Monday, November 12, 2007

The life of our time

Norman Mailer -- the “presumptive general” of American letters, bibulous provocateur, showman, existentialist, misogynist, wannabe mayor, and lover of women, essayist, journalist, novelist, playwright, director, six times a husband and nine times a father, author of more than 30 books and burr under many complacent saddles of American life, died Nov. 10, of renal failure at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, at the age of 84.

With his passing, American literature has lost perhaps the greatest literary exponent of that “greatest generation” Tom Brokaw has championed – and every generation since. His was the life of our time.

In a career that spanned just short of sixty years, he threw light – often raw and interrogation-brilliant, sometimes refracted through the prism of a formidable ego – into a multitude of America’s hidden corners.

The phrase “presumptive general” fit its subject perfectly. All we ever really knew about him was a consequence of conflict. It informed our first understanding of who Mailer was. His debut novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” a fictionalization of a patrol experience in the Pacific theater of the war, was published in 1948, and remained No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for 11 straight weeks.

He constantly harangued with the press as his prodigious output continued. Works that followed were variously attempts to reveal some deeper, inner precincts of the human experience, including sex, power, and the third-rail issue for our American time, race -- or attempts to extrapolate the turmoil and chaos of his own life to the tumult of his times.

He stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a penknife in 1960. He arm-wrestled with Muhammad Ali in 1965. While filming “Maidstone” in 1968, he bit off part of Rip Torn’s ear after Torn reportedly attacked him with a hammer.

Mailer was on point for some of the pivotal protest events of the Vietnam War era, including the 1967 march on the Pentagon (resulting in “The Armies of the Night” and his first Pulitzer Prize) and the 1968 Republican convention, an assignment for Esquire that led to “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” His style had evolved amid the battles of the day -- the Times’ Charles McGrath described it as “bold, poetic, metaphysical, even shamanistic.”

If his delivery was evolving, so too were his interests. “Of a Fire on the Moon,” initially an assignment for Life magazine, became a book on the 1969 U.S. moon landing. “King of the Hill” was a short but arresting reportage of the second Ali-Joe Frazier fight.

His writings would come over the years to ricochet around history, from “Ancient Evenings,” his ambitious novel on ancient Egypt, to “Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” a hard-boiled detective story, from “Marilyn,” a coffeetable appreciation of Marilyn Monroe as pop-culture archetype to the book generally regarded as his best – “The Executioner’s Song,” his deeply-felt, passionately-drawn study of the life of murderer Gary Gilmore, for which Mailer won his second Pulitzer Prize.

In 1991 the novel “Harlot’s Ghost” ventured the Central Intelligence Agency as a kind of postwar government secret society, a clandestine cross of MI6 and the Vatican. A biography of Picasso was issued in 1995; in 1997 he published “The Gospel According to the Son,” a first-person novel about Jesus.

There was vast sweep and unquenchable interest. But Michiko Kakutani, a frequent antagonist and writing Nov. 10 in the International Herald Tribune, regretted Mailer’s inability to write some hypothetical Big One, doing so in language that let death awaken no sympathy.

“Instead of writing a great Tolstoyan novel about America that would "speak to one's time" and capture the social and political pulse of the nation, he increasingly produced tendentious novels that were scaffolds for his eccentric, sometimes perverse ideas about violence and sex and power, what he once called "the mysteries of murder, suicide, incest, orgy, orgasm and Time."

Mailer has been accused of literary prostitution, of cranking out books more motivated by compensation than by inspiration. But the accusations seem mean-spirited and out of character with people who would truly understand the process of literature. Never mind that he needed the money, most writers can relate to that. But Mailer’s diversity of topic, of the focus on his creative and emotional lens at any given time, must eventually reflect a diversity of mind, if a thematically scattered one.

To accuse him of enduring hubris and self-importance about his writing and his role in the wider national life is to finally accuse every writer of having nothing more or less than ambition. What major leaguer with any self-respect doesn’t want to swing for the fences every time he steps to the plate? What heavyweight champion in mothballs doesn’t harbor the dream of one more fight?

