Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer; drawing by David Levine

Henry James said that no one could survive being an American success, and that was back in the age of innocence before they invented the book tour. James hadn’t been shuttled around the country from one broadcasting station to the next or lain on a bed in Washington, DC, and been interviewed, live, by a disc jockey in Washington State. The tribulations involved in achieving modern American literary success have grown in direct proportion to the publishers’ anxiety about protecting their investments. The better known the author, the larger the advance he commands, and the more frantic the promotion he is subjected to. Yet at the end, if a book sells 50,000 copies and edges onto the best-seller list, its author can console himself only with the thought that, although he may have been seen and heard by millions, he has been read, at best, by an average of one thousand people in each state of the Union.

To the writer this may be of no great importance since he submits to this trial by interview not, as Freud said, because “he longs to attain to honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women,” but because he needs to sell enough copies of his last book in order to have the financial security to get on with the next. But the effect on his readership is something else: a commercially marketed author ceases to be an anonymous story-teller known only through what he writes; he becomes a face on TV or a voice from the speakers, a personality. And gradually, the audience comes to prefer the personality to the work because personalities are less demanding than art, and the sometimes scandalous lives of writers can be more diverting than the books they produce.

To complicate the issue, the direction of art in the second half of this century—from the existentialists and action painters through Lowell’s Life Studies and Plath’s last poems to the zanier reaches of confessional verse—has been to break down the barrier between the artist and the work. The two complement each other, and art becomes a fragment with a frame around it, a temporary clearing of calm and order that emerges from the chaos of life and then is swallowed up in it again. Caught between an aesthetic theory that insists on the indivisibility of art and life and marketing techniques that peddle the author as a property in his own right, fewer and fewer readers, one suspects, bother to distinguish fantasy from truth. In the confusion, Roth comes to equal Portnoy, Heller, Yossarian, and Mailer is a literary creation in his own right.

This is an ironic fate for Philip Roth, since he is among the most “literary” of modern American novelists. He is a graduate of the Arnoldian Fifties when literature was considered the supreme discipline for aspiring young moralists—more serious than politics, more subtle than religion. His idols are the monks of fiction—Flaubert, Kafka, Babel, James—recluses dedicated to perfection, for whom failure was more real than success because they at least knew how far short they had fallen from what they might have done. E.I. Lonoff, the Babel redivivus of The Ghost Writer, has pinned above his desk, as a permanent warning against pride, Henry James’s sad credo: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” Roth himself seems to have more in common with Lonoff than with Nathan Zuckerman, the hero of his last three novels—The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson. Unlike Lonoff, Roth gives interviews, but mostly in order to emphasize the monastic tedium of his life in rural seclusion, working every day, avoiding the world of literary gossip and promotion, using his reputation to help publish novelists from iron curtain countries who, without him, might not have easily found an audience in the West. (He is general editor of the excellent Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe.”)

In short, an exemplary life in literature: dedicated, boring, solitary. Yet he is established in the popular fantasy as a man obsessed—with sex, with Jews, with himself. It is true he is obsessed, but mostly, it seems, as an accountant or psychoanalyst or a philologist is obsessed—that is, with his work, and what it costs him in freedom. As Nathan Zuckerman puts it in The Anatomy Lesson:

He thought he had chosen life but what he had chosen was the next page. Stealing time to write stories, he never thought to wonder what time might be stealing from him. Only gradually did the perfecting of a writer’s iron will begin to feel like the evasion of experience, and the means to imaginative release, to the exposure, revelation, and invention of life, like the sternest form of incarceration. He thought he’d chosen the intensification of everything and he’d chosen monasticism and retreat instead…. When, some years later, he went to see a production of Waiting for Godot, he said afterwards to the woman who was then his lonely wife, “What’s so harrowing? It’s any writer’s ordinary day. Except you don’t get Pozzo and Lucky.”

