Confessions of the Last American

The Armies of the Night: History As Novel; The Novel As History

by Norman Mailer
New American Library, 304 pp., $5.95

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

As one who dislikes Sean O’Casey’s autobiographies, I start with a strong prejudice against authors who write about themselves in the third person, and who have no fear of bombast. It was therefore with some of the feeling of a Christian being dunked in the Ganges that I immersed myself in the Mailerian prose. I had read The Naked and the Dead many years before, and with admiration, but since then I had read only excerpts from his other works. Selected by reviewers who were perhaps unfriendly, these excerpts led me to believe that I must have been wrong the first time.

At a first glance, The Armies of the Night seemed to confirm the impression. The title was an irritant, with its evocation of Arnold’s “ignorant armies”; if the writer cared enough to volunteer for one of the “armies” how could he, so quickly thereafter—and without any notable intervening experience—imply that both sides were fighting in benighted ignorance? This seemed too snappy a disengagement: a tranquility so promptly available casts doubt on the reality of the emotion recollected in it. Were the armies anything more than an impressive setting for the display of the author’s inner struggles? Were the steps of the Pentagon any more for the author than stage props for the most intimate of love-affairs: the Walls of Troy for Norman Troilus and Cressida Mailer?

In both cases, probably, the answers are: a little more, but not much. But as one reads the book—or rather the autobiographical part, “The Steps of the Pentagon,” which makes up the bulk of The Armies of the Night—this ceases to matter. A kind of miracle occurs. This prose, which seems turgid, is precise and witty; its excess is that of gusto, the rare triple triumph of a writer who enjoys writing, believes he is writing very well, and is justified in that belief. This egotism is so vast and lucid that it becomes a kind of modesty, even a medium through which comes new light on the world of which it is the iridescent center. By the sheer force of his intense interest in himself, and therefore in how his friends see him, Mr. Mailer sees his friends with exceptional clarity in their relation to him as well as to “History.”

NOT ALL the friends are quite friends, it is true: Mailer can draw blood; the name “Goodman” in particular, however preceded, seems to evoke dialectically whatever is wicked in him. Nor does he forget old enemies; a Time reporter puts him in mind of “the unhappy furtive presence of a fraternity member on probation for the wrong thing…”; the infestation of the Committee for Cultural Freedom by the C.I.A. “called up pictures of the cockroaches in a slum sink; not all the wines of the Waldorf could wash out a drop of that!”

But he writes well also about the few…

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