In The Middle of His Journey – A Portrait of Norman Mailer

mailer

DRESSED IN A DENIM SHIRT and dungarees, one elbow planted on a knee, Norman Mailer briefly surveyed his cramped writing room. It was lined with books and furnished with a painted plywood desktop, a hot plate, a worn velvet-covered analyst’s couch, and an old standing lamp. He sat in the dim light with his back to a view of New York harbor, where the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline loomed magnificently.

After 22 books, four ex-wives, eight children, and mountains of debts, Mailer had decided to take stock. Middle age was upon him with a vengeance. His curly hair had turned white. He had gone a little gouty, and there was the making of a paunch. Only the very blue eyes and the deep nasal resonance of his voice seemed untouched by age.

“I fear that in 10 years I’ll be arthritic,” he said. “I can see it coming on. I’ll have to give up booze completely. There’s a stiffness in the joints. I still try to box, but it’s getting tougher every year. I’ll find out this winter if I can still ski. So I’m right on the edge of getting phased out, and I don’t like the idea.”

Mailer was 56.

“At the point I’m at now,” he went on, “prizes obviously are not the thing that’s going to get me excited, and money is not going to get me excited. It would be nice if I could get out of debt. That would be nice. And I think if I ever get money again, I’ll probably manage it a little better. And fun’s important. But I’m getting old, so there’s going to be less and less fun.”

Mailer spoke rapidly. In bursts. Ratta-tat-tat.

“I think there’s some sort of gyroscopic principle that keeps one working. I mean I still have this big novel to write. I’ve not given up at all on the idea of doing it. It’s just a matter of dying well. When I’m 70 and 80, I don’t want to say to myself: ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t do a large part of what I was capable of doing.’ It’s no good to do 50 percent. You’ve got to do 75 percent anyway — otherwise there’s a kind of depression as you get older. I want to avoid that terminal depression.”

It sounded like a confession, but it was really just part of his excitability and a boundless enthusiasm for conversation. Shifting in his seat, he also shifted the subject. “This is like a jail cell, a very cushy jail cell,” he said. “I used to come in from the country alone and work up there.” He nodded with a glance upstairs. “But now with all the kids, it’s impossible. I like space when I’m working and this is a little confining.”

Mailer had lived for 17 years in that Brooklyn Heights brownstone. One flight up was the sprawling apartment he shared with his mate, Norris Church, a tall, elegant, 30-year-old schoolteacher from Arkansas whom he had met four years earlier. Their 18-month-old son John Buffalo and her eight-year-old son Matthew from a previous marriage lived with them.

The apartment, in contrast to his writing room, was bright with light and a view of the harbor seen through an entire wall of glass that was larger than an IMAX screen. His living quarters held still more books, lots of modest furniture, and rope ladders leading to several lofts beneath a 20-foot ceiling, as well as an enormous model of a futurist “vertical city” he once assembled in a fit of architectural ambition.

His writing room may have been cramped but it was not too confining for him to produce a mammoth “true life novel” which was easily his most readable work since the novel had launched his career in 1948. Written over a period of two years, it was “the longest stint of work I’ve ever had in my life,” Mailer told me. Twelve-hour days were not uncommon six to seven days a week. Sometimes, he noted, “there were months when I worked 25 days in a row.”

The Executioner’s Song chronicled the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who gained fame for a time in 1977 as the first person to be executed in the United States in a decade. What caught Mailer’s attention more than the issue of capital punishment, which inevitably pervaded the book, was the riddle of Gilmore’s character and his strange love relationship with Nicole Baker, who was willing to commit suicide for him. The riddle propelled the story forward with a narrative power so explosive that it simply tore through the pages.

Gilmore sought the fulfillment of his death sentence like a missile homing on a target. He showed “no profound sense of guilt at all,” Mailer noted, for having dispatched two unsuspecting victims with bullets in the back of their brains. He never showed remorse to the jury. Asked for his last words, he wisecracked: “Well, I’m finally glad that the jury is looking at me.”

Gilmore’s trajectory seemed to Mailer a paradox of destruction and of beauty. At a hearing before the Utah Board of Pardons obtained for him against his will, Gilmore spoke with a resigned eloquence that showed extreme courage in his quest for death. “I simply accepted the sentence that was given me,” he reminded the myrmidons of the prison system. “I have accepted sentences all my life. I didn’t know I had a choice in the matter. When I did accept it, everybody jumped up and wanted to argue with me. It seems that the people want the death penalty, but they don’t want executions.”

