Some of Mailer’s earliest writing, including “The Greatest Thing in the World,” a prizewinner in a 1941 Story magazine contest, reveals that even at a very early age he could write accomplished, imitative apprentice fiction in the modes of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. Before his own service, Mailer was exploring the experience of war in “A Calculus at Heaven” (1942), which suggests his ambition to portray the sweep of his time, to show the psychological and sociological preconditions of war and the existential choices it demands.
The Naked and the Dead
Mailer advanced with astonishing rapidity from his first attempts at fiction, to his own war experience, to the writing of The Naked and the Dead. Although it is a very long novel, its coverage of so many diverse elements in remarkably fluid prose and in a compact four-part structure conveys a sense of a single complex concert of human motives and the vagaries of existence. The Naked and the Dead is far more than a war novel, more than a political novel, for it examines the way human experience is shaped and interpreted, and it establishes the ground out of which human character and belief arise.
Part 1, “Wave,” concerns preparations for the invasion of Anopopei, an island held by the Japanese. The first wave of troops will assault the beaches by riding through the surf and charging ashore. One wave against another, humanity against the nature of its own enterprise, is one of the dominant themes of the novel, as its second paragraph indicates by describing an anonymous soldier who “lies flat on his bunk, closes his eyes, and remains wide-awake. All about him, like the soughing of surf, he hears the murmurs of men dozing fitfully.” The poker game the soldiers play, like the war itself, has its meaning in “the margin of chance,” in the calculation and skill that is nevertheless vulnerable to luck, good or bad. Much of what makes the novel fascinating is its persistent aligning of the interface between planning and probability; each soldier tries to gauge what his chances are of surviving, or—in Sergeant Croft’s and General Cummings’s cases—dominating the war, although almost every man, like Martinez, has at least one moment of fear, of total vulnerability, when he feels “naked” and almost certainly dead under fire.
Part 2, “Argil and Mold,” shifts from the reactions of the combat soldiers to war to the grand strategy of General Cummings, who plans on shaping his army to fit his master design. For Cummings, the war—like history itself—must have a pattern, one that he can follow and channel in his direction. He disclaims the operations of chance; seeming accidents, he contends, are actually a result of a person’s failure to capitalize on the opportunities life affords. If Cummings does not yet know the precise trajectory of history, he is confident that he will be percipient enough to discover it eventually. His game is not cards; it is chess. “The trick is to make yourself an instrument ofyour own policy,” Cummings advises his resistant subordinate, Lieutenant Hearn, who refuses to credit the General’s command not only over the forces of history but also over Hearn himself.
In the course of his conflict with Hearn, Cummings reveals his disdain for the liberal’s “exaggerated idea of the rights due” to persons as individuals. In the General’s reading of history, it is not the development of individuality but of power concentrations that counts in evaluating the causes of the war. As a result, he violates the integrity of much of the experience that is portrayed in the novel, for each character— including the General—is given a unique biography, a singularity of purpose that defies the notion that individuals can be permanently fashioned as part of a power bloc. After the initial success of his landing on Anopopei, Cummings is thwarted: “The campaign had gone sour…. [H]is tactics were as well conceived as they had ever been, his staff performances as thorough, his patrols as carefully planned, but nothing happened….A deep unshakable lethargy settled over the front-line troops.” Like Hearn, Cummings finds he cannot argue his army into action for an indefinite period of time.
Each of the principal characters in the novel behaves not only in terms of his background (the “Time Machine” sections delineate prewar experiences) and his participation in a platoon (the “Chorus” sections suggest the extent to which individual experience can be collectivized), but also in terms of the power argument between Cummings and Hearn. That is why it is almost inevitable that Hearn will ultimately be placed at the head of Sergeant Croft’s platoon, for Croft has often kept his men together by the force of his own will, by an invincible belief in the rightness of his position that is virtually identical to Cummings’s self-assurance.
Like Cummings, Croft contends with a geographical and ethnic cross section of soldiers: Red Valsen, “the wandering minstrel” from Montana, who distrusts all permanent relationships; Gallagher, “the revolutionary reversed,” an Irish Catholic from Boston who seems perpetually angry at the way the more privileged or the more conniving have deprived people of their dignity but who is also profoundly prejudiced against other groups, especially the Jews; Julio Martinez, the Mexican American, who desperately asserts his loyalty, his integrity, by taking pride in courageously executing Croft’s dangerous orders; Joey Goldstein, who from his “cove in Brooklyn” tries to ingratiate himself in a world inhospitable to Jews; and Wilson, the affable southerner who traffics easily with women and the world, and who is without much sense of life’s disparities and of how he has hurt as well as charmed others with his “fun.” These characters and others are meant to convey the multiplicity of experience that Croft crushes in disciplining his platoon.
In one of the most telling scenes in the novel, Croft allows a captured Japanese soldier time to recover his composure, to express his humanity, to plead for his life, and to sense that he is in the presence of other compassionate human beings, before brutally shooting him in the very moment of his happiness. Croft’s cruelty is the most extreme extension of Cummings’s declaration that individuals do not count, that single lives are valued too highly. Ultimately, this kind of merciless wiping out of opposition does not make Croft a better soldier; his attempt to scale Mount Anaka has been futile from the beginning, and the Japanese are defeated without the imposition of either Croft’s or Cummings’s will. Just as Croft’s men accidently blunder into the hornets that drive them back down the mountain, so in part 3, Major Dalleson, a mediocre, timid officer, blunders into easy and rapid victory over the Japanese while Cummings is away from the campaign seeking naval support for an elaborate plan that in the end proves superfluous in the defeat of a Japanese army almost disintegrating by itself for lack of food and military supplies.
