Time’s Up

THE TIME OF OUR TIME, by Norman Mailer.  Random House.  $39.50

One evening recently I was having supper with my father at a diner on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when his eye was caught by something outside the front window.  “Look who it is,” he said.  I followed his gaze to see a short, stocky figure in a tuxedo, some distance down the sidewalk.  He had just emerged from Elaine’s, the famous celebrity bistro a few doors away, and was moving, very, very slowly, in our direction.  We watched him as he made his way, with what seemed considerable effort, to the public phone a few feet from our table.  When he lifted the receiver from its hook, he seemed to feel burdened by its weight, and when he fed a coin into the box his hand trembled.

        It was Norman Mailer.  

        The sight of him shocked me.  He looked terribly tired and feeble, and far too small ever to have been an actor in any of the aggressive, macho scenarios I had read about over the years, in his own work and elsewhere.  He looked like a man who had been worn down by life and was now just dragging himself through the motions – who pulled on his tuxedo of an evening and went to Elaine’s, that not-so-clean, not-so-well-lighted place, simply because there was nowhere else to go if you were Norman Mailer and had made of your life what you had made of it.  And this was a man whom, perhaps more than anyone in the last half century, one had always tended to picture in action, making a ruckus – and making noise, too, whether he actually had anything worthwhile to say or not.

        He stood there talking on the phone for several minutes, only five or six feet away, his back half-turned to us; and while he did, my father and I sat there looking at him, discussing his literary career, and picking at our pot roast.  I was struck by the differences between our perceptions.  To my father, a man of Mailer’s own generation who was there when The Naked and the Dead came out but who hadn’t read him in years, Mailer was a great author, a relic of a more thrilling literary time when novels made news and literature mattered; it saddened him to see that immense personage so visibly past his prime.  To me, a book critic who had read An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? in college, had reviewed Peter Manso’s “oral biography” of Mailer as well as both Harlot’s Ghost and The Gospel According to the Son, and who saw Mailer as largely responsible for hastening the demise of the novel as a serious commodity, the man on the phone was a somewhat more problematic figure.

        One point of agreement that seemed to emerge from our discussion was that Mailer was, or at least had been, our premier celebrity writer.  The celebrity writer, of course, isn’t a strictly twentieth-century phenomenon.  Charles Dickens’s American appearances drew huge crowds; the public knew Oscar Wilde as much for his quips as for his plays.  Yet it wasn’t till the advent of the Hollywood star factory and the modern publicity machine that literary celebrity came into its own.  In the Roaring Twenties, the popular press played up Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as the embodiments of Flaming Youth; some years later Ernest Hemingway was recast as “Papa,” the novelist as sage and tough guy.

        And then along came Norman Mailer, who from the beginning piggybacked his image onto that of Papa Hemingway in much the way that Allen Ginsberg (another writer who made his mark largely by throwing himself at big themes and blowing his own horn) would spend his career riding Walt Whitman’s uneasy shoulders.  Mailer’s best-selling and critically acclaimed first book The Naked and the Dead (1948), which at the time was viewed as the American novel of World War II and which today seems thoroughly conventional (and far less readable than, say, Irwin Shaw’s now-forgotten The Young Lions), established him as Hemingway’s heir presumptive.  He followed it with two forced, unfocused novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), both of which flopped.  On the occasion of the latter book’s publication, he 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.

        Tumbling from grace with his second and third novels, Mailer faced a dilemma.  His fiction hadn’t forked any lightning; he seemed headed for the dustbin of literary history.  What to do?  What he did was to make a leap of faith.  Leaving behind the novel for the time being, he compiled Advertisements for Myself (1959), a mishmash of essays, reviews, poems, missives, columns, exchanges, rants, gibes, jokes, and jeremiads (including the letter to Hemingway) that nakedly broadcast his insecurity about his manhood, his romance with the word “existential,” his often comically fraught view of male-female relations, and – suffusing the whole book – a lust for celebrity so desperate that he was, quite plainly, more than willing to play the buffoon in order to attain it.  