But in modern America the life of a literary loner with a best seller to his credit is as suspect and vulnerable as any other life that goes public. Roth deals with the discrepancy between the ideal of literary life and its glum reality by milking the situation for black comedy. In a recent Paris Review interview (Fall 1984) he had this to say of the Zuckerman trilogy:


I decided…to focus on the unreckoned consequences of a life in art in the world that I knew best. I realized that there were already many wonderful and famous stories and novels by Henry James and Thomas Mann and James Joyce about the life of the artist, but none I knew of about the comedy that an artistic vocation can turn out to be in the USA.

Foremost among those unreckoned consequences is the great, hallucinating, unhinging phenomenon of success American-style: neither honor nor power but riches, fame, and the love of women leading to more riches, more fame, more women—an inflationary spiral ending in a condition much like Rimbaud’s systematic derangement of the senses.

The Zuckerman trilogy spans twenty years, from the complacency of Eisenhower to Nixon’s Watergate. In the opening book Zuckerman is an awe-struck young apprentice, fresh out of college, getting his first astonished glimpse of a life in art. By the second book he is already in shock from the effects of a scandalous best seller; his father dies cursing him, and all the nuts in New York believe he owes them.

The Anatomy Lesson is set in 1973, about ten years later. Zuckerman is still rich, still famous, still beset by women, but now the effect is, literally, to prostrate him. He spends much of the book flat on his back on a play mat, his head supported by a thesaurus, martyred by an undiagnosable pain in his neck and shoulders, and ministered to by an eager team of young women. The thesaurus is a glum reminder of his youthful promise: “Its inside cover was inscribed ‘From Dad—You have my every confidence,’ and dated ‘June 24, 1946.’ A book to enrich his vocabulary upon graduation from grade school.” Vain hope. Physical pain and the depredations of a life in art have stopped him from writing. The young man who had felt daring when he and Lonoff passed a whole evening sipping—but not finishing—one small brandy apiece, now survives on vodka, Percodan, and marijuana.

The Zuckerman trilogy is about obsession, a subject that has always provoked Roth’s best writing. Young Zuckerman is obsessed with the nobility of the literary vocation. Ten years older and a good deal wiser, unbound Zuckerman is obsessed with the squalid backlash of fame. In The Anatomy Lesson vocation and success have rotted down to a debilitating physical pain which, in turn, becomes the object of his obsession. Zuckerman consults doctors, osteopaths, psychoanalysts, dolorists; he spends an excrutiating week in traction; he gobbles Butazolidin, Robaxin, Percodan, Valium, Prednisone, as well as booze and dope; he reads medical books as compulsively as he once read the Great Masters and is authoritative no longer on life and art and morals but only on his own private anatomy of melancholy:

His rib cage was askew. His clavicle was crooked. His left scapula winged out at its lower angle like a chicken’s. Even his humerus was too tightly packed into the shoulder capsule and inserted in the joint on the bias.

It is the comedy of a man who can’t stop himself. No matter how dire the circumstances, Nathan Zuckerman remains a straight-A student who always does his homework.

Literature has become, literally, a pain in the neck, and so, too, has the literary demimonde, particularly as personified by Milton Appel, Harvard professor, literary critic, and inquisitorial defender of the faith who has savaged our hero for betraying all those moral standards the young Zuckerman had been brought up to revere. Appel thereby becomes another obsession and much of the first part of the book is taken up with Zuckerman’s increasingly deranged attempts to answer his tormentor in kind. Appel’s chief crime is another of the “unreckoned consequences of a life in art” in modern America: a dogged literalness that refuses to distinguish between the author and the characters he has invented. “Life and art are distinct, thought Zuckerman; what could be clearer? Yet the distinction is wholly elusive. That writing is an act of imagination seems to perplex and infuriate everyone.”


It is on this issue that Zuckerman and Roth seem most at one, since Roth himself is now ritually chastised by critics for his self-absorption and narrowness of range. When the Paris Review asked the inevitable question, he answered:

Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift…. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend…. You don’t necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don’t. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it—all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life.

What excites Roth’s verbal life—and provokes his readers—is, he seems to suggest, the opportunity fiction provides to be everything he himself is not: raging, whining, destructive, permanently inflamed, unstoppable. Irony, detachment, and wisdom are given unfailingly to other people. Even Diana, Zuckerman’s punchy twenty-year-old mistress who will try anything for a dare, sounds sane and bored and grown-up when Zuckerman is in the grip of his obsession. The truly convincing yet outlandish caricature in Roth’s repertoire is of himself.