Somehow, in his embrace of combat was our own. Charles McGrath, writing in the Times, described him, fairly, it must be said, as “an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.”

In the 1970s it was combat with feminists and proponents of women’s liberation. In the celebrated raucous April 1971 debate with “The Female Eunuch” author Germain Greer, he declared himself an “enemy of birth control.”

At times his provocations seemed less based in any serious differences on feminine issues, and more the willful exercise, like the child who pulls the wing off a fly just to see what happens. Sometimes to riotous result:

At the University of Colorado, just after beginning a speaking engagement in 1973, he called on the women in the audience – angry proponents of women’s liberation, then in its heyday as a social movement -- to “hiss me resoundingly.” When the women complied, Mailer replied with a perfect timing. “Thank you, obedient little bitches,” he said.

Maybe, Gore Vidal once seemed to suggest, it was showmanship for its own sake. Vidal, one of Mailer’s more storied and frequent antagonists, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

For all his eccentricities, he seemed to remain hard-wired to shifts not of the public mood, but of the public psyche. In 1984 Mailer was the main force in bringing together writers for a conference, “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State,” perhaps sensing even then (two years into Reagan America) the value in discussing the divergence of imagination in the two vast spheres of public life.

Speaking in an interview with Andrew O’Hagan at the New York Public Library in June 2007 -- well into the era of 9/11, this time that has rattled America’s sense of its own existence -- Mailer expressed what far too many Americans seem to feel these days: a sense of loving but almost fatalistic resignation to the quirks and volatilities of the one you can never leave. “In a certain sense, I’ve been angry at America most of the years of my life, but I’ve always been in love with America in the oddest fashion. … In other words, one’s country is one’s mate.”

And for writers, the practitioners of a solitary craft, one of his valedictory comments, shortly before his passing, is troubling – or damn well should be.

“I think the novel is on the way out,” Mailer said. “I also believe, because it’s natural to take one’s own occupation more seriously than others, that the world may be the less for that.”

Setting aside the possibility of that comment as his outsize ego’s parting shot – “When I’m gone, it’s all over” – it’s perhaps better to reach for the deeper point he made, one consistent with his philosophy as well as his observations: that in a relentless 24/7 age of instant communication – witness the blogs and message board we speak through at this moment – the novel may call on powers of rumination and reflection that are rapidly dissipating; nuance, shading and personality are flattened to accommodate a growing impatience; the subtleties of the tale are subject to abbreviation based not on its own substance but on our quickly vanishing time in which to absorb it.

Today, the story is too easily storyboarded. For the way we would communicate the texture and nuance of our traditions, our cultures, our values and dreams, there can be no clearer warning than that.

He did not go quietly. Mailer was a bitter foe of the Bush White House, condemning the weaponized misnomers of the administration in the furtherance of various Bush initiatives, particularly the war in Iraq.

He took on the Bush administration with the same brio as in his heyday, when he sparred with Johnson and Nixon for the inanities of their respective White House tenures. In 2007 he called George Bush “[t]he worst president in America’s history. He’s ignorant, he’s arrogant, he’s stupid in all ways but one, which is he’s immensely shrewd about the American people, particularly the less intelligent half of America.”

But for the most part, in his later years he was less a brawler than a champion in his winter, weighing in with pronouncements justifiably but reliably more mandarin in sparsity and style with every passing year.

The Times’ Charles McGrath captured perfectly the bearded, emeritus Mailer, recalling “something he had said at the National Book Award ceremony in 2005, when he was given a lifetime achievement award: that he felt like an old coachmaker who looks with horror at the turn of the 20th century, watching automobiles roar by with their fumes.”

In “The Spooky Art,” his 2003 cut-and-paste catalog of mea culpas, and a reckoning of the literal performance of his art and his craft, Mailer offers another telling aspect of his philosophy, a gauntlet throwdown, a valedictory and a summation of his life as durable for a headstone as for history itself.

“[H]e has had the courage to be bold where others might cry insanity.”

That our epitaphs should be the same.

So long Norman. Requiscat in pace, Nachem Malek.


Photograph by Carl Van Vechten

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