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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Perhaps 7 percent of The Spooky Art is previously unpublished, although it’s hard to tell for sure as you flip to and fro from body text to source notes.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.

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.

3.

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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