Part 3, “Plant and Phantom,” prepares for the novel’s abrupt denouement by exploring Friedrich Nietzsche’s troubling premise that “even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I bid you become phantoms or plants?” The question of human nature is unanswerable; human beings are divided creatures, both body and mind, and neither side of that nature can entirely suppress the other even in the shrewdest of individuals. In the novel, people live and die as plants and phantoms, as thinking and feeling beings who are bound by the conditions of nature and by the consequences of their own actions, over which they often have surprisingly little control. People are truncated, their lives are suddenly cut off, even as their thoughts appear to extend their hold over events. Thus, Hearn drives his men to the other side of the island, so that they can reconnoiter the possibility of an invasion behind Japanese battle lines. He suffers from weariness, from the men’s resistance, from his own self-doubt, but he reasserts himself:
As they moved along out of the hollow he felt good; it was a new morning, and it was impossible not to feel hopeful. The dejection, the decisions of the previous night seemed unimportant. He was enjoying this, but if he was, so much the better.
A half hour later, Lieutenant Hearn was killed by a machine gun bullet which passed through his chest.
Hearn dies as swiftly as the Japanese defense crumbles, and in both cases the dissolution is all the more devastating when one considers their determination to survive.
Part 4, “Wake,” is retrospective, a brief review of the invasion wave of part 1. The reality of the invasion has not conformed to expectations. Even after the fact, Major Dalleson deludes himself about the significance of the campaign, supposing that the forces Cummings finally deployed with naval support behind Japanese lines were decisive. Dalleson’s self-deception is just like Martinez’s delusion that Hearn did not heed reports of Japanese in the pass where he died. Martinez forgets that Croft had cautioned him not to mention the Japanese to Hearn. In taking a superior attitude to Brown, Stanley forgets, or never actually realizes, his former sycophancy that ensured, with Brown’s help, his promotion to corporal. Wilson muddles his trickery of his buddies—getting them to pay more for their liquor so he can have an extra bottle—into a belief in his generous provision for them.
Even more self-conscious characters such as Hearn and Cummings catch themselves in self-deceptions. Hearn believes that he is rebelling against Cummings by crushing a cigarette on the General’s immaculate floor when in fact he is playing his superior officer’s game, getting himself into a position where Cummings is able to employ Hearn as just another pawn in his military strategy. Cummings, in turn, bitterly admits to himself that Hearn has a way of depriving him of his sense of command, for Hearn (who is something like a wayward son) represents the intractability of the fighting force Cummings wants to regard as an extension of himself. Mailer brilliantly reveals the ironies of Cummings’s command in the General’s discovery of the cigarette butt “mashed into the duckboards in a tangled ugly excrement of black ash, soiled paper, and brown tobacco.” Cummings has been having bouts of diarrhea; what he sees on the floor is a manifestation of his lack of control, his inability to make his body, like his men, obey his rigorous schedule. In this encyclopedic novel— Mailer’s attempt to write the equivalent of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869) in his generation, to show that, like Napoleon, Cummings fails to reduce history to the curve of his desire—no character can claim mastery over himself or the world, for the interplay between individuals and events is too complex, too contingent, to be predictable, even though characters such as Cummings and Croft pursue their careers with the monomania of Herman Melville’s Ahab in Moby Dick (1851).
The Naked and the Dead almost seemed to write itself, Mailer comments in Advertisements for Myself. In retrospect, Mailer felt he could not go on repeating a best-seller formula based on a skillful melding of Hemingway and Dos Passos. Given Mailer’s ambition to be a great writer, it is not surprising that his obsession with style prompted him to devalue his first novel. If The Naked and the Dead is derived from the styles of other writers, it also conveys a sense of history that is almost entirely lacking in Hemingway and is diminished in Dos Passos by rather crude melodrama and determinism. In Mailer, there is no clear division of historical villains and heroes; on the contrary, he develops a dramatic dialogue of ideas that arise persuasively out of carefully delineated personalities. He did not equal this achievement for some time, perhaps because he had to go through various attempts at finding a style, a singular—even quirky—manner that is as individual as Dos Passos’s “Camera Eye” sections in U.S.A. (1937) or the radically charged prose of William Faulkner’s best work.
Mailer’s next novel, Barbary Shore, was a disappointment to critics and to Mailer himself, even though he suggests in Advertisements for Myself that the novel helped to prepare him for becoming the kind of writer he would remain for the rest of his career. Barbary Shore seems detached from many of the basic assumptions of The Naked and the Dead, which has a naïve confidence when viewed from the perspective of its successor. Although history is not controllable in The Naked and the Dead, it is not even certain that history is knowable in Barbary Shore, where several characters and events have a phantasmagoric quality. Characters often speak in an allegorical dialogue, so that the Soviet Union, for example, is referred to as “the land beyond the sea.” One of the main characters, McLeod, has had a variety of identities, and it is never entirely clear what the truth of his life has been—not even to himself. The first-person narrator, Mike Lovett, is an amnesiac who vaguely recalls fragments of his past—most of them are memories of war—but is not sure that they are, in fact, his own.