        The book, by turns earnest, frivolous, and passionate, achieved just what Mailer intended it to: appearing at the very end of the 1950s, when the culture of celebrity was poised to infect the world of serious arts and letters on an epidemic scale, it placed Mailer just where he wanted to be – at center stage.  If his fiction had not convinced critics that he deserved (as he claimed) the title of America’s premier novelist, the shameless self-advertisement that was his 1959 book’s only raison d’être accomplished exactly what he had intended it to.  Included in Advertisements for Myself were Mailer’s columns for the then young Village Voice, in the first of which he explained that he had taken on the task of churning out a weekly contribution to the paper in order “to discover in public how much of me is sheer egotism.”  This turned out to be a lifetime project.  His subsequent nonfiction, which solidified his position in a way that few novels, by themselves, could ever have done, shows Mailer time and again parading his ego before a bored and baffled public, cozying up to big names and great events, and casting himself as the hero: in The Armies of the Night (1968) he turns an antiwar demo into an opportunity for self-display; in Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) he places himself at the center of the political-convention action; in The Prisoner of Sex (1971) he appoints himself Field Marshal in the War between Men and Women.

        And now comes The Time of Our Time, a 1,286-page ego massage designed, we are told, to mark both the fiftieth anniversary of The Naked and the Dead and Mailer’s seventy-fifth birthday. One of the first things that will strike a reader of this tome is that the dust jacket has printed on it the words “A Signed First Edition.”  I’ve never before seen any book, except maybe a small-press poetry chapbook, that advertised on its cover the fact that it contained the author’s John Hancock. This peculiarity reinforces one’s impression that the book exists less because Random House considered its publication warranted by the enduring merit or importance of the author’s work than because Mailer, whatever the present state of his literary reputation, remains a celebrity whose autograph, if not his writing, might conceivably still be a salable commodity.

     It’s thanks to his celebrity, surely, that Mailer continues to be lavishly published and to be prominently reviewed.  Yet do people really read him anymore?  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they don’t.  Ask people who read books when they last read him and how he figures in their maps of the literary world and you will soon discern that the time of his time is no more.  To be sure, there was a time – and it was, arguably, the most dramatic time in the last half-century of our nation’s history – when Mailer often seemed to be at one with the times, catching the wave of the Zeitgeist and riding it more sensationally than just about anybody else this side of the Beatles.  Despite his consistent and obnoxious use of history as a stage on which to make a spectacle of himself (even as he refused to delve too deeply into that self, refused to seek to understand exactly what it was that drove him to behave as he did), Mailer nonetheless succeeded in capturing much of the rough and tumble of American politics at the end of the 1960s.  Yet in recent years he has made a career of churning out overblown, underedited volumes that would frankly have had difficulty finding a publisher without a famous name on the cover.

     There is, admittedly, something oddly impressive about the way in which The Time of Our Time touches so many of the bases of late twentieth-century American public life, among them the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights and antiwar movements, the moon landing, women’s lib, and Watergate.  For all its weaknesses, the book does add up to a relatively coherent subjective account of our times.  To read it is to be reminded not only that Mailer has always presented himself as being out to penetrate the mystery at the heart of the American darkness, but also that for him all clues lead to the CIA, which in his view, apparently, has been responsible for just about everything noxious and noteworthy that has happened since November 22, 1963.  Yet Mailer’s conspiracy-mongering is that not of a stern, astringent social critic but of an aging boy who, just under the surface, plainly thinks all this skullduggery is really, really neat.  In his 1991 novel Harlot’s Ghost, he imagines himself as a dashing, womanizing CIA agent who, over the decades, crosses paths with everyone from Howard Hunt to Marilyn Monroe and is always wherever the action is.  (Those few hardy souls who manage to get past its first hundred or so pages may be forgiven for reading it as an account of Mailer’s fantasy life – the parallel existence he perhaps wished he had been leading during all those long dull family summers at Easthampton and Provincetown.)

     Mailer’s critics have often mentioned his stabbing of his second wife, Adele, and his support for the murderer Jack Henry Abbott, who after Mailer helped spring him from prison killed again.  It’s not unfair to bring these events up, because Mailer plainly never learned from them.  Far from being isolated tragedies, as he has tried to suggest, they were the inevitable consequence of the philosophy by which he has lived his life and implicitly encouraged others to live theirs.  Though he has written endlessly of souls, sex, and sin, he exhibits little regard for such values as humility, contrition, and redemption, for the need to take responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences.  He is drawn to the high drama of moral conflict, but not to the hard task of discerning and defending the good; he seeks to know others well enough to subdue them, but he shows virtually no interest in developing the kind of empathic understanding that is one of the qualities separating good novelists from bad.  Mailer’s need to create strife is, indeed, a running theme of The Time of Our Time.  To him the world is an existential crucible in which provoking conflict is the only way to truly Be and Know.  He doesn’t fight because he’s sure he’s right and others are wrong, but because he believes that only through fighting – only in that existential moment of conflict, when one’s heart and mind and soul and body are all on the block – can one even begin to get some sense of where right and wrong may lie.

