What a blog! 3rd-grade simple one day and Norman Mailer the next! Only in the best damn Reserve Room in that messy library known as cyberspace! If only Stormin' Norman had met the former Governor of Alaska in his prime. What a sublime dream matchup on some TV talk show that would have been. One of Mailer's best features was that he did not suffer fools gladly. If only.... If this is (fair & balanced) fantasy, so be it.
The Norman Conquests
By James Wolcott
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[What an active afterlife Norman Mailer has led! He’s left us behind and yet here he buzzes, a prodigious gossip item from beyond the grave. A writer who never stopped making news—from the age of 25, when his best-selling novel The Naked and the Dead captured the first beachhead of postwar American fiction, until his death at the age of 84 in 2007, when the critical ruckus over his final novel, The Castle in the Forest (a metaphysical proctology probe of the incipient evil of Adolf Hitler), shook the branches yet again—Mailer was too warrior-minded to let his words do all the talking. His fists and penis also played principal roles. Perhaps the most highly publicized American author of the modern era, the inheritor of Hemingway’s heavyweight-division machismo and cult of experience (taste that salty sea air, inhale that tarty perfume!), he punched his way through the paper walls of print to test himself on stage and screen (as scriptwriter, actor, and director), in the TV studio (behaving like a wrathful thundercloud in his infamous face-off with Gore Vidal on "The Dick Cavett Show"), on the feminist battlefield (“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you harridans harangue me,” he barked in the 1979 documentary "Town Bloody Hall"), at the political racetrack (he ran for mayor of New York in 1969), and inside the boxing ring (sparring with José Torres on "The Dick Cavett Show"). Violence attended a life driving forward along the knife edge of one’s nerves. Mailer made shock headlines for stabbing his second wife, Adele Morales, at a party after she called him a “faggot,” and for co-sponsoring the release of prisoner Jack Henry Abbott, who, shortly after parole, stabbed a waiter to death in the East Village. By the time Mailer’s life neared its end, however, the fevers he had aroused had mostly burned off, dissipating into the winter sky, his hair and reputation glinting with statesman-like silver. More modesty entered his manner, yet the scale of his intentions remained overarching. Unlike some novelists as they enter the wind-down phase, Mailer didn’t miniaturize his ambitions in his senior years, aiming instead high and wide with mammoths such as Harlot’s Ghost, Oswald’s Tale, and the first installment of the Hitler prose epic, The Castle in the Forest, conceived as a Thomas Mann-ish seven-volume swan song. He intended to go out the way he came in: big.
After death comes inevitable shrinkage, a diminution of interest that can taper off into near-total indifference. (When’s the last time Jerzy Kosinski’s name lit up the board?) An admirable support system and a prolific publishing rollout have kept the Mailer enterprise from suffering a similar posthumous dip. Founded in 2003, the Norman Mailer Society sponsors conferences and publishes a thick annual issue devoted to Maileriana, and Mailer’s former home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, has been converted into a writer’s colony, with scholarships offered. Reissues of his works pound off the presses, including The Faith of Graffiti and an extravagantly illustrated edition of Of a Fire on the Moon, titled MoonFire. Excerpts from Mailer’s tremendous correspondence have been published in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The New York Review of Books, and a new biography is being written by Stephen Schiff, a former contributing editor at Vanity Fair. All very fitting and worthy. But now some of the old bumps in the night have come back to bite, raising unwelcome questions.
Three memoirs have been published this year alone about contending with being inside the particle collider of Mailer’s company and charisma, testaments ranging from the doting and domestic Mornings with Mailer, by Dwayne Raymond, Mailer’s cook and assistant at the house in Provincetown, to the glittery but trauma-racked A Ticket to the Circus, by Norris Church, Mailer’s statuesque, pale-moon widow, to the score-settling Loving Mailer, by Carole Mallory, one of Mailer’s countless extra-curricular hotsies. Although diametrically opposite in tone and texture, the last two books bear the puncture marks of Mailer’s satyr horns.
Like so many conquering heroes of his literary generation (a male fraternity to which the critic Vivian Gornick has devoted so much frowning attention), Norman Mailer had a “woman problem” that bedeviled his reputation while he was extant and may have cost him sales—half of a potential audience is a lot of alienation of affection to risk—and will do it few favors with future readers and literary reckoners. It isn’t simply a matter of sensitive types recoiling when Mailer or one of his Don Draper alter egos imposes his will on women and the world with a firm sausage, as with the spirited buggery of the German maid in An American Dream, his bestowing the title of “Retaliator” on his cock in The Prisoner of Sex, or the alchemical qualities he ascribes to male ejaculate in the Marilyn Monroe biography. (“He sees it as a one-way process, of course,” wrote Pauline Kael in her review, mocking Mailer’s magic-squirt-gun theory.) Being a male chauvinist isn’t an automatic disqualifier in the fiction department, and there are novelists tagged with the misogynist label who have rendered sympathetic, perceptive, full-dimensional portraits of female characters (crusty Kingsley Amis’s Rhiannon in The Old Devils, John Updike’s Joan Maple in the Maples stories). The crippler is that in his writing Mailer was psychologically, creatively, empathetically tone-deaf when it came to women, his female characters a creamy mélange of angel-whores whose lipstick was ripe for smearing—a Playboy Bunny mansion of haughty bitches and breathy ditzes whose dialogue bore no resemblance to indoor speech. One of the imponderables about Mailer’s career is that even though he bobbed and deep-sea’d in an ocean of women—six wives, countless mistresses and casual flings, five daughters—he doesn’t seem to have actually learned anything from them, because he never really listened. Because who needs to listen when you insist on and succeed in getting nearly everything your own way? Genius has its privileges, and male prerogative provides extra thrust.