At one time a foreign agent for the Communist Party, McLeod is pursued by Hollingsworth, who is some kind of government operative, an agent of the American status quo, on a mission to recover a “little object” (which is never identified) that McLeod is presumed to have stolen while working for what was probably a government agency—perhaps the same agency for which Hollingsworth works. The novel is further complicated by the presence of Guinevere, an apolitical sexual provocateur, who is discovered to be McLeod’s wife. She attracts the amorous attentions not only of Lovett, Hollingsworth, and McLeod but also of Lannie, a bizarre, troubled woman who aligns herself first with Lovett, who befriends McLeod, and then with Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth alternately disputes and accedes to McLeod’s hold over Lovett, for Lovett, with his lack of a past, represents the pure present over which conflicting personalities and ideologies contend.
Presumably, Mailer abandoned the realistic mode and third-person narration of The Naked and the Dead in favor of the ambiguities of Barbary Shore in order not only to suggest the Cold War period of shifting loyalties and competing ideologies but also to probe the divisions within his characters who suffer from crises of conviction. McLeod, for example, has tried but failed to follow the course of history, to remake the world into the fulfillment of revolutionary socialism. Barbary Shore, however, is unable to take the measure of McLeod in the way The Naked and the Dead judges Cummings, for McLeod’s dialogue with others, in which the weaknesses of his position are diagnosed, becomes a monologue that upsets the balance of the novel and makes it seem as if McLeod has somehow rescued himself from his defeat. Lovett is unwilling to abandon him even though he is fairly sure that McLeod has murderously attempted to enforce his revolutionary purpose on others. It is true that his passing on of “the little object” to Lovett represents his final refusal to capitulate to the status quo, to the “two different exploitative systems,” but his gesture to ameliorate “mankind in barbary,” in a world where there is “war and preparation for new war,” must be balanced by the novel’s first historical parable.
Lovett describes his fantasy of a plump, complacent, middle-aged traveler who is anxious to get home. He is tired and “unaccountably depressed” after a long trip and suddenly shocked to find that while he recognizes the city in which he travels as his home, “the architecture is strange, and the people are dressed in unfamiliar clothing,” and he cannot read the alphabet on the street sign. He tries to calm himself in the belief that he is dreaming, but Lovett shouts, “this city is the real city, the material city, and your vehicle is history.” The fantasy aptly conveys the novel’s contention that people think they know the course of their life, think that they can read the signs of history, when in fact what they have taken to be so familiar, so easily apprehended, is elusive, strange, and terrifying.
The Deer Park
It is not difficult to regard Mailer’s third novel, The Deer Park, as a mature rewriting of Barbary Shore. Once again, there is a first-person narrator, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, who, like Lovett, is a writer. Although Sergius knows his past, he is an orphan who shares Lovett’s sense of uncertainty: “I was never sure of myself. I never felt as if I came from any particular place, or that I was like other people.” His feeling of being like a “spy or a fake” recalls Lovett’s adamant refusal to become a spy for Guinevere. Sergius, however, is more self-aware, more active as a writer in this novel than Lovett is in Barbary Shore, where his writing is a given but is not really explored. The Deer Park, on the other hand, is the product of Sergius’s imagination; it represents his coming to terms with himself and the world. Although his friendship with Charles Eitel, a blacklisted Hollywood scriptwriter and director, is reminiscent of Lovett’s friendship with McLeod, Eitel’s story is framed in Sergius’s words; Sergius contrasts Eitel’s defeat with his victory.
Cold War politics play just as important a part in The Deer Park as in Barbary Shore, but the former eschews the strained allegorical rhetoric of the latter. Some of The Deer Park’s finest passages are the dialogues of Hollywood studio executives and politicians, in which the exploitative aspects of capitalist culture and government become apparent in the language, even in the physical gestures and tones of voice the characters employ, so that Mailer avoids merely talking about political issues by demonstrating how they arise in careers such as Eitel’s. He has been a communist sympathizer, a fellow traveler, whose presence embarrasses his motion-picture bosses. He then alienates them by refusing to cooperate with a congressional committee investigating subversives. Eitel turns from Hollywood with the hope that he can recover his talent honestly as an artist but finds that the great film he had always dreamed of creating has been corrupted by his absorption of the cheap techniques of commercial filmmaking. Eventually, he capitulates by agreeing to testify about his communist past and to construct his film according to Hollywood conventions.
At the same time, Sergius’s own life story—from orphan to war hero—draws Hollywood interest, and he is sorely tempted to sell his biography—sell himself, in effect—to the studio, where he may also become a film star. What prevents him from doing so is Eitel’s example, or rather Sergius’s interpretation of Eitel’s biography, for at the end of the novel it is Sergius who has made some meaning out of Eitel’s career:
“For you see,” [Eitel] confessed in his mind, “I have lost the final desire of the artist, the desire which tells us that when all else is lost, when love is lost and adventure, pride of self, and pity, there still remains that world we may create, more real to us, more real to others, then the mummery of what happens, passes, and is gone.”
Sergius goes on to imagine that Eitel equates the creative act with Sergius’s rebellion, with “the small trumpet of your defiance.”
Sergius invents an Eitel from whom he can learn, and his lessons are facilitated by his relationships with many of Eitel’s friends and lovers. Lulu Meyers, for example, has been married to Eitel but now is free to engage in an affair with Sergius, which she eventually terminates, much to his despair. Sergius, however, avoids the extremes of self-pity and self-aggrandizement by reconstructing the affair between Elena Esposito and Eitel that is taking place during his pursuit of Lulu. Eitel’s coldness, arrogance, and self-deceptiveness come through in Sergius’s version of the affair, but, like McLeod, Eitel is essentially a sympathetic figure and more believably so than McLeod, since Eitel’s tragic realization of his limitations is not muffled by the slightest self-justification at the end of the novel.