     No surprise, then, that The Time of Our Time opens with an anecdote – reprinted from Mailer’s 1966 collection Cannibals and Christians – about a boxing match between Hemingway and the Canadian novelist Morley Callaghan, with F. Scott Fitzgerald as timekeeper, that created lasting tensions among the three writers and that Hemingway told in A Moveable Feast.  Mailer revisited the tale in order to make the point that “there are two kinds of brave men: those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will,” and that Hemingway is one of the latter sort of man – deeply frightened by life, but compelled by some inner need to play the he-man with nerves of steel.  By placing this brief passage at the start of this huge book, Mailer plainly seems to be implying that he, too, is brave by will alone.  But is brave the right word for what Mailer is?  The Time of Our Time abounds in passages that show him willfully flexing his muscles in gratuitous warfare with unwilling and mystified opponents.  Invariably, however, he comes off looking not courageous but asinine.  For example, in an excerpt from The Armies of the Night that recounts his participation, with other writers and intellectuals, in a 1967 antiwar protest at the Pentagon, Mailer carries out a private war against Robert Lowell.  Mailer, writing of himself (as usual) in the third person, recounts their first exchange:

        “I’m just going to read some poems,” he said.  “I suppose you’re going to speak, Norman.”

        “Well, I will.”

        “Yes, you’re awfully good at that.”

        “Not really.”  Harrumphs, modifications, protestations, and denials of the virtue of the ability to speak.

        “I’m no good at all at public speaking,” said Lowell in the kindest voice.  He had indisputably won the first round.  Mailer the younger, presumptive, and self-elected prince was left to his great surprise – for he had been exercised this way many times before – with the unmistakable feeling that there was some faint strain of the second-rate in this ability to speak on your feet.

The contest continues:

      “You know, Norman,” said Lowell in his fondest voice, “Elizabeth and I really think you’re the finest journalist in America.”

     … “Well, Cal,” said Mailer, using Lowell’s nickname for the first time, “there are days when I think of myself as being the best writer in America.”

     The effect was equal to walloping a roundhouse right into the heart of an English boxer who has been hitherto right up on his toes…. “Oh, Norman, oh, certainly,” he said, “I didn’t mean to imply, heavens no, it’s just that I have such respect for good journalism.”   

     “Well, I don’t know that I do,” said Mailer.  “It’s much harder to write” – the next said with great and false graciousness – “a good poem.”

     Mailer proceeded to deliver to a large audience of fellow protesters an extemporaneous speech that reads like Sixties radicalism at its most incoherent, infantile, and self-indulgent.  He obviously hadn’t given a moment’s thought to what he might say, preferring instead to make an existential experience out of it.  Then Lowell, with quiet self-assurance, and to the adoring applause of the crowd, read one of his poems – in consequence of which “Mailer discovered he was jealous.  Not of the talent. Lowell’s talent was very large, but then Mailer was a bulldog about the value of his own talent.  No, Mailer was jealous because he had worked for this audience, and Lowell without effort seemed to have stolen them.”  This, naturally, meant war: “To Mailer,” he writes, “it was now mano a mano.”  So Mailer retook the microphone and made an even bigger ass of himself, describing in detail a visit he had just made to the men’s room.  “Publicity hound!” someone shouted.

