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Don Quixote at Eighty

This, in a Village Voice column in 1956, was not only a first draft of the “White Negro” essay that Irving Howe would later regret ever having published in Dissent, but also of course a harbinger: The Sixties were coming. Hide your sister.

While writing columns for both Esquire and Commentary, serializing his Crime Without Punishment novel in a monthly magazine, and campaigning on behalf of Fair Play for Cuba, he also wrote a play, directed three movies, somehow managed to elaborate an anthropology and a demonology, a kind of juju, of air-conditioning, shopping malls, fiberglass, transistor radios, frozen foods, campers, cancer, plastic, sewage, fallout, and The Goat (newspapers), and came out against the war in Vietnam in 1965 in the “milk of magnesia” pages of Partisan Review: “If World War II was like Catch-22, this war will be like Naked Lunch.”

On his way with Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills, Lillian Hellman and Andy Warhol, to the moon, he would stage and perform opinions on everything from Marlon Brando (“It is that tragic angelic mask of incommunicable anguish which has spoken to us across the years of his uncharted heroic depths”), to WASPs (“They had divorced themselves from odor in order to dominate time, and thereby see if they were able to deliver themselves from death”), to race (“He was getting tired of Negroes and their rights. It was a miserable recognition, and on many a count, for if he felt even a hint this way, then what immeasurable tides of rage must be loose in America itself?”), to women (“The prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself and conceive children who will improve the species”).

For a while there, at least until an evening at Town Hall with Germaine Greer, he was out in front on the subjects of sex and power. But afterward he seemed stuck, trying to charm his way out of the anal canal, stamping his foot at masturbation, contraception, and abortion. Many years later, on election night 1988, when Hunter S. Thompson finally showed up two hours late at the Ritz in downtown Alphabet City, wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask, waving a rifle, and embarrassing us as if he were a Mailer, I remember thinking that one reason America had come to hate the Sixties was because so many of us who came of political age in that decade were such tiresome performers. Like something exotic—like, say, Madagascar—we had detached ourselves from the Mother Continent, grown our own flora and fauna, and turned into Mikea Pygmies whose feet are pointed backward so they can’t be tracked by their many enemies. Like a bottle-trunked crassulescent baobab, a bygone elephant bird, or a dog-faced, monkey-bodied, panda-coated indri lemur, we were a precious act. On the cusp of extinction, we were showing off instead of hunkering down. In the American Bush, wild Borks were waiting for us.


Irving Howe in the late Sixties felt that the New York intellectuals should have been harder on him, on “Mailer as thaumaturgist of orgasm; as metaphysician of the gut; as psychic herb-doctor; as advance man for literary violence; as dialectician of unreason; and above all, as a novelist who has laid waste to his own formidable talent—these masks of brilliant, nutty restlessness, these papery dikes against squalls of boredom.” Richard Poirier disagreed in 1971: “At his best he seeks contamination. He does so by adopting the roles, the styles, the sounds that will give him a measure of what it’s like to be alive in this country.” At about the same time, Wilfrid Sheed explained: “Whether dealing with yippies or small-town Republicans, Mailer follows the Chestertonian principle of exploring the psychosis proper to the group, the identifying madness, and letting it enter him, like an exorcist opening himself to the devil.”

Even Pauline Kael, while insisting in The New York Times Book Review that “Mailer the soothsayer with his rheumy metaphysics and huckster’s magick is a carny quack” and that his book on Marilyn Monroe, like Freud’s on Leonardo, was “an ecstasy of hypothesis,” conceded that his “low cunning is maybe the best tool anybody ever had” for “reporting the way American rituals and institutions operate” and that when he employed “his brains and feelers,” he was close to the pleasure of movies: “You read him with a heightened consciousness because his performance has zing. It’s the star system in literature; you can feel him bucking for the big time, and when he starts flying it’s so exhilarating you want to applaud.” But Clive James, reviewing the same book for Commentary, was worried:

And as he has so often done before, he makes even the most self-assured of us wonder if we have felt deeply enough, looked long enough, lived hard enough. He comes close to making us doubt our conviction that in a morass of pettiness no great issues are being decided. We benefit from the doubt. But the price he pays for being able to induce it is savage, and Nietzsche’s admonition is beginning to apply. He has gazed too long into the abyss, and now the abyss is gazing into him.

Odd now to think that he was still to publish books on graffiti, boxing, and Henry Miller before winding up his last good decade with The Executioner’s Song (1979), which won all the important prizes, and then finally finishing Ancient Evenings (1983) to yawns or disdain. No wonder another serious novel seemed to recede forever into the orgiastic future. If waiting for Ancient Evenings had been like waiting for the Red Sox, Harlot’s Ghost was like waiting for Zapata, which then turned out to be a 1,310-page novel about the CIA that mysteriously excluded Vietnam, Watergate, Nicaragua, and Iranamok, as well as running drugs, laundering money, and fingering Mandela. After which, it just so happened that he was not as interesting on Oswald, Picasso, and Jesus—what a trifecta!—as he had been on the moon, Marilyn, and Ali.