If the novel’s Hollywood milieu is like Louis XV’s Deer Park, that gorge in which innocents like Sergius are engulfed, Sergius barely escapes the gorge by imagining for himself the lives of its victims, of its pimps and prostitutes, of its sultans and sycophants. If Barbary Shore begins to put the first-person narrator, the writer as actor, in a paramount position, then The Deer Park examines the drama of that position, which Mailer directly comments on in Advertisements for Myself, where he acknowledges the increasingly autobiographical nature of his narrators. Not that Sergius is in any simple way Mailer—in fact, he is far less self-conscious about his style than Mailer usually is—but Sergius’s quest as a writer who needs to find his words, his style, through direct involvement that tests him against his characters’ actions, provided Mailer with the conception of himself and the process of literary creation that has become central to nearly all of his work. Indeed, the process of literary creation itself becomes his theme. In other words, the writer himself becomes his subject.
An American Dream
An American Dream, by its very title, points to Mailer’s fascination with the notion that America is a complex fiction, a drama of reality that is captured in the dynamic language of its narrator, Stephen Rojack, Mailer’s hipster hero par excellence, a war hero, a college chum of John Kennedy, a congressman, college professor, psychologist, television personality, and actor resembling the Sergius O’Shaugnessy who was supposed to be the major figure in Mailer’s uncompleted novel, delivered in the form of “Advertisement for Myself on the Way Out” at the conclusion of Advertisements for Myself.
Rojack is also the first Mailer narrator to have an intellect, a vocabulary, and a multiplicity of roles that are commensurate with his author’s own activities as soldier, writer, politician, film director, actor, and television personality. As a result, Rojack, like Mailer, registers and revalues his experience. Like his creator, he is never content with a single formulation of reality; on the contrary, he is a complex of shifting moods in response to the modulations of his environment. As Jennifer Bailey phrases it, in Mailer’s mature work “identity is always a fiction insofar as it depends upon a constantly changing milieu for its definition.”
All of Rojack’s actions have to be viewed within the existential requirements of reality in the novel rather than within rigid moral codes applied by readers who want to keep “concepts firmly in category.” For some readers, the novel’s sense of absolute relativity, of moral fluidity, is repugnant, and An American Dream has been rejected out of hand as Mailer’s most disturbing work, since Rojack as hipster does not merely live close to violence: He purges and cleanses himself through murdering his wife, Deborah.
In conventional fiction, Rojack’s act of murder might be taken as the surest sign that he has lost control of himself. Yet, quite the contrary is true in Mailer’s daring fiction, for Rojack regains possession of himself in committing his crime. In some of his most sharply driven, economical prose, Mailer has Rojack explain in the first chapter that he doubts his perception of the world in terms of a rational paradigm. He notes that “the real difference between the President and myself may be that I ended with too large an appreciation of the moon, for I looked down the abyss of the first night I killed: four men, four very separate Germans, dead under a full moon— whereas Jack, for all I know, never saw the abyss.” In other words, Rojack senses the occult nature of reality, of forces that terrorize him until he has the courage to act in harmony with them.
Until he reached a point of self-identification, Rojack “remained an actor. My personality was built upon a void.” He quit politics “before I was separated from myself forever by the distance between my public appearance that had become vital on television, indeed nearly robust, and my secret frightened romance with the phases of the moon.” Virtually the entire novel is written in a style that dramatizes Rojack’s search for a new basis on which to live. After considering suicide, after literally expelling from his system the rotting, half-digested food and drink that signify a life he cannot ingest, he confronts his estranged wife, “an artist with the needle,” a woman from an influential family who has represented his “leverage” on life. Doing away with Deborah means confronting his case by himself, and he has never had “the strength to stand alone.”
Rojack begins to stand alone by following the hipster’s course set out in The White Negro (1957). He recognizes, in the words of that essay, that “one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same (pay in sickness, or depression, or anguish for the lost opportunity), but pay or grow…. What he must do . . . is find his courage at the moment of violence, or equally make it in the act of love.” Rojack finds his lover, Cherry, a blond with various qualities that remind him of Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. More than that, however, is his sense that Cherry has “studied blondes,” as if she has absorbed all of their styles. The multiplicity of her appeal is like the manifold manifestations of life that he intuits rather than grasps logically. Cherry, and many of the other characters in the novel, are viewed in a world of heightened senses, particularly the sense of smell. Rojack is constantly getting whiffs of things, of moods, of symbolic correspondences between people and ideas: “One kiss of flesh, one whiff of sweet was loose, sending life to the charnel house of my balls.” The incredible number of smells that assault him prevent the novel from becoming mystical and abstract. Rather, the intangible linkages are permeated with the corporeality of bodies and beings. In this way, the world becomes an integral function in his psychic economy, and he is even able to face his wife’s formidable father, Oswald Kelly, who would just as soon push Rojack to his death as to make him observe the proprieties of the funeral ceremony, where he expects Rojack’s presence will help to subdue Kelly’s embarrassment over the suspicious circumstances of Deborah’s death.
Rojack’s tie to Kelly becomes stronger when he discovers that Cherry has been Kelly’s mistress—just one of those “coincidences” that rule Rojack’s uncanny sense of the connections between lives. As he tries to save his integrity by confronting Kelly, he loses Cherry, who is murdered. He has been divided between returning to her and once again challenging the abyss, the drop from Kelly’s high-rise apartment to the street, which represents the void Rojack must fill with his self-definition. At the end of the novel, in Las Vegas, he realizes that he has gambled for his life, that life is a gamble. If he has not been “good enough” to get it all, to have Cherry, he becomes “something like sane again,” and departs for a “long trip to Guatemala and Yucatan,” just two places, perhaps, on the itinerary of his voyage to selfhood.