For those who objected to lavishing any more attention on Gilmore than had already been paid by the media, Mailer had a considerable response. “What I thought was important about him,” he said, “is that he’s a kind of litmus test for one’s compassion because he’s a man who calls forth compassion and then plays with it. After all, that’s a fundamental human drama. I wanted to say to the reader, ‘Hey, come on, we’re all much more smug than we realize. Try living with this guy in your mind. Here’s a guy who, on the one hand, is despicable and detestable and, on the other, he’s admirable. How are you going to swallow that?’ I wanted to force people to look at how narrow our concepts of human nature are. Gilmore smashes our ordinary concepts.”

Mailer wasn’t finished. “When he asks for his execution, he’s being wicked to the ultimate degree because he’s truly raising the ante beyond  everybody’s capacity to follow. That’s an exercise of sheer wickedness. But half the discoveries of humankind came out of wickedness. There are people who are essentially not good, not bad, not moral, not even amoral. They’re just interested in raising the ante.”

The critics were right to buzz about the book’s most apparent quality: Mailer’s total absence from the work either as a central or peripheral figure. There was no sign, not even a hint, of the overheated Aquarian persona that had infiltrated his previous books. The colloquial prose, wrung of excess, came as a relief from the overwrought style that had become his hallmark. In fact, the change was an essential part of Mailer’s stocktaking.

“This book was a reaction against my last books,” he told me. “I felt I was getting into filigree much too much. I’m not turning on the old style. It’s just that it’s a very dangerous style because you have to have an awful lot to say and you have to be centrally located. With all the faults of a baroque style, one thing that can be said for it is that it’s not easy to master. It’s not supple. It does not adapt to everything that comes up. Whereas a style like this one was endlessly flexible.”

Mailer said he felt the writing process this time around was like “scraping the last pieces of meat off a bone.” He cited an old poem of his to describe the effect he wanted to achieve:

I like poems
to be like bones

and shine silver
in the sun.

“I kept thinking of that when I was working,” he said. “I wanted the paragraphs to have that look of the sun having bleached out something.” He also kept thinking that he had to vindicate himself for his readers. “I had to give them something to cheer about.”

After he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Armies of the Night, in 1969, Mailer’s next books failed to become huge favorites. That included most of his baroque meditations of the 1970s, among them Of a Fire on the Moon, The Prisoner of Sex, Maidstone, and The Fight. Critics wondered whether he had lost the ability to write with the kind of narrative flow that had been so successful in The Naked and the Dead. Mailer settled the question with The Executioner’s Song.

“Actually there’s a connection between the two books for exactly that reason,” Mailer said. “I always knew I could do narrative so I wasn’t interested in that. About the time the critics were beginning to say, ‘He just can’t deal with narrative,’ I’d laugh at them and say, ‘Oh come on, fellas, everybody knows I can do that. Let’s not pretend I can’t. Finally I said, ‘Nobody believes me. Well, I’ll show them.’ There’s nothing to doing it. It’s the simplest thing in writing. Narrative works on the same principle as that mechanical rabbit that has the greyhounds running. You’ve just got to keep the answer a quarter inch ahead of the reader’s nose. As the reader goes forward, you just keep pulling that thing forward.”

Style more than narrative had intrigued Mailer throughout his career.  He’d always examined it with his usual zest for philosophical implications. “One of the people I admire most is Picasso,” he told me, “because he understood that style was not an identity. It is a tool to use.”

Yet Mailer had also made a case for the opposite idea, claiming that style was nothing more — nor less — than an existential condition resulting from a sense of identity so strong that “everything one writes comes out of one’s mood, one’s own fundamental mood.” Here’s the way he defined it in the 1976 preface to a reissue of Advertisements for Myself:

The idea could even be advanced that style comes to young authors about the time they recognize that life is out there ready to kill them, kill them quickly or slowly, but something out there is not fooling. It would explain why authors who were ill in their childhood almost always arrive early in their career as developed stylists: Proust, Capote, and Alberto Moravia give three examples. Gide offers another. This notion would certainly account for the early and complete development of Hemingway’s style. He had the unmistakable sensation of being wounded so near to death that he felt his soul slide out of him, then slip back.

 

Mailer made the point that he had no style at all when he first began writing. He said that Advertisements, which appeared in 1958, after he’d published three novels, was “the first book I wrote that had a style I thought I might be able to call my own.” Once forged, that style worked through the 1960s like a well-oiled machine, reaching its beautifully elaborate best in Armies of the Night and to a certain extent in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. But it began to falter in the 1970s when, Mailer admitted,he was “much out of step” with the times and was unable to find proper justification for being the central figure in his work.

The style sputtered in Of a Fire on the Moon because he couldn’t interview the astronauts and had to focus on himself to explain the moral dilemma of technology. Nobody really believed him, least of all himself. Then the style fell into new quandaries in The Prisoner of Sex because he either had to get into his own sexual experience or get out of the book entirely, and he never quite resolved those problems. By the time of The Executioner’s Song Mailer had come full circle. Paring his style and eliminating himself from the narrative was, in its own way, an act of survival.