It’s difficult to forgive Mailer for the wringer he put Norris Church through, even if forgiveness isn’t ours to withhold or grant. In A Ticket to the Circus, the former teacher and model describes her unlikely romance and marriage with Mailer in a memoir that is generous, sweet, well observed, harrowing in its recounting of a rape and a miscarriage, and occasionally waspish, but never unkind. Although Mailer serenaded her with love letters the likes of which Abelard never wrote Eloise (“Darling, I just had a picture of how you look in the morning with that incredible beauty in your face as if you’d been fucking a stag in your dreams and he said something lovely as he left you in my arms”—fancy that, a talking stag!), prominent bystanders, wise to Norman’s ways, waved caution flags to warn her of heartbreak ahead. Elizabeth Hardwick, novelist and essayist, cautioned “with that croaky little giggle she had” not to let him get her pregnant, and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, whose voice, Mailer once wrote, could boil the fat off a cabdriver’s neck, gave Norris her phone number as a 24-hour personal emergency hotline. Norris shooed away such well-intended, buttinsky advice, and her May–December romance with Norman resulted in a marriage whose installments became a staple of the gossip columns and celebrity spreads, her Juno-esque height and his howitzer stare embossing them as one of New York’s most totemic 80s couples, matching accessories. Unlike Mailer’s previous marriages, this one looked as if it would be his climactic toreador turn in the matrimonial ring, his final Picasso period. Asked which Mailer wife was she, Norris would tartly reply, “The last one,” and so she proved to be.
But at what a bruising and exacting price, a long season of blight and betrayal that cannot fail to leave discolored memories that even death can’t entirely pacify. It began with a twitchy suspicion, a bit of dodgy behavior from Mailer during a trip to California (an uncharacteristic late-night phone call in which “he was vague and defensive and obviously had been drinking”), along with credit-card receipts from Chicago, which hadn’t been on the itinerary. He claimed he had made the unscheduled stop to meet with Saul Bellow about a joint project, a fib so preposterous that it collapsed as soon as the Alpha-Bits sputtered out of his mouth. Busted, Mailer confessed to meeting with an old girlfriend, but it was no one-off for auld lang syne; Norris tugged on the loose string in the evidence chain and found herself deluged by a balloon drop of floozies, a Clinton-esque bimbo explosion. (Interestingly, Norris reveals in the book that she had a brief tryst with the future president.) Mailer’s desk bulged with letters, notes, gifts, and photographs from girlfriends, including a stack of nudies from “an aging porn star,” the kind of tender keepsake with which so many men would find it difficult to part. Mailer’s rationale for his furtive rampage of satyriasis was that he had begun living a double life and was conducting covert operations in the sack while working on his C.I.A. epic, Harlot’s Ghost, a writer’s version of a Method actor getting into character. “It was an imaginative excuse. I do give him credit for that,” Norris writes. But given the long gestation of Harlot’s Ghost, this meant that for half of their marriage up till then, 8 out of the 16 years, “he was totally, blindingly, a cheat.” Adding insult to infidelity, she finds herself bumping into her husband’s former harem partners on book tours and at parties, forced to restrain herself from whipping out Wonder Woman’s golden lasso on one of these hussies for fear the paparazzi would have a field day. “Why had I been so consumed by this old, fat, bombastic, lying little dynamo?,” Norris Church asks in the reeling aftermath. But they patched themselves together and toughed it out until the last round, through the faltering arc of his infirmities and her unsparing bouts of cancer, kidney pain, and intestinal operations, bound by devotion, attrition, and too much shared history to declare their marriage kaput.
What has this to do with Mailer’s literary legacy? Not listening to women in general handicapped Mailer’s fiction and not listening to Norris in particular was a literary felony, like refusing to ask for directions and driving hundreds of miles into the mouth of mounting despair. She implored him to junk the interminable narrative detours in Harlot’s Ghost that took the novel so wearily astray, losing readers in droves, and lobbied in vain for him to fix the clangers in his screenplay of his pulp novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance (including the immortal howler “Oh, man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh shit and shinola,” uttered by Ryan O’Neal, looking as if he wants to enter a witness-protection program for mortified actors). Raymond’s Mornings with Mailer records that Norris was none too enthused by the prospect of her husband’s Hitler opera cycle and of having the top floor of their house converted into something resembling “a Nazi propaganda vault”: “Her feeling was that any subject floating around in the house that was so inherently evil could not be good.” How right her premonitions were, given the dense spoilage that The Castle in the Forest became. If only he had heeded her!
But heedlessness was what helped propel this human cannonball into the highs of The Armies of the Night and the other daredevil triumphs as well as the belly flops into the sawdust where he wildly, erratically overshot. For better (brash, brilliant, generous, ebullient, defiant) or worse (stubborn, bullying, hyperbolic, coarse), he was what he was, and to wish otherwise is to play nursemaid in hindsight. Still, this woman thing—it’s a stickler. Literary scholarship has peeled away Hemingway’s hearty bluster to reveal an androgynous side hidden under his safari jacket, but I don’t see that happening here. Ω
[James Wolcott joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 1983, left in 1992 to be a staff writer at The New Yorker, and returned in 1997. He writes a monthly column covering the media, politics, and pop culture. In 2003, he received a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. Wolcott began his career in the circulation department of The Village Voice in 1972 and became a regular contributor two years later, writing some of the earliest articles about the punk scene. Wolcott has written numerous reviews for such publications as The New Republic, The New Criterion, and The Nation. He is also the author of The Catsitters (2001), a novel, as well as Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants (2004). Wolcott attended Maryland's Frostburg State College for two years. From there, he moved to New York City to work at The Village Voice.]
Copyright © 2010 Vanity Fair Condé Nast Digital
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