When Roth talks about exciting his verbal life he apparently means exactly what he says. He writes as skillfully as any novelist around, yet the texture of his prose is curiously plain and undemonstrative. His strength is a virtually infallible ear for the rhythm not just of sentences but of whole paragraphs. Lonoff put it best: “I don’t mean style…I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head.” But this reliance on voice and impetus and buzz has its price, notably Roth’s cavalier attitude toward his plots. Like Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson finishes with most of its loose ends untied. Halfway through the book Zuckerman abruptly decides to abandon literature, return to school—that contained, magical world of his childhood when everyone who mattered thought he was wonderful—and become a doctor. He takes off for Chicago, where he went to the university, leaving behind his four mistresses. But three of them—Diana, the streetwise WASP, devoted Jenny, the artist, and Jaga, the Polish exile—are too sharply drawn, too full of quirky life, to be left blankly in the lurch. Jaga in particular is a marvelous character, vulnerable and cynical, with a black, Eastern European slant on the world. Yet she, like the others, is simply abandoned when Zuckerman takes off on the next lap of his crazed odyssey. The plot and the people matter less than the opportunity for another voice, another caricature.

En route for Chicago, Zuckerman stops being the nice Jewish boy who wants to be a doctor, assumes the name of the detested Milton Appel, and pretends he is the worst of all possible Jewish boys, a porno king, master of the orgy and professor of dirty rhetoric. This pseudo-Appel’s tirade becomes more anarchic, more furious, more unbuttoned as the beloved Chicago of Zuckerman’s student days recedes from him. It ends the only way it can when Zuckerman, in a Jewish cemetery, surrounded by the gravestones of all those obdurate fore-fathers whose grip on his life he feels he will never pry loose, falls and breaks his jaw. And this, as Roth puts it in the Paris Review, is the final solution of his Jewish problem:

It isn’t what it’s talking about that makes a book Jewish—it’s that the book won’t shut up. The book won’t leave you alone. Won’t let up. Gets too close. “Listen, listen—that’s only the half of it!” I knew what I was doing when I broke Zuckerman’s jaw. For a Jew a broken jaw is a terrible tragedy.

The book closes with Zuckerman, all passion spent, moving wanly around the hospital as a patient, discovering for himself what everyday suffering looks and smells and sounds like. Nothing is resolved except his rage—neither the pain in his neck, nor his unsatisfactory career, nor the girls he left behind. But at least the voice sounds quieter, as though Zuckerman, released from his monk’s cell into the mundane, unliterary horror of lives at the ends of their tethers, is at last, mercifully, at a loss for words. But this is not quite the end of Zuckerman. Later this year the trilogy will appear in one volume together with a novella-length epilogue, “The Prague Orgy.” It sounds like another version of the black comedy of the unreckoned consequences of a life in art—but this time in Czechoslovak style, with Zuckerman as an appalled onlooker.

Like Roth, Joseph Heller has never been much concerned with plots. Even in Catch-22 the most important incidents—Milo’s bombing of the squadron, the death of Snowden—were buried deep in the novel like nuggets, sniffed at, lost, circled, lost, and found. The plot of God Knows is common property: the life and hard times of David, king of Israel, chiefly as recounted in the First and Second Books of Samuel and retold in the voice of an aging pilot from Catch-22. There are no surprises there, although Heller moves in circles as usual, starting with David on his deathbed (Kings I) and moving backward and forward in time as the mood takes him. No surprises, either, in the choice of subject matter: in 1970 Dan Jacobson took an incident from David’s troubled reign and based on it an acid and elegant novel, The Rape of Tamar. But Jacobson’s short book was traditional fiction—full of vivid physical presences and convoluted motives. God Knows, though more than twice as long, is curiously bodiless by comparison. Only Abishag the Shunammite, the exquisite virgin who warms the ancient king’s bed, is described in (loving) detail. The rest are voices. Or rather, one voice: the whole book is a monologue, sometimes rambling, often repetitive—after all, the narrator is very old—but sustained by a nagging, wisecracking, self-justifying energy given only to those who are absolutely convinced of the purity of their motives. Even on his deathbed, the king is still “David, the boy wonder,” cocky and indulged, wounded, self-righteous, gifted.