     Did his horrible reception at this event (Mailer’s account of which, to give him his due, remains as weirdly engaging as ever) lead him to rethink his strategies?  Of course not.  Years later, on a 1971 “Dick Cavett Show,” he made an equally ridiculous spectacle of himself.  The other guests that evening were his longtime nemesis Gore Vidal – who had recently compared Mailer in print to Charles Manson, and whose Brahmin credentials, like Lowell’s, have always patently intimidated Mailer  – and Vidal’s friend Janet Flanner, the New Yorker writer.  As Mailer recounts (in what is perhaps the collection’s most entertaining piece), both Vidal and Flanner went on camera before Mailer and had a cozy, amusing chat with Cavett about Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Vidal had known personally.  And Mailer?  “In the Green Room, Mailer – like that general he could never become – was contemplating the military chances for entering an ambush of such delicacy connected to such strength.  The only answer was attack.  Shatter all prepared positions.  Go out, he said to himself, and smash that fucking tea-house.”

     Once again Mailer made a preposterous scene and antagonized everybody.  “I want to ask all of you something,” he inquired at one point.  “Are you all really truly idiots or is it me?”  “YOU!” the audience shouted back.  When asked why he was behaving like such a fool, Mailer explained that we live in a time when there are not so many great writers and “I have presumed with all my extraordinary arrogance and loutishness and crudeness to step forth and say, ‘I’m going to be the champ until one of you knocks me off.’  Well, fine, but, you know, they don’t knock you off because they’re too damned simply yellow, and they kick me in the nuts, and I don’t like it.”  This is, manifestly, Mailer’s paramount professional compulsion: his need to view himself as the champ (and, of course, to sound like Hemingway when talking about it).  In our age of celebrity, this silliness has taken him a long way. Just as Ginsberg has frequently upstaged better poets at group readings by taking his clothes off, so Mailer has never resisted an opportunity to turn the spotlight onto himself by bragging and blustering like a prizefighter at a weigh-in.  Thus has he kept his name alive and gotten his books reviewed.

     A third writer on the Armies of the Night platform with Mailer and Lowell was Paul Goodman, who in many ways came close to being a Mailer Doppelgänger except for the fact that he was gay and not at war with himself over it.  Mailer sums up his position on this subject: “Onanism and homosexuality were not, to Mailer, light vices – to him it sometimes seemed that much of life and most of society were designed precisely to drive men deep into onanism and homosexuality.  One defied such a fate by sweeping up the psychic profit that derived from the existential assertion of oneself – which was a way of saying that nobody was born a man: Manhood was earned provided you were good enough, bold enough.”  In other words, homosexuality and manhood are opposites; homosexuality results from giving into one’s most dangerous urges, and manhood results from resisting those urges moment by moment – even, presumably, if the pressure to prove yourself compels you to act like an aggressive jerk.  

     Mailer goes on to deride “Goodman’s damnable tolerance for all the varieties of sex.  Did he know nothing of evil or entropy?  Sex was the superhighway to your own soul’s entropy if it was used without a constant sharpening of the taste.  And orgies?  What did Goodman know of orgies, real ones, not lib-lab college orgies to carry out the higher program of the Great Society, but real ones with murder in the air and witches on the shoulder?”  This is the true Mailer – unable to conceive of a genuinely worthwhile sexual encounter that isn’t accompanied by an overpowering sense of the presence of evil and that doesn’t take one to the brink of slaughter.  

     There is, to be sure, something almost admirable about the way in which Mailer, despite much ridicule and the fact that he seems never to have made a single convert, has continued over the years to hold to, and to sound off unhesitatingly about, his singular – and singularly absurd – philosophy of life.  The Time of Our Time is, among other things, a record of his steadfast adherence thereto.  To read through this big doorstop of a book is to be astonished by his philosophical consistency over the last half-century – by his tireless bullying, fascination with violence, and “love of murder” (as Vidal put it on the “Cavett” show); by his perennial preoccupation with JFK and Marilyn Monroe as embodiments of ideal American manhood and womanhood, respectively; by his abiding (and, at times, almost poignant) fixation on manhood as a magical, mysterious commodity, a dream to be realized, an Everest to be scaled; by the way in which he has, throughout his career and in the face of all kinds of events that might have been expected to compel him to grow up a bit, succeeded in embodying American manhood at its most puerile and insecure; and by the fact that the most readable pieces in Mailer’s personally selected “best of” volume are his accounts of his own TV appearances, interviews with people like Madonna, and so forth..  That he continues to be treated as if he were a figure of importance, and that his publishers were able to be talked into issuing The Time of Our Time, is a reflection not of the quality of his work but of his still considerable fame – which he has won less through artistic genius than through often clownish and irresponsible self-advertisement.  But then, such are the times we live in.