But even though The Executioner’s Song  drew critical raves and was a commercial success, it didn’t enable him to climb out of debt. Warner Books had paid $500,000 for paperback rights, half of which went to Lawrence Schiller, the photographer-cum-producer who had secured the rights to Gilmore’s story and had invited Mailer to write it. Mailer explained that his debts were so great he’d had to take a loan from his agent Scott Meredith for $185,000. “If I get hit by a truck, what’s he gonna do?” Mailer said. “Stand there and look at my nine children and say, ‘I get mine first?’ He’s really willing to take a big chance. I also owe my mother $90,000, which is all the money she has. It’s her life savings.”

Mailer had already been forced to sell the Brooklyn Heights brownstone. Though he still lived there, it had been turned into a condominium. And his Cape Cod home in Provincetown had gone on the auction block to pay income taxes he owed. Then he had alimony to pay, and child support, and college tuitions coming up for all his grown children.

“I’m one of those guys who was always lending money to friends out of guilt,” he said. “I had more money than I needed and I felt bad about it. It’s shifted to the point where the guys who used to borrow from me are saying to me, ‘Hey, you need a little?’” For a plunger who lost $300,000 backing three of his own films, a little was hardly enough.

Five years later, Mailer looked at 61 not unlike a retired seadog, although there was nothing retiring about him. What hadn’t changed was his provocative charm. He was in Chicago to promote his latest novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance. Over a light lunch in his suite at the Whitehall Hotel, Mailer preferred chatting informally to engaging in a literary interview, and he unburdened himself of some striking opinions about war and peace, a presidential election that year, the Soviet Union, which still existed, and whatever else came to mind.

Detecting a bit of the South in his Brooklyn accent, I told him it seemed a long way from his Brooklyn heritage. He explained that he’d been “in a Texas outfit” during World War II and that he’d also been married to two women from the South. “I’m a chameleon,” he said. “I sometimes think that if I hadn’t been so shy when I was a kid, I would have been an actor because I’ve always been an unconscious mimic. I take on the color of the person I’m with.”

This prompted the old question of identity again.  Did he have a problem with his own identity? He didn’t answer directly. Instead he dilated upon the subject. “Identity is such a 20th century demand,” he said. “In the 19th century, and certainly before then, most people lived at so submerged a level that the question of identity never existed. They didn’t think of themselves as having a personality or even a face. They were farm people. They worked like animals, not to mock them. Now you’re your own definition of yourself.”

Never more so, I said, than when rock stars become rich and famous. They often complain of going through an identity crisis. People treat them differently, and they become different. Mailer agreed. He cited the famous line of Engels’ that “quantity changes quality,” then added: “Here’s a kid who’s playing a guitar and now you add $1 million to the kid and the guitar. You do not have the same kid.”

This brought another idea to mind. “Take a beautiful woman,” he said, “and add a beautiful dress. We say, ‘You sure look beautiful in that dress.’ The blacks have the idea that the dress also has a soul because it’s so beautiful. And the soul of the dress is added to the soul of the woman. When a woman dresses up, she’s no longer the same woman. When I’m dressed up, I no longer feel like the same man. I feel like I have a different personality.”

It was an election year, and Ronald Reagan was running for a second term. Mailer had been going around saying he believed that Clint Eastwood could be president. When I asked him why, he was so eager to perform that he jumped into the question as though I’d asked him to do a swan dive from a three-meter platform.

“I have a dream that I want to see Warren Beatty run against Clint Eastwood,” he said. “I want to cut out the crap. We’re going for image in the presidency, so let’s have real image. Let’s have a real election. That’s a real election in my mind. You want to elect a woman? Let’s have Meryl Streep against Jessica Lange. Let’s have real shootouts. That’s a hard choice. Either one could win, and I’d be a lot happier than I am right now.”

I wondered whether he was joking. He wasn’t. “I would argue that the jump in going from a standard politician to president is a greater jump, psychologically and spiritually for Americans, than going from Ronald Reagan to Clint Eastwood. Reagan had political experience, but he’s still seen in everyone’s mind as an actor.You don’t have to become governor any more. If you put in the work, you can skip that. You can sound as intelligent as the next guy in a debate. And any actor can do that because it’s a matter of learning lines, learning set speeches with small variations. Anybody who has been an actor for 20 years can learn a speech in a hurry.”