Then again, maybe his unconscious let him down. Maybe the unconscious is overrated. “What I am postulating,” he said in an interview, “is that the unconscious…has an enormous teleological sense, that it moves towards a goal, that it has a real sense of what is happening to one’s being at each given moment.” In Spooky he personifies it: “Sometimes I think you have to groom the unconscious after you’ve used it, swab it down, treat it like a prize horse who’s a finer animal than you.” But what if your unconscious is full of false consciousness or bad faith? What if it’s more like a trash compactor than a dreamcatcher? What if it’s a diseased hump, a vampire bat, an alien abductor? Somewhere in Pieces and Pontifications, somebody asked him: “Why can’t the unconscious be as error-prone as the conscious?” It was a Freudian question he never answered.

Well, he no longer has to. “One relief to getting older is that I no longer have to square my shoulders every time I go into a bar.” He is a changed tune and melancholy baby now, less Dennis the Menace than Ferdinand the Bull. He’s downsized those rapturous ambitions. We write novels, he says in Spooky, not to revolutionize anybody’s consciousness, but because “of two cardinal impulses (other than to make a living and the desire to be famous). One is to understand ourselves better, and the other is to present what we know about others.” And if those novels aren’t taken seriously anymore,

a large part of the blame must go to the writers of my generation, most certainly including myself…. We’ve spent too much time exploring ourselves. We haven’t done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding. We just expand all over the place, and this spread is about as attractive as collapsed and flabby dough on a stainless steel table.

But listen to him slight his strongest suit, as if his levitation of the Pentagon, his Vulcan mind-meld with the madness of Chicago 1968, his Apollo rocket to the moon, and his rope-a-dope with Muhammad and Mobutu in Zaire hadn’t turned out to be glories of American literature: “One wouldn’t want to spend one’s life at it, and I wouldn’t ever want to be caught justifying journalism as a major activity… but it’s legitimate to see it as a venture of one’s ability to keep in shape rather than as an essential betrayal of the chalice of your art.” Followed by:

I loved journalism for a little while because it gave me what I’d always been weakest in—exactly that, the story. Then I discovered that this was the horror of it. Audiences liked it better…. It was those critical faculties that were being called for rather than one’s novelistic gifts. I must say I succumbed, and spent a good few years working at the edge of journalism because it was so much easier.

If he’d been born twenty-five years later, he might never have written a novel at all. They do not come naturally to him. We bring extenuations and excuses even to our favorites. Whereas no excuses are necessary for his cat-scan journalism, not even the burden of so many wives, so many children, and so much child support. Maybe he should have been more specific here about money, how it varies from stage to screen to slick. (Anyway, most of the old New York intellectual crowd, from Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald to Harold Rosenberg and Irving Howe, ended up writing for glossies.) I’m also sorry he leaves out any mention of writing for television, not only his adaptation of The Executioner’s Song, but screenplays on O.J. Simpson’s Dream Team and FBI superspy Robert Hansen. Nor does this sworn enemy of technology have a single word to say about computers and the Internet. But then I was going to chide him for not reading more writers for us, until I saw his limp biscuits on Toni Morrison. Well enough is left alone.

What’s heartening, while at the same time scary, is that a remarkable generation of American writers keeps on trucking into senior citizenship. Saul Bellow is eighty-seven; Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Grace Paley are eighty; William H. Gass, William Styron, Gore Vidal, John Barth, William Kennedy, Robert Coover, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and John Updike are all in their seventies; and Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, and John Edgar Wideman are in their sixties. This in spite of what Mailer suggests are odds stacked against Quixote to begin with:

Of course, it’s virtually as if writers are there to be ruined. Look at the list: booze, pot, too much sex, too little, too much failure in one’s private life, too much attention, too much recognition, too little recognition, frustration. Nearly everything in the scheme of things works to dull a first-rate talent. But the worst probably is cowardice—as one gets older, one becomes aware of one’s cowardice. The desire to be bold, which once was a joy, gets heavy with caution and duty. And finally there’s apathy. About the time it doesn’t seem too important to be a major writer, you know you’ve slipped far enough to be doing your work on the comeback trail.

There it is again, the cowardice always ready to strike if courage ever nods. It’s time Mailer gave both his courage and his unconscious a well-appointed rest. Pete Seeger, Václav Havel, Dr. King, and Dr. Spock never had to square their shoulders going into a bar. Murray Kempton recalls Mailer at the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago talking about marching with the kids against the cops and mayor: “Norman said that if I would go alone, I had more guts than he did. And I wondered again, as I often have, how insubstantialities like guts can worry men so much more intelligent than I.” And then Kempton adds, with his usual gravity and grace:

The one thing that guts is not is a quality that can be depended on. That is why it is useless continually to test it, because there is always a time when it fails almost anyone. Bravery is irrelevant; unless you have the dangerous good fortune of not knowing you are in danger, the trick is to anticipate; as often as not, you will act badly anytime you are surprised. Dignity, not courage, is all anyone can hope to keep; how odd that Mailer should so little understand his life as not to see that one of its most significant achievements has come not from its tests of his bravery but from its continual salvage of dignity intact.

And so he has: salvaged himself, if not much of a hodgepodge book, from the culture wars into which he plunged, a privateer, a Jolly Roger, on behalf of the rest of us when we were young and needed to be manly, with a peg leg, a parrot, and a plank to walk himself off of whenever the vapors took him. “We sail across dominions barely seen,” he ended his Ancient Evenings, “washed by the swells of time. We plow through fields of magnetism. Past and future come together on thunderheads and our dead hearts live with lightning in the wounds of the Gods.” So happy birthday.

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