Why Are We in Vietnam?’
If the examples of Hemingway and Dos Passos prevail over The Naked and the Dead and Mailer’s other early fiction, and if F. Scott Fitzgerald figures prominently in the composition of The Deer Park, then the measure of Mailer’s progress as a writer can be taken in Why Are We in Vietnam?, a novel that invites deliberate comparison with Faulkner. Mailer deftly describes a bear hunt, as does Faulkner in “The Bear,” that explores the fundamental meanings of American identity inherent in the conquest of animals and environment. People must prove themselves no matter how much they override the intimate connections between humankind and nature. Rusty, the narrator D. J.’s father, “is f—-ed unless he gets that bear, for if he don’t, white men are f—-ed more and they can take no more.” This kind of reasoning leads to Vietnam, Mailer implies, just as the hunting of bear leads to slavery and other forms of subjugation in Faulkner. Both D. J. and Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin come to identify with the animals whose lives they take and with the nature they usurp, so that they must also commune with their feeling of solidarity with life itself, as D. J. does in his remembrance of the mountain goat he has killed:
It hit D. J. with a second blow on his heart from the exploding heart of the goat and he sat up in bed, in the bunk, listening to the snores, stole out to the night, got one breath of the sense of that force up in the North, of land North above him and dived back to the bed, his sixteen-year-old heart racing through the first spooks of an encounter with Herr Dread.
However close Mailer comes to Faulkner in terms of style and theme, Why Are We in Vietnam? is still an insistently original novel. In the passage quoted above, for example, the point of view is wholly that of D. J., of the Texan teenager who has never encountered the raw elements of life, who is a disc jockey in his ventriloquizing of many voices in the manner of a radio rock-music personality. Although the prose has Faulkner’s relentless flow, its flippant and frenetic beat suggests the repetitive rhythms of technology that heat up D. J.’s talk.
Even more striking is Mailer’s playful sport with his narrator’s identity. Is D. J. “a Texas youth for sure or is he a genius of a crippled Spade up in Harlem making all this s—- up?” Or is D. J. imitating a “high I.Q. Harlem Nigger”? “There is no security in this consciousness,” he maintains, since much of what one takes to be reality is an American dream, or rather a “dream field,” a “part of a circuit” with “you swinging on the inside of the deep mystery.” Almost inevitably, one is reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), narrated by a shifting persona, a man of many guises who impersonates others, who like D. J. follows many channels, as if he is broadcasting to the world at large, a world he has somehow subsumed in his supple prose. D. J. brashly appropriates and transforms the styles of others; whereas Ellison’s narrator mellowly hints that on the “lower frequencies” he speaks for “you,” D. J. commands: “Goose your frequency”—in other words, rev up your sensibility, your reception of the totality D. J. imagines.
As in An American Dream, the tendency for the language to turn mystical is checked, even substantiated, by scatological images and metaphors. Some readers find the style offensive, but it is absolutely at the heart of Mailer’s vision, since he wants to show on a visceral level how the ideology of consumption works. Because he believes that “the secrets of existence, or some of them anyway, are to be found in the constructions of language” (“The Metaphysics of the Belly”), his style must go to the scatological site of those secrets. To extend D. J.’s remark, the world is “s—-” made up by human beings, and in America such “s—-” prevails because of the incredible amount of resources that are used, turned into waste products, into refuse that Americans refuse to see.
As Mailer sums it up in “The Metaphysics of the Belly”: “Ambitious societies loathe scatological themes and are obsessed with them.” The last words of the novel, “Vietnam, hot dam,” reflect D. J.’s anticipation; here is still another frontier on which to test himself, another territory for him to explore like Huckleberry Finn, to whom he compares himself at the beginning of the novel. D. J., “disc jockey to America,” echoes the country’s heated urge to dominate, to damn itself. Or is the minority voice mimicking the majority’s will? “Which D. J. white or black would possibly be worse of a genius if Harlem or Dallas is guiding the other, and who knows which?” All the jive talk keeps the channels of possibility open at the end of Why Are We in Vietnam?, so that the question of the title has been answered in some ways but is still open-ended, like the identity of the narrator. The reader is left perfectly pitched between alternative readings, once again in the grip of the existential reality that Mailer has faultlessly articulated.
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History
The Armies of the Night climaxed a period of impressive creativity for Mailer in the mid-1960’s. A culmination of the self-review he began in Advertisements for Myself and Cannibals and Christians, it is a definitive portrait of himself as writer and actor, a discovery of his nonfiction aesthetic, and a subtle amalgam of documentary notation and novelistic interpretation that convincingly captures the complexity and ambiguity of the march on the Pentagon. The book’s authority is established by its point of view: Mailer’s assessment of himself in the third person, sticking close to his own consciousness in the same way that Henry James sidles along Strether in The Ambassadors (1903). Thus, Mailer is able to preserve the spontaneity of historic moments in which he is free to act like a fool or a philosopher while reserving the right as an aloof narrator to judge himself and others with the benefit of hindsight and later research. Futhermore, as Richard Poirier observes, Mailer “manages to be a witness of the present as if it were already the past. He experiences it from the perspective of his future talk and writing about it.” The Mailer of the march is at various times “the Beast,” “the Historian,” “the Participant,” “the Novelist,” and “the Ruminant,” all of which emphasize the many different guises he assumes depending upon the evolving context of his actions.
