International Writers Magazine: From our archives: Norman Mailer appraised
Mailer had more in common with his female adversaries than he would ever
have cared to admit a sense of physical diminutiveness and powerlessness
that propelled him into an attitude of perversity. What kind of
man is he who feels the need to take after his wife and puncture her with
a ballpoint pen? He employed a lot of female tricks, like verbal
aggression against a much larger guy, knowing that the guy would be forced
to restrain himself for fear of going to jail.
Likewise, if he had
been born into a larger and more impressive physique he might not have
felt threatened by his women, who, after all, were about the same size
he was. The funny thing about Norman Mailers antagonism towards
women is that he always felt the need to keep them around him. He
was married six times. I have also had a life of endless problems
with women and girls. If youre heterosexual and driven by
hormones theres no alternative. But I never felt compelled
to marry one. My father and my uncle were each also married five times.
Ive been living with my present woman for five years and, believe
me, this will be the last go-round for me. If I am lucky enough
to survive this latest disaster I will be very happy to live a bachelors
life going into my old age.
||I read some of his books. The one I liked best was The
Executioners Song about Gary Gilmore, who was executed
for murder. Mailer was responsible for springing another murderer,
Jack Abbott, from prison once, because he could write a little bit, but
immediately after being released Abbott stabbed another man to death and
was immediately sent back. After that Mailer never again involved
himself in social issues.
Mailer and Ernest Hemingway were consumed by the ideal of the writer as
a man of action. Hemingway was able to see the world as a traveling
correspondent for The Toronto Star. André Malraux
was born into an environment of adventurers, his father and grandfather
having traveled widely throughout Africa and the Maghreb. This additionally
frustrated Mailer who, with the exception of serving in World War II as
a cook, hardly ever left New York.
Maybe if he really spent more time in foreign places and prowled the exotic
climes of Soviet Samarkand and Ushuaia instead staying ensconced lifelong
in the Brooklyn that he both detested and couldnt tear himself away
from (like with his women) he could have become the man of action that
he always promoted himself and dreamed of being. Maybe.
Mailer did his best work while he was still young and then lived ever
after on his previous accomplishments. Another writer like that
who comes to mind is Hunter S. Thompson, who, well into his sixties, had
to refer back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which
he wrote close to a half-century ago, in order to validate himself.
Didnt these writers learn anything new later in their lives, when
they should have known a lot more? Writers are not intellectuals,
theyre artists. Tolstoy inspired a whole generation with the
beauty of his philosophy, but he died without being able to resolve the
contradiction of his own personal unhappiness. (Incidentally, one of the
major themes of War and Peace was the alacrity with
which men went to war to escape their women and live in a masculine environment).
The writers of Mailers age were all a psychological mess.
Never mind Hunter S. Thompson, he burnt out immediately. Saul Bellow
was so emotionally fragile that he couldnt even be in the room with
anybody who was even remotely a threat to him. Once he met Nelson
Algren in a Chicago bar for a drink, by pre-arrangement, and he walked
out after five minutes.
Algren was another tough guy writer, what with the motorcycle jacket.
Hunter S. Thompson liked to shoot off firearms. There used to be
a guy named Eric Hoffer who was a philosophical stevedore. Where
the tough guy nonsense came from, who knows? But it goes back to
my theory that these people started writing at too young an age and later
felt the need to authenticate themselves as something other than sterile
academics. I dont include André Malraux in this because
he was a rarified species indeed, who pursued his dreams of the queen
of Sheba and the volcanoes of Chicastenango many times nearly at the cost
of his life. These guys who start writing at age 20, what can they
possibly think they have to share with the world? I only properly
started writing after I had flunked out of every other earthly pursuit,
ha-ha! That is not strictly true, but the things I wrote as a young
man so distressed people who were invested in their self-image of bourgeois
respectability that whatever merit I manifested was buried by their natural
human instinct to pretend to ignore the unpleasantness of the realities
Mailer is the last of his breed literary writers who actually had
something to say. The modern age is as sterile as Brave New
World. Ill use for my example the Frenchman, Houllebecq,
who is shallow and narrow as a gutter, an office worker and sex tourist
possessing no literary depth whatsoever. The only element that presents
even a possibility of literary expression is the Internet, where writers
can take their case directly to the reading public without being squeezed
through a strainer by the publishing establishment.
Borok November 2007
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