment the only great writer who can handle forty or fifty characters and three or four decades is García Márquez…. In my Egyptian novel, it took me ten pages to go around a bend in the Nile.” Plot, too, is a pain in the pineal gland: “Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.”

And then he sneaks over the border from folksy to half-baked: “That is one of the better tests of the acumen of the writer. How subtle, how full of nuance, how original, is his or her sense of the sinister?” (George Eliot? Chekhov? Stendhal?) “Few good writers come out of prison. Incarceration, I think, can destroy a man’s ability to write.” (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Koestler, Genet, Havel, Solzhenitsyn?) “It is not only that no other man writes so well about women [as D.H. Lawrence], but indeed is there a woman who can?” (If not Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, or Colette, how about Shikibu Murasaki?) “It is possible that Bellow succeeds in telling us more about the depths of the black man’s psyche than either Baldwin or Ellison.” (No, it isn’t.)

But his footwork is fanciest when he gets to style. Why Are We in Vietnam? does not seem to have been written by the author of Ancient Evenings. There is clearly a Mailer vocabulary, with adjectives like brave, corrupt, existential, inauthentic, primitive, and vertiginous to modify nouns like angel, aura, blood, cancer, cloaca, death, devil, dread, evil, fame, fetish, fever, grace, guilt, gut, hysteria, imperative, lividity, lust, magic, miasma, ontology, orgasm, ovaries, plastic, swine, taboo, underworld, virus, and void. It is the vocabulary of a shaman, and comes with its own drum. But it’s not a style. From so much skinwalking, shape-shifting, and baying at phases of far-flung moons, such wayward torque, and all those cantilevered paragraphs gasping for vertical support, you get, instead of a style, the bends. And so Mailer enlists a Cubist:

There are two kinds of writers. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, Melville and James, write with an air that is inimitable. There are other writers, usually less famous, who go along in a variety of modes. I’m in the latter camp. The same can be said for painters. Matisse painted in one recognizable vein, while Picasso entered a hundred before he was done.

To which he appends, wonderfully: “What, indeed, did Picasso teach us if not that every form offers up its own scream?” So Sergius O’Shaugnessy need not ever speak to Stephen Rojack, Gary Gilmore, or Menenhetet. This is a soft-shoe shuffle, all the way off the stage, after which he will sit in our laps and tell us that the only other things any novelist really requires are courage and an unconscious. He has, of course, been making it up as he went along, like everybody else, afraid to be found out.

2.

You, Lowell,” Norman said to Robert in The Armies of the Night (1968),

beloved poet of many, what do you know of the dirt and the dark deliveries of the necessary? What do you know of dignity hard-achieved, and dignity lost through innocence, and dignity lost by sacrifice for a cause one cannot name. What do you know about getting fat against your will, and turning into a clown of an arriviste baron when you would rather be an eagle or a count, or, rarest of all, some natural aristocrat from these damned democratic states.

Never mind what Lowell’s life actually looked like from inside the poet’s head. This is Mailer raw, doubled up, bare-skinned, and beside himself, on another of those out-of-control occasions—arrested for stabbing his wife; abusive at the fiftieth birthday party for which he had made his guests pay; running for mayor as if he were Ezra Pound (the analogy is Jimmy Breslin’s)—when what he most hated was his helplessness. There was a similar sloppy performance on The Dick Cavett Show with Gore Vidal in 1971, when he broke and ate his own heart on camera:

I’ve been so bold as to pretend to be the presumptive literary champ, you know, whether I deserve to be or not. The reason people always talk about me in relation to Hemingway is that Hemingway at a certain point said to himself with his huge paranoia, “They’re going to kill me for this, but I’m going to be the champ—it’s all I care about.” And he shifted the course of American letters because up to that point people who wrote books were men of letters, they were gentlemen, they wrote books, and Hemingway said, in effect, “No people who write books take as much punishment as prizefighters, and one of them has to be a champion.”…I have presumed, with all my extraordinary arrogance and loutishness and crudeness to step forth and say, “I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.” Well, fine, but you know, they don’t knock you off because they’re too damned simply yellow, and they kick me in the nuts, and I don’t like it.

More people used to talk this way back in the Ike Age when more of us believed that books saved souls, that the novel was sacred script and totemic space, that a novelist was a magus or a mandrake—mediating “between magic and technology” is how Spooky describes the job, performing “acts of conjuration and propitiation”—and that Mailer himself was the very grandest of pianos:

I remember saying in 1958, “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” And I certainly failed, didn’t I? At the time, I thought I had books in me that no one else did, and so soon as I was able to write them, soci-ety would be altered. Kind of grandiose.

But this grandiosity was also why we rooted for him, our kamikaze Don Quixote and our Elvis—War Novel Whippersnapper (“the life of a soldier was good for one writer!”), Brooklyn Bolshevik (“I started Barbary Shore as some sort of fellow traveler and finished it with a political position that was a far-flung mutation of Trotskyism”), Deer Park Game Warden (“bombed and sapped and charged and stoned with lush, with pot, with benny, saggy, coffee, and two packs a day…tiring into what felt like death”), Self-Advertising White Negro (“the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself”), Southern Sheriff, Irish Cop, Mafia Gangster, American Dreamer, Cannibal, Druid, Kabbalist, Orgone Box, Moonman, Sex Crime, and Egyptian. “If I were in a Tarot deck, I’d be the Fool.”

Of course, he embodied another Fifties cliché, the artist who creates himself: the public school boy whose mother sends him away to college with the money saved from her one-truck oil-delivery business; who only goes to Harvard in the first place, where he plays squash and majors in aeronautical engineering, because MIT wanted him to wait until he was seventeen; who drives around in 1942, while waiting for the draft, in an old black Chevrolet convertible given to him by an uncle who got rich from chocolate-covered cherries; who, behind army lines in the Philippines, is a better interpreter of aerial photographs than a typist, but manages to defend himself from redneck bullies while reading Spengler’s Decline of the West; who cashes in on the best-sellerdom of The Naked and the Dead with a job in Hollywood, where he introduces James Jones to Montgomery Clift, but rejects an offer to write a screenplay for Humphrey Bogart; who discovers, in Mexico and Greenwich Village, pot, jazz, violence, bullfights, Wilhelm Reich, God and Satan mano a mano, sex as a source of power instead of pleasure, and Hip as the cat’s meow:

Hip is an American existentialism…based on a mysticism of the flesh, and its origins can be traced back into all the undercurrents and underworlds of American life, back into the instinctive apprehension and appreciation of existence which one finds in the Negro and the soldier, in the criminal psychopath and the dope addict and jazz magician, in the prostitute, in the actor, in the—if one can visualize such a possibility—in the marriage of the call-girl and the psychoanalyst.

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