As rich as a novel in its use of dialogue and characterization, The Armies of the Night humorously pursues the contentions of competing personalities—of the poet Robert Lowell and Mailer himself in this example:
“I don’t know, Cal, your speech really had a most amazing impact on me.” Mailer drawled the last few words to drain any excessive sentimental infection, but Lowell seemed hardly to mind.
“Well, Norman, I’m delighted,” he said, taking Mailer’s arm for a moment as if, God and kingdom willing, Mailer had finally become a Harvard dean and could be addressed by the appropriate limb. “I’m delighted because I liked your speech so much.”
By using circular dialogue, the search for an agreeable exchange between very different personalities—Lowell, “at once virile and patrician,” and Mailer, “the younger, presumptive, and self-elected prince”—they have made a story of their relationship that they can share and repeat. The fictive quality of real events—one of Mailer’s major points—is ably demonstrated by his own style. As Mailer says before this dialogue, “the clue to discovery was not in the substance of one’s idea, but in what was learned from the style of one’s attack.”
The book shuttles from such intimate dialogue and precise character delineation to panoramic sweeps of the crowds of the Pentagon march. Book 1, “History as a Novel,” portrays Mailer as actor in order to show that history is understood only through a deep appreciation of the intersection of very personal feelings and public affairs. No episode, no idea, no impression remains unqualified by the circumstances out of which it arises, and chapter titles constantly emphasize the way in which the literary imagination shapes historical experience.
Book 2, “The Novel as History,” goes even further than book 1 in suggesting that history as a whole can make sense only when the interpreter employs all the “instincts of the novelist,” for the record of the march is contradictory, fragmentary, and skewed by various viewpoints. Only an act of profound imagination, a reading of the significance of the event itself, can possibly make its constituent parts coalesce, and Mailer convincingly shows that he has studied the record and found it wanting. History is essentially interior and intuitive, he avers. He then proceeds to elaborate a complex re-creation of events that concretely exposes the factitiousness of newspaper accounts.
Beyond the immediate causes and consequences of the march on the Pentagon, Mailer sees the event as a rite of passage for the young marchers, especially the ones who refuse to flee when their fellows are brutally beaten into submission in one of the most riveting and frightening pages in all of Mailer’s writing. The coming of knowledge, of a historical fatalism, creeps into both Mailer’s prose and his characters’ weary postures as he recites events from America’s past that reveal that it was founded on a rite of passage. It is as if these young people are suddenly imbued with historical consciousness, although Mailer’s ruminations and their agony are kept separate on the page. Nevertheless, in his coda he suggests that if the march’s end took place in the “isolation in which these last pacifists suffered naked in freezing cells, and gave up prayers for penance, then who was to say they were not saints? And who to say that the sins of America were not by their witness a tithe remitted?” His final words balance an earlier passage where he describes the marchers’ opponents, “the gang of Marshals” who in their “collective spirit” emit “little which was good,” and one of whom “paid tithe to ten parallel deep lines rising in ridges above his eye brows.” Mailer achieves a harmony of form and an equilibrium of language that make the novel’s ending seem as complex as the history it imagines, and as moving in its depiction of ignorance and confusion as the Matthew Arnold poem, “Dover Beach,” from which Mailer’s title is taken.
Although they are satisfactory in sections, Of a Fire on the Moon, The Fight, and Mailer’s other writings from the late 1960’s to the mid-1970’s do not equal Marilyn, his follow-up study of the ambiguities of fiction and history so magnificently explored in The Armies of the Night. Marilyn has a twofold purpose: to measure faithfully and evaluate the obstacles that bar the biographer’s way to a full understanding of his subject’s life, and to suggest tentatively a biographical method that will aim at recreating the whole person even though conceding that the search for wholeness is elusive and problematical.
Furthermore, Monroe ranks with Mailer’s other major characters, such as General Cummings. Just as Cummings works to make himself an instrument of his own policy, so Monroe paints herself into the camera lens as an instrument of her own will. She is Napoleonic and yet divided against herself, a Dreiserian character who traverses the continent in quest of her true self in much the same way as Lovett, O’Shaugnessy, and Rojack do, detecting voids in themselves and voyaging to find their genuine identities. Much of Mailer’s work in film, and his discussions of film in “Some Dirt in the Talk” and “A Course in Film-Making” (both collected in Existential Errands), lead directly to his perception of Monroe’s disrupted sense of self. Although his later “imaginary memoir,” Of Women and Their Elegance, in which Monroe recalls her last years, seems less substantial than Marilyn, he carries his concern with “twin personalities” a step further by integrating his narrative with Milton Greene’s provocative photographs, which are studies in the doubling of personality in a divided world.
The Executioner’s Song
Set against the background of his reflexive writing of the 1960’s and 1970’s, The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s next major work of fiction, is a startling book. Its sentences are simple and clear, with an occasionally striking but not elaborate metaphor. Absent from the narrative is Mailer’s characteristic sentence or paragraph, which is long and comprehensive—an encyclopedic attempt to gather all of reality in one magnificent statement. There is no intrusive voice to sum up the life of Gary Gilmore, a convicted and executed murderer, and the age in which Gilmore grows to kill. Mailer does not explicitly explore a theory of biography and does not comment, except in his afterword, on his interaction with the life he has written. His book seems keyed to a new aesthetic.
In spite of its 1,056 pages, The Executioner’s Song is not a garrulous work; it is a quiet book punctuated by myriad silences. There is a double space following nearly every paragraph of the book, indicating the gap between events, the momentary pause that intervenes even in events that seemingly follow one another swiftly and smoothly. Reality is defined by these frequent intervals of silence, periods of stillness that intimate how much is left unsaid and how many characters fail to connect with one another. Gilmore is the most solitary character of all, cut off in large part from humanity and therefore able to murder.