The question of substance finally snuck into our conversation, though admittedly not at the level that had occupied him in his essays, where a muscular intelligence and cogency characterized him at his best, and where he often slipped in some pretty fair humor, never seeming at a loss for the apt phrase or the right connection. (“Pomposity clings as closely to pronouncements as a beer belly to a beer drinker.” “TB does the same thing to human relations that frozen food does to real food.” “John Simon is as predictable in his critical reactions as a headwaiter.”) We failed to discuss many of the subjects he had treated in his essays — God and the devil, sex and marriage, the pervasive evil of plastic, the FBI and the CIA, television, ethics and pornography, wickedness, Hemingway vs. Henry Miller — because he wanted to talk instead about the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union that was dominating world politics at the time.  He wanted to make the point that he didn’t believe it would come to anything.

“Neither country has the ability to defeat the other in a nuclear war without destroying the world,” he said. I told him that sounded like the conventional wisdom, which was not to his liking. So he got down to specifics. “TheRussians have about twice as many tanks as we do. The reason is that they have a real third-world army. When one of their tanks breaks down, they just leave it by the side of the road. They cannibalize their tanks. They can’t get enough spare parts. They can’t get a system going in any comprehensive fashion. If you go to the Soviet Union, you’ll believe this. I mean, when you can’t get decent toilet paper, when you can’t get decent ice cream, when you can’t get decent towels and sheets, when the food has a certain awfulness — ”

I interrupted him. “How could making ice cream possibly have anything to do with making tanks?”

“It absolutely does,” he said. “Because there’s a culture to production. And if you can’t do simple things, why assume you can do complex things?”

Although the equation of ice cream and tanks still seemed fallacious, I let it go. But I couldn’t help pointing out that expensive American high-tech weapons systems often did not perform in the field as well as claimed. Perhaps simplicity was advantageous? Mailer didn’t quite agree: “Our systems may be half gone, but theirs never existed. They do have simple systems—force majeure. We still have the vanity that we can handle complex systems. They know they can’t. Their simple systems are as inefficient as our complex systems. What a marvelous symbiotic relationship!”

When he brought up domestic political warfare, Mailer was risible. “I really think the argument with the right wingers is the ‘horseshit’ argument. I say, ‘Why did we have to go to Grenada?’ They say, ‘To defend the Caribbean against communism.’ I say, ‘Why defend it against communism?’ They say, ‘What? Mexico will go communist.’ So I say, ‘What are they going to do, invade us?’ So they say, ‘No. But there will be an awful lot of wetbacks.’ That’s the argument they’re reduced to. We’ll have this infusion of wetbacks because all of Central America will go communist. Why should we care? The more countries that go communist, the more trouble the Soviet Union is in. It can’t handle complexity.”

Mailer couldn’t leave the argument alone. “Besides,” he said, “people wouldn’t be living any worse under communism than they would be under capitalism. It’s monstrous down there. Even Mexico is a horrible place. They’ll be miserable under communism? Well, they’re miserable under capitalism. But why should capitalism bear the onus?”

When I told him he sounded like he was defending capitalism, he began singing, “I serve the Lord and the Lord serves me.”

“That’s a switch,” I said.

“I find capitalism a very interesting system,” he retorted. “On the one hand, I can’t pretend that I love it. On the other, I don’t really have a feeling in any way that government control from the top is going to work any better.  Capitalism is a very ‘iffy’ kind of system because, when it deteriorates, it always deteriorates into fascism. After all, capitalism is the government of the greedy.”

He wasn’t satisfied with his answer. After a pause, he said, “If you have enough freedoms built in, and maintained, and fought for, the greedy, like anyone else, can improve and can discover a civic purpose. One of the beliefs I have is that the people in any system can get better.” He went on for a while about Khrushchev, who’d been known as “the butcher of the Ukraine” but who surprised everyone with his repudiation of Stalin. “Even monsters can become human,” he said.

That sounded “a little dreamy,” I said. Hell, it sounded utopian. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I guess when you get older you get less pessimistic. I have so many children there’s no joy in being pessimistic. It lays a gloom on my kids and a gloom back on me. But optimism vs. pessimism has more to do with one’s liver than with anything else. I don’t take optimism or pessimism seriously. I’m always embarrassed when a questioner asks me, ‘Are you more optimistic today?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I had a very good meal last night.’ Or, ‘I didn’t drink too much.’”

Now that he’d got that off his chest, he wanted to get to his main point. “The point,” he said, “is that we’ve been running a neat little religious war for a lot of profiteers in this country. Our system goes through a lot of fluctuations. There are a lot of ways it works in an appalling fashion. Nonetheless, we certainly are in healthier economic shape than the communists. They’re not going to take us over. They simply are not.”

Full stop.

It would have been interesting to ask him about his time at Harvard, or about his infamous run-ins with Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, or why he hated “Last Tango in Paris” yet believed in the greatness of Marlon Brando, or what had made him appreciate graffiti as art, or how he saw the jigsaw puzzle of Watergate — but he had to be on his way. He still needed the money. It was time to go promote his novel.

 
© by Jan Herman

 


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