Crime Without Punishment

An American Dream

by Norman Mailer
Dial, 270 pp., $4.95

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

This is, to my mind, the most eccentric of the four novels Norman Mailer has written. It is far more eccentric, I think, than Barbary Shore—his second novel and a better one than literary opinion has generally taken it to be—which alienated readers not so much by personal singularity as by the extreme sectarianism of its political theme. In the case of that work it might well be said that the reader, wholly unprepared for that kind of statement, was in a certain sense quite as much at fault for its failure as the author. This latest book, however, has very few if any of the qualities that redeemed Barbary Shore as well as Mailer’s other fictions.

There is nothing here like the brilliantly observed comic episodes in The Deer Park (involving Hollywood producers Teppis and Munshin) or the powerfully sustained narrative-sequence comprising the second part of The Naked and the Dead (the Sergeant Croft section). And the title, An American Dream, strikes me as a misnomer. It implies a generalization about the national life palpably unsupported: either by the weird and sometimes ludicrous details of the story or by the low-level private mysticism informing its imaginative scheme. That mysticism is more or less pseudonymously presented in Mailer’s articles under the flashy and ostensibly impersonal heading of Hip. Now whatever the origin of the term in the underworld of jazz and narcotics, the explication of it that he has been engaged in for some years is at bottom scarcely a report on something that exists outside himself, but is basically a programmatic statement of his own desires, power-drives, and day-dreams. It amounts to a kind of personal mythology projected onto something he chooses to call Hip. I venture to say that real-life hipsters, not romantic youths reading Mailer with relish, would hardly recognize themselves in his free-wheeling description of their motivation and behavior.

The time of this new novel’s action is thirty-two hours, and its frantic action consists of a great deal of sexual activity. It is centered on a murder—the protagonist’s killing of his wife, a bitchy wealthy heiress—during a violent tussle in which hard words and harder blows are exchanged. It is true enough that the murder is unpremeditated, but it can not be said that this act of ultimate violence committed by Stephen Rojack, the protagonist, is merely an accident; in fact he commits it with enormous exhilaration. Already on page 8, before the episode of the killing is introduced, Rojack acknowledges that he had long known there was murder within him, and he speculates that the exhilaration accompanying it must come “from possessing such strength.” “Besides,” he adds, “murder offers the promise of vast relief. It is never unsexual.” (How would he know that, since these thoughts occur to him prior to the experience itself?) Moreover, the long paragraph describing Rojack’s choking Deborah to death is full of…

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