A great deal of the book is dialogue or paraphrase of dialogue, which enhances the dramatic clash of details and conflicting points of view. Even the long descriptive passages and the evocations of characters’ thoughts consist only of the results of the reporter who has interviewed these characters for their thoughts and who conveys what he has heard and observed. Hence, there is no privileged retrospective narrator to unify the book’s disparate materials.
Mailer has called The Executioner’s Song a “true life novel.” By “novel” he seems to mean something somewhat different from his use of the term in The Armies of the Night and Marilyn, in which he employs a novelistic narrator to probe the unspoken motivations of his characters and to organize reality in creative metaphors. Of his unusual departure from past practice he remarks in The New York Times Magazine (September 9, 1979):
I was convinced from the start that the materials were exceptional; it had the structure of a novel. Whenever I needed a character for esthetic balance—a new character of imposing dimensions—one just appeared out of nowhere. If I had conceived The Executioner’s Song as a novel entirely drawn from my own imagination, I doubt I could have improved on those characters.
Mailer conceives of the characters as revealing themselves to him, so that he does not have to serve as a mediating voice. Instead, he orchestrates their disclosures by surrounding them with a quiet space and spare style that preserves their individual integrity.
Reading such sparely created scenes, one is tempted to comb through the details over and over again in order to search for the pertinent clue that will point to the meaning of Gilmore’s story, but as Joan Didion points out in her review in The New York Times Book Review (October 7, 1979),
the very subject of The Executioner’s Song is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.
Mailer has chosen, this time, to make a literature that is articulately mute, almost muzzled in its restrained revelations of actions that remain voiceless, dumb, and frighteningly uncommunicative:
“Why’d you do it, Gary?” Nielsen asked again quietly. “I don’t know,” Gary said. “Are you sure?” “I’m not going to talk about that,” Gilmore said. He shook his head delicately, and looked at Nielsen, and said, “I can’t keep up with life.”
For Mailer, The Executioner’s Song is biography in a new key, since he attends to the integrity of individual lives without quickly elevating those lives into symbolic significance. At the same time, the continuity of his concerns is apparent in his ambitious desire to show that true life must be mediated through the imaginative power of a singular intelligence. He understood that The Executioner’s Song required a voice, flexible and comprehensive, in order to embody the myriad voices that make up reality. There are patterns that can be perceived on rereading the book, yet no single pattern is definitive. Gilmore seems to reach some genuine self-understanding and consistency, but his behavior is still sometimes contradictory and enigmatic. He approaches his execution wanting to die, and yet he searches for every possible means of escape. The Executioner’s Song remains faithful to the elusiveness of self, to both the revelation and the inscrutability of identity.
Beginning with the opening sentence—“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state”—Ancient Evenings embarks on a style that is new to Mailer and to his readers who have been accustomed to an active voice transforming everything it articulates. Something very strange is happening to the passive voice of the novel’s first narrator-protagonist, the ka (spiritual emanation) of Menenhetet II, who is undergoing the process of rebirth. The first book of the novel is awesome and quite wonderful in its depiction of a consciousness trying to differentiate itself from all that surrounds it.
After the first book, much of the novel is narrated by Menenhetet I, the greatgrandfather of Menenhetet II. Menenhetet I is the great ancestor who has been able to live four lives (1290-1100 b.c.e.) by learning how to ejaculate into a woman at the very moment of his death, thereby conceiving himself anew in a lover who becomes his mother. Menenhetet I aspires in his first life to supplant his Pharaoh as ruler of Egypt and dies in the act of sexual intercourse with the Pharaoh’s queen. Menenhetet I carries Mailer’s conception of himself and of the hero in his fiction to the farthest extreme: He is a man of many ages, the self-invented avatar of Menenhetet II’s quest for distinction. Menenhetet I has been a warrior and high priest, a scholar and man of action, a great lover of queens and yet a farmer of peasant origin. In his fourth life, Menenhetet I would like to be the vizier of Ramses IX (Ptahnem-hotep). In the very act of telling his four life histories to Ramses IX, however, Menenhetet I reveals an overweening ambition and fatal attraction to magical practices (including the repulsive eating of bat dung) that disqualify him for the role of Pharaonic confidant.
Ancient Evenings is embedded in the lush details of ancient Egypt, in the rhythms of an alien time. Even sympathetic readers have noted a numbing sameness in the prose that suggests that the author has striven too hard for unity, for the merging of the opposites that create so much exciting tension in The Naked and the Dead, The Armies of the Night, and The Executioner’s Song. Ancient Evenings is Norman Mailer at his neatest, with the loose ends of his philosophy and his prose knit together rather impressively. Nevertheless, it seems static and too thoroughly thought-out; absent from it is the rough-edged stimulation of a writer on the make, who is best when he is suggestive rather than explicit, when he is promising to complete the circle and join the halves without ever quite doing so.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance
Like Mike Lovett in Barbary Shore, Tim Madden in Tough Guys Don’t Dance is an amnesiac: He cannot remember what happened the night before, and he cannot account for the large amount of blood on his car seat. He is clearly kin to Stephen Rojack. More or less kept by his prized wife, the wealthy Patty Lareine, Madden, a writer, finds that he cannot work when she deserts him.