Like most spoiled children, David is carrying on a nonstop, sulky argument with Dad. Not with Jesse, his real father, who scarcely merits a mention from his upwardly mobile son, but with God Himself by Whom David feels himself to have been irretrievably wronged and to Whom he will no longer speak:

I’ve got this ongoing, open-ended Mexican stand-off with God…. He owes me an apology, but God won’t budge so I won’t budge. I have my faults, God knows, and I may even be among the first to admit them, but to this very day I know in my bones that I’m a much better person than He is.

David is also involved in a Mexican standoff with Bathsheba, the great love of his life as well as the great lay: he wants to make love to her once more for old times’ sake; she wants him to name her son Solomon as his successor. These two wrangles provide the novel with suspense: Will He, won’t He? Will she, won’t she? The rest is grumbling reminiscence about the rough ride David has had since God, in His questionable wisdom, chose David himself to succeed Saul to the throne of Israel: the years in the wilderness with either Saul or the Philistines at his throat; the troubles with his sons, brothers, nephews, in-laws, wives. (Michal, Saul’s daughter, is the first Jewish American Princess; when she helps David escape the assassins sent by her father, her last words are, “Do you have your mouthwash?”) All in all, life has not been quite what he had expected when he slew Goliath and charmed everyone with his poems and his singing.

The story is not important. The wars, treachery, love affairs, and family feuds are an excuse for a monologue that has less in common with The Rape of Tamar than with Mel Brooks’s 2000-Year-Old Man:

Some Promised Land. The honey was there, but the milk we brought in with our goats. To people in California, God gives a magnificent coastline, a movie industry, and Beverly Hills. To us He gives sand. To Cannes He gives a plush film festival. We get the PLO. Our winters are rainy, our summers hot. To people who didn’t know how to wind a wristwatch He gives underground oceans of oil. To us He gives hernia, piles, and anti-Semitism.

The gags never stop, and they come in all shapes and sizes. They are clever one-liners (“Like cunnilingus, tending sheep is dark and lonely work; but someone has to do it”) and stand-up comic tirades (“and that’s another thing that pisses me off about that Michelangelo statue of me in Florence. He’s got me standing there uncircumsised! Who the fuck did he think I was?”). To have a biblical king who talks like some disreputable Uncle Max from Brooklyn is one source of Heller’s jokes. The other is his use of famous quotes. David, as he himself sees it, is not just a poet, he is the poet who was subsequently plagiarized by everybody from Shakespeare to Auden. Above all, he was plagiarized by his son Solomon, the family dimwit (“that putz“), who solemnly scratches down on a clay tablet his father’s throwaway lines. One purpose of David’s monologue is to set right the literary accounts by recording who said what to whom:

“Comfort him with apples” was the suggestion of Abner, captain of all Saul’s host. “Stay him with flagons.”

When apples and flagons failed to work, someone in attendance suggested music as a remedy known to have charms to soothe a savage breast.

“No shit?” said Abner.

The jokes are so plentiful and at times so good that it seems churlish to complain that they don’t add up to much, particularly when Heller himself appears, in a recent interview (Conversations With American Writers, by Charles Ruas),* to be that rarest of famous novelists, a genuinely modest man:

Given enough time with any dialogue I write, I can have somebody make a remark which will produce a response. And it will be funny…. Comedy for me is something to use, and because I do it easily, I don’t do it sparingly…. If you ask me to justify [this] in literary terms, I can’t. I just have a feeling it’s right…. I’m a pretty cheerful guy. All I’m trying to do is write good novels…. I’m doing what I can, and luckily what I can do is interesting to people.

