Lion in winter

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

Does anyone take Norman Mailer seriously anymore? Did anyone ever? When I started reading him in the late 1960s, he already seemed like a relic from a rapidly receding past, one who unreeled his densely argued challenges like a machismo artist in a muscular panic.

Picking up Advertisements For Myself, which first appeared in 1959 and which was the first and best of his many public soul-barings, I was greatly impressed by his range and intensity. But I was also struck by how the book seemed liked a big “fuck you” to the pervading niceties of the famously button-downed ’50s. It was a real period piece, and though he was manfully trying to break on through to a different, more alive present, he was also a product of the times, a Harvard-educated war veteran trying to morph into a funky existentialist and only partially succeeding.

Mailer wrote about the concept of Hip with a great deal of romantic brio, but also from a great distance. And though he had a lot to say about sex, he wrote about women with the kind of condescension that used to pass for graciousness. He seemed, in short, old-fashioned while at the same time provocative and almost perversely entertaining.

He also wrote, in Advertisements, about the process of writing, and that’s where he had me hooked. Like Orson Welles, Mailer had followed a stunning debut with a messy career of miscalculations, baroque indulgences and flat-out train wrecks. He was rarely dull and always maintained a certain level of originality, but he never lived up to his early promise. In one long stretch of Advertisements, he described the psychic dislocation of early fame, when The Naked and The Dead (1948) was published to wide acclaim and he was barely 25. He went into great detail about the grinding dread and near-heroic labor behind the creation of his next two novels — Barbary Shore (1951), a resounding failure, and The Deer Park (1955), a more mitigated flop. (It should be pointed out that both books have their avid defenders, but then so does nearly everything.)

Expounding on the anxiety and exhilaration of practicing the spooky art, Mailer on writing is promising. You know he’s going to bring to it a heightened sense of it being a metaphysical endeavor, as well as his own eccentric approach to what is already an eccentric profession — though he’s 80 years old now and a bit more settled than he was in the days of The Deer Park’s marijuana-fueled rewrites. Even so, The Spooky Art wouldn’t be a Mailer book without being a little disappointing.

First of all, it’s neither a totally new book nor an anthology of past writings, but rather a collection of material neatly stitched together from nearly a hundred different sources — past articles, interviews and even speeches — organized under topic headings like “Craft,” “Psychology” and “Philosophy.” And though the joining of these snippets is pretty smooth, with some connective stuff written just for this book (about 10 percent is newly composed or previously unpublished material), if you’ve read Advertisements or Cannibals and Christians or Pieces and Pontifications, you’ll find much that’s familiar, including the above-mentioned tale of the Barbary Shore-Deer Park escapades.

Another disappointment here is Mailer’s emphasis on novel writing at the expense of an examination of how he created his justly famous journalistic hybrids, such as The Armies of the Night and Of a Fire on the Moon. Truth be told, do you really want novel-writing advice from the guy who came up with An American Dream, Ancient Evenings and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (though I consider the last a great guilty pleasure)? Maybe you do. But the third disappointment is that much of Mailer’s advice is not that revelatory. Even a third-rate record reviewer probably knows that an impasse can be breached by putting the review aside for a day, letting it bake in the unconscious. Or that long works take stamina. And that writing involves an excruciating amount of painful self-examination (unless you’re running on intuition, as many of us are).

On the plus side, and diverging from the book’s stated intent, there’s an excellent section on film, with a lengthy, convincing (and dissenting) analysis of Last Tango in Paris, as well as a part offering long and short takes on other writers. Eviscerating the competition is something Mailer has always done with the gusto of a backstreet brawler (one of his cornball images, not mine). And it’s nice to see that he still has some bite, even if it’s a nibbling kind now, as when he writes of Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections, “It is very good as a novel, very good indeed, and yet most unpleasant now that it sits in memory, as if one had been wearing the same clothes for too many days.”

You tell ’em, champ.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].