As her name suggests, Lareine has been Madden’s imperious queen, and he seems at a loss when he is not in the service of his “medieval lady.” At the same time, he has clearly chafed under her rule, for he regrets having broken his code of male self-sufficiency. As a result, the couple’s marriage has been turbulent, and in its later stages, husband and wife seem most alike in their murderous inclinations. The novel begins with Madden wondering whether the severed head he discovers in his marijuana hideaway is the result of a drunken evening’s debauchery with another woman, which turned violent when Patty Lareine returned home.
The characters in Tough Guys Don’t Dance relate to one another as in an Arthurian romance. Madden discovers that his wife has had another lover, the deputy police chief, Alvin Luther Regency, a powerfully built, maniacal rival, who is part of the plot to set up Madden (who has already served a short term for possession of cocaine). Complicating matters further for Madden is the lurking presence of his envious former schoolmate, Meeks Wardly Hilby III, who was once married to Patty Lareine and from whom Madden stole her. If Madden can make sense of the two murders, he can also begin to put his life back together—including his failed relationship with Madeleine Falco, his witty, tough counterpart, who left him when he took up with Patty Lareine and who now finds herself mired in a bad marriage to the dangerous Regency.
Readers who prefer murder mysteries with taut, spare plots and prose may bristle at the complications of Mailer’s syntax and philosophizing. The heads and bodies buried in different locations are indicative of the splits in the human psyche that Mailer has pursued in much of his writing. Usually Mailer is able to finesse the shifts between the novel’s ideas and events, and his delineation of characters through clipped dialogue is convincing. At a few points, his narrative flags, perhaps because he has tried to do too much, to integrate characters, ideas, and plot simultaneously in a single narrative voice.
Harlot’s Ghost is a mammoth and intermittently gripping novel of the CIA, charting the career of Harry Hubbard, protégé of the legendary Hugh Tremont Montague (“Harlot”), and a key participant in CIA operations in Berlin, Uruguay, Washington, D.C., Miami, and Cuba. The novel is based on a close reading of nearly one hundred books about the organization and on Mailer’s vivid imagination, which often calls upon themes and characters he has rehearsed in several works of fiction and nonfiction, including speculations on the murder of Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, and the nature of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s heroism.
Mailer’s thesis is that a CIA operative is by definition a deceiver, a person who is always playing more than one role, an actor whose sense of reality is constantly shifting, making it difficult to maintain loyalties and friendships, never sure of his or her own ground. Harry Hubbard, the son of a fabled CIA agent, worries that he is not “tough enough” and takes on risky ventures such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco. As a matter of survival within the agency, he finds himself acting as a double agent—at one point reporting to both his mentor, Harlot, and to his father, Cal. Through Harry’s letters, diaries, and first-person narrative, Mailer manages to cover most of the dramatic events involving the CIA from 1955 to 1963. This very long novel (near thirteen hundred pages) is burdened with too much learning and too little plot—no detail is too trivial to include as long as it impinges on Harry’s consciousness. There are some wonderfully realized characters (E. Howard Hunt and William King Harvey), but they do not quite redeem Mailer’s turgid prose.
The Gospel According to the Son
By contrast, The Gospel According to the Son is a restrained retelling of the Christ story from Christ’s point of view. Mailer successfully finds a voice quite different from his own for the first-person narrator. Christ is portrayed as very much of a man—driven by his divine mission but also doubting his ability to carry it out. Christ often compares himself to Moses, another reluctant prophet who feared he was not worthy of the Lord’s trust.
Mailer’s Christ gently but firmly takes issue with certain aspects of the Gospels. He is a miracle worker, yet he notes how often accounts of his powers have been exaggerated—the projections of those who fervently believe in him. Mailer ingeniously accounts for many of Christ’s most famous sayings, such as “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Such statements show a Jesus with a tactical and political sense—challenging the status quo, to be sure, but also adopting a diplomatic stance when it serves his purposes.
If Mailer can be faulted, it may be (surprisingly) for not being daring enough. His Jesus seems a little dull and not at all the charismatic figure that surely attracted Mailer in the first place. In Mailer’s obvious desire to respect the Christ story while humanizing it, he has perhaps not risked quite enough in making Christ a believable character.
The Naked and the Dead, 1948; Barbary Shore, 1951; The Deer Park, 1955; An American Dream, 1965; Why Are We in Vietnam?, 1967; The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, 1968; The Executioner’s Song, 1973; The Executioner’s Song, 1979; Of Women and Their Elegance, 1980; Ancient Evenings, 1983; Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1984; Harlot’s Ghost, 1991; Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, 1995; The Gospel According to the Son, 1997.
Short fiction: New Short Novels 2, 1956; The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, 1967. play: The Deer Park: A Play, pb. 1967. screenplay: Tough Guys Don’t Dance, 1987. poetry: Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters, 1962. nonfiction: The White Negro, 1957; The Presidential Papers, 1963; Cannibals and Christians, 1966; The Bullfight, 1967; The Idol and the Octopus: Political Writings on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, 1968; Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968, 1969; Of a Fire on the Moon, 1970; The Long Patrol: Twenty-five Years of Writing from the Work of Norman Mailer, 1971 (Robert Lucid, editor); The Prisoner of Sex, 1971; Existential Errands, 1972; St. George and the Godfather, 1972; The Faith of Graffiti, 1974 (with Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar); Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972, 1975; The Fight, 1975; Genius and Lust: A Journey Through the Major Writings of Henry Miller, 1976; Pieces and Pontifications, 1982; Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, 1995 (also known as Pablo and Fernande: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, 1994); The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, 2003; Why Are We at War?, 2003. miscellaneous: Advertisements for Myself, 1959; The Time of Our Time, 1998; Modest Gifts: Poems and Drawings, 2003.
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