What he can also do is write movingly about the downbeat emotions of middle age: affection, exasperation, forgiveness. But the one thing his freewheeling imagination seems in this book unable to encompass is a world very different from a Catskill resort. Catch-22 was crammed with characters with lives of their own. God Knows has no one except a King David re-created in the image of an aging Jewish funnyman. It is the Gospel According to Henny Youngman, entertaining but centerless and not quite coherent, unless you postulate an audience that merely wants a novel to be a vehicle for a performance.

Norman Mailer has been grappling with the problem of American success for the whole of his career. He is a master of the public occasion—daring, clever, imaginative, charming, fast on his feet—and no one has tried harder to close the gap between the author and the work, producing theories and writing books that illustrate them with extraordinary persistence. Each novel seems another stage on the journey he charted more than a quarter of a century ago in “The White Negro,” his essay on the psychopath as “existential hero,” the “frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life,” who “murders—if he has the courage—out of the necessity to purge his violence, for if he cannot empty his hatred then he cannot love.”

The cast of Tough Guys Don’t Dance are psychopaths without exception. They drink too much, they take dope of all kinds and have sex in every possible combination, indiscriminately. They also do monstrous things to one another without a moment’s afterthought: chop off heads, blow out brains, flail about with blunt and sharp instruments. “There’s a peculiar pleasure in shooting people,” one of them says. “It’s much more intoxicating than you’d think.” But not for the reader. Psychopathology of the kind Mailer dramatizes here seems to me to be a recipe for weariness, not excitement. The people are dreadful without being interesting and their violence doesn’t mean a thing—“existentially” or otherwise—except as a means of alleviating their drugged boredom or goosing the plot.

The book is a thriller with psychic overtones and a sturdily Maileresque hero. Tim Madden is a one-time boxer, barman, millionaire’s gofer, and convict who has settled in Provincetown and become a writer. One morning he wakes up with a hangover to find blood on the seat of his Porsche and a severed blond head in the secret hole where he hides his marijuana. He remembers nothing of the previous evening. Has he finally crossed the forbidden line and become a killer, or is he simply a provoker of murder in others?

As a thriller, the book is closer in spirit to Mickey Spillane than to Dashiell Hammett. Hammett, with his elegant plots and glacial clarity, would have disdained Mailer’s remorseless use of coincidence and his sloppy prose (“A faint sound, husky and sensual as the earth itself, stirred in her throat. It was marvelous”). Above all, he would have disdained the way Madden glories in violence. Hammett’s laconic private eyes may accept mayhem as part of the day’s work, but in the end it sickens them and their toughness becomes a burden. For Madden violence is a manly, purifying force he aspires to: “With anger such as ours, murder—most terrifying to say—could prove the cure for all the rest.”

Those are much the same words as Mailer used in “The White Negro” to justify private violence as the mirror image of the large-scale forces at work just below the bland surface of modern society. But now he no longer seems concerned with civilization and its discontents. The psychic forces invoked in Tough Guys are vaguer and more gothic, and Madden’s attitude to them is curiously passive for an existential hero: “I’m prey to the spirits,” he says of one of the murders. “If I did do it, I was in some kind of coma. I would have been carried to it by the spirits.”

The spirits take many forms in the novel. Punchdrunk Harpo, the best-drawn character in the book, hears spooky, prophetic voices on the wind, while the ghosts of the whores and smugglers of Hell Town—Provincetown’s nineteenth-century red-light district—whisper to Madden continually. But the spirits are also there as an excuse, as a way of invoking a mood with the least possible effort: “Was there a real fever in the air?…I suppose the spirits were tugging at the beer-drenched sponge of whatever collective mind was here.”

Mailer here seems a long way from the precision and persistence with which he once explored the destructive element. In Advertisements for Myself he announced, “I am imprisoned with a perception which will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time.” Central to that perception was the belief that literature must cope with the violent underside of the psyche. Twenty-five years and nineteen books later that perception has been frittered away in random nastiness. Despite seven corpses, the dark forces exist in Tough Guys not as manifestations of another world or another style of awareness but as nothing more interesting than the fumes from the dope and booze ingested by one and all during the long Provincetown winters.

This Issue

April 11, 1985