Politics & Policy

Great Expectations

This review by Terry Teachout of The Time of Our Time appeared in the June 22, 1998, issue of National Review.

Why is Norman Mailer still famous? He hasn’t written a good book since The Executioner’s Song, which is 19 years old. Except for The Naked and the Dead, none of his novels continues to be read, and his magazine journalism long ago curdled into self-parody. I’ve never met anyone under the age of forty who took him seriously. Yet Random House, which so far as I know is not a charitable institution, is celebrating his 75th birthday by bringing out a 1,200-page anthology of his writing, chosen by the master himself. That’s a pretty fancy birthday present, especially given the fact that it will surely wind up on the remainder tables by year’s end.

Mailer has been writing badly for so long that it is easy to forget that a great many intelligent people once took him almost as seriously as he took himself. (Trivia question: Who called him “one of the few postwar American writers in whom it is possible to detect the presence of qualities that powerfully suggest a major novelist in the making”? Answer: Norman Podhoretz, writing in 1959.) And The Time of Our Time contains ample proof that for all his faults, the young Mailer really did have talent to burn. He could blather on for page after page about existential anguish, then snap into focus and toss off the kind of brilliantly exact description that made his colleagues sweat with envy. Here is Truman Capote, pinned down in one perfect sentence: “‘I didn’t want to do this show,’ he said in a dry little voice that seemed to issue from an unmoistened reed in his nostril.”

The trouble with Mailer was that he was drunk on ideas, a deadly tipple for woolly-minded pseudo-intellectuals. Sensing instinctively that liberalism had run its course, he made the mistake of assuming that radicalism was the only way out, and complicated matters still further by opting for a romantic radicalism rooted in sexual mysticism. As a result, his style grew bloated and slack, especially on the increasingly frequent occasions when he grappled with imperfectly digested philosophical concepts:

It is on this bleak scene that a phenomenon has appeared: the American existentialist — the hipster, the man who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry), if the fate of twentieth-century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.

Yet Mailer had little choice but to write about ideas, for he had little else about which to write. The publication in 1948 of The Naked and the Dead left him “prominent and empty” at the age of 25, and he spent the rest of his youth and early middle age living in the glare of renown, making it impossible for him to accumulate the private experience out of which good novels are spun. He wrote interestingly about this problem in Advertisements for Myself (“My farewell to an average man’s experience was too abrupt . . . I was a node in a new electronic landscape of celebrity, personality, and status”), but that was a trick that could be brought off only once: from then on, it would be ideas or nothing.

It was thus inevitable that he would turn to journalism, which supplies the gifted but unformed writer with pre-set subjects on which to hone his style. Unfortunately, his celebrity made it impossible for him to undergo the normal period of apprenticeship: he was thrown in at the deep end, and his self-indulgent flounderings were mistaken for originality. To be sure, The Presidential Papers, The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and Of a Fire on the Moon are not without their bright spots, and “The Liberal Party,” the chapter of The Armies of the Night in which Mailer describes a visit to a party thrown by “an attractive liberal couple,” is a minor masterpiece of social observation:

Conservative professors tend to have a private income, so their homes show the flowering of their taste, the articulation of their hobbies, collections adhere to their cabinets and odd statements of whim stand up in the nooks; but liberal instructors, liberal assistant professors, and liberal associate professors are usually poor and programmatic, so secretly they despise the arts of home adornment. . . . the artist on the wall is a friend of the host, has the right political ideas, and will talk about literature so well, you might think you were being addressed by Maxim Gorky.

But even at his best, Mailer was addicted to navel-gazing, and his insistence on placing himself on stage alongside his subjects, though initially refreshing, ultimately proved disastrous. It is no coincidence that the two most successful pieces of book-length reportage to come out of the Sixties, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, scrupulously avoid the self-aggrandizement that was Mailer’s journalistic trademark (or that The Executioner’s Song, by far Mailer’s strongest piece of journalism, is also one of the few non-fiction books he has written in which he does not figure as a major character).

So what is it about this 75-year-old has-been that continues to make aging editors weak in the knees? The answer, I think, is that he is to literature what the Kennedys are to politics, a living, breathing relic of the vanished era of high hopes. Even though he was already washed up as a novelist by 1960, Mailer had retooled himself as a middlebrow journalist just in time to bang the drum for JFK. Talk about sucker bait: Mailer had spent the Fifties bemoaning the “partially totalitarian society” that was America under Dwight Eisenhower, and along came a handsome young Democratic philosopher-king, a glamorous millionaire who wrote books (or at least signed them), flattered susceptible authors (including Mailer), and hung out with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. All at once the joint was jumping, and everything seemed possible, from racial equality to free love: “Yes, this candidate for all his record, his good, sound, conventional liberal record, has a patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz.”

Appropriately enough, Mailer became the chief chronicler of the Sixties, the high-priced hired gun for whom magazine editors with money to burn sent whenever they wanted to put the seal of literary seriousness on political conventions or moon shots. He was the first American novelist since Ernest Hemingway to be widely known by name to people who didn’t read books, and it begins to look as if he’ll be the last one. (Has David Letterman ever interviewed a novelist?) But like so many quondam revolutionaries, he proved unwilling to ride the train to the end of the line, revealing himself in The Prisoner of Sex (1971) to be unalterably opposed to the women’s-liberation movement, an irretrievable blunder that brought to an abrupt end his quarter-century-long run as the golden boy of American letters.

At this point, a better writer might have finally gotten down to business and produced the memorable novels everybody had long expected Mailer to write. Certainly he had no shortage of ambition. “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time,” he announced at the age of 36, adding that his writings “will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years.” Alas, his post-1971 output, The Executioner’s Song excepted, is noteworthy only for its flaccid awfulness. Ancient Evenings, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, The Gospel According to the Son . . . need I say more? Not since Sinclair Lewis has an author of note ground out so dreary a string of flops.

No doubt Mailer, like Kennedy, will never lack for bootlickers, at least while his generation is still alive. It’s hard to accept that a once-promising writer has become a burnt-out case, especially when the memory of his promise is part of your own lost youth. Who would have guessed in 1960 that the first literary star of the electronic age would end his days as a nostalgia act, the Glenn Miller of Camelot? Once again, Jack Kennedy got it wrong: life is fair — all you have to do is give it time.

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