Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer 1923-2007

My first thought on hearing of the death of Norman Mailer, was that we might finally get a DVD release of the legendary Town Bloody Hall documentary. This event was initially advertised as a "debate about feminism" that turned into a free-for-all; Norman famously tells Jill Johnston to "act like a lady" as she deliberately gropes another woman (a sort of Yippie-lesbian public action) onstage. In every photo I have seen of the event, Germaine Greer always seems to be laughing her ass off (see link), and I always wondered: Did she and Norman have sex before or after the event? Was their affair the result of the event, or was the event the result of their affair? Inquiring minds want to know, and maybe we'll finally get some details, and a fun DVD, too.

And you know, that is the best summation of the life of Norman Mailer: There he was, in the middle of everything, always. The 60s belonged to Norman Mailer, author of countless books, essays and articles covering the rapid-fire changes of the decade. He was the scribe of the times, the man on the scene. (The only other writer who even comes close is Tom Wolfe, and it is amusing that they hated each other and took public jabs at each other, often.)

Everyone wanted to know what Norman thought of everything, even my mother. Nixon? Civil Rights? Vietnam? Men on the Moon? Feminism? What does Norman say? And he held forth, always, never at a loss for words. He gave more interviews than Pete Townshend. And he was always provocative, egotistical, verbose, insane, fascinating. Long before the word "edgy" entered the lexicon, Norman embodied it. He was an unapologetic misogynist, who stabbed one of his wives (Adele Morales) at a party, and yet, women lined up to get his autograph, and famous feminists wanted to debate him (and sleep with him). He fought in World War II (subject of his book The Naked and the Dead), ran for mayor of New York City, got arrested at antiwar demonstrations, won Pulitzers, testified to keep John Lennon in the country, conducted a nasty public feud with Gore Vidal, and even got an ex-convict-writer (Jack Henry Abbott) out of prison on parole, who then promptly killed someone. And so much more.

Bruce Bawer relates that when The Deer Park (1955), was published, Mailer sent a copy to Hemingway along with the following letter:

-- because finally after all these years
I am deeply curious to know
what you think of this.

-- but if you do not answer, or if you
answer with the kind of crap you
use to answer unprofessional writers,
sycophants, brown-nosers, etc., then
fuck you, and I will never attempt
to communicate with you again.

The package came back marked Address Unknown.

Mailer never attempted to communicate with Hemingway again.
He wrote like he was somewhere inside your head already, in the "New Journalism" style that Joan Didion and the aforementioned Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal also helped make famous. In Armies of the Night, he explained in one sentence why the corn-fed kids from the heartland were in rebellion and marching on the Pentagon. Yes, it was the war in Vietnam, but it was more than that, too: "They hated the authority because the authority had lied," he memorably wrote. As a young girl, I remember reading the words and feeling chills. Yes, I thought, that's it.

In his truly amazing work, The Executioner's Song, he succeeded in bringing to life the reality of two young lovers on the fringes of society, Gary Gilmore and Nicole Baker, and takes you right into the heart of poverty, murder and death row. Surprisingly, the famous misogynist does not slight Nicole (a welfare mother married three times by age 19), and at one point delivered another great line about one of Nicole's exes interrogating her, "just enough to get her screaming."

Even as late as 1999, he was still expressing himself in his imitable fashion, and showing a talent for reading between the lines. From The Time of Our Time:
Hillary is wonderful. She not only defends, she attacks. She speaks of a right-wing conspiracy to destroy her husband. It satisfies our deep need in America to find a new conspiracy every year.

What powerful instincts are in Hillary. The first lady's features, when studied, are remarkable. On the brow and mouth of very few women is written so vast and huge a desire for power. Of course, she is loyal to her Bill, loyal certainly by her good side, but even more loyal out of darker and more powerful urges. For if she remains loyal to him she will yet become a legend in America, and that is necessary to satisfy what may be her true aim--to become the first woman elected president of the United States
And in 2003, he wrote about the Iraq War also, as he had written about that other war that seems so similar (and unending) so long ago:
The armed forces had become the paradigmatic equal of a great young athlete looking to test his true size. Could it be that there was a bozo out in the boondocks who was made to order, and his name was Iraq? Iraq had a tough rep, but not much was left to him inside. A dream opponent. A desert war is designed for an air force whose state-of-the-art is comparable in perfection to a top-flight fashion model on a runway. Yes, we would liberate the Iraqis.

So we went ahead against all obstacles—of which the UN was the first. Wantonly, shamelessly, proudly, exuberantly, at least one half of our prodigiously divided America could hardly wait for the new war. We understood that our television was going to be terrific. And it was. Sanitized but terrific—which is, after all, exactly what network and good cable television are supposed to be
Oh, my, yes--I cannot tell a lie: I will miss him.

Listening to: The Beatles - I'm Only Sleeping
via FoxyTunes


Bryce said...

nice obit, D-explains a lot to those of us who didn't know much about him,.

CrackerLilo said...

What Bryce said.

You know so much about obscure movies! You have me wanting that DVD to come out now.

Anthony said...

Truly, one of the greats! Thanks for sharing.

And, I appreciate you helping make the first Surfer's Paradise Hullabaloo! Carnival a success.

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