The Mailer Review/Volume 2, 2008/The Wise Blood of Norman Mailer: An Interpretation and Defense of Why Are We in Vietnam?

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« The Mailer ReviewVolume 2 Number 1 • 2008 • In Memorium: Norman Mailer: 1923–2007 »
Written by
Richard Lee Fulgham
Abstract: Why Are We in Vietnam? is a novel that calls for reassessment four decades after its appearance, particularly as a work of satiric allegory.

Among the imperceptive and raucous commentaries on Mailer’s novels, this remark by Anatole Broyard stands out as refreshingly clear: “the rock he throws usually has a message tied to it.”[1] In the case of Why Are We in Vietnam?, the rock has been given much more attention than the message because it hit us at the wrong time and in an extraordinarily sensitive spot.

When the novel appeared in 1967 we were freshly engaged in a frightening confrontation between what we perceived as the primitive savagery of an undeveloped nation and the sophisticated savagery of our so-called developed one. We were simply too busy analyzing our moral integrity to pay heed to a warning that we had collectively embarked on a bizarre “bear hunt.”

Most of us who read the novel at the time of its publication were properly stunned by the impact; but few of us, if any, fully comprehended the tragic implications hidden within. Perhaps at the time it was most convenient not to understand this darkest of Mailer’s satiric allegories.

In retrospect, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Mailer is worth the extra thought it takes to interpret his writing. This is particularly true in the case of Why Are We in Vietnam? because its fundamental point is hidden beneath an obvious and simplistic plot. Even the most casual reader can immediately spot the parallel between our military adventure in Vietnam and the hunting trip of Mailer’s characters. And it is even easier to presume Mailer is blaming our presence in Southeast Asia on our collective heart of the hunter. But this is seeing only the reflection on the surface of the well. The actual waters run much much deeper.

Before our descent into these depths, however, it will pay us to take a quick look at the basic story. Two Texas teenagers, D.J. and Tex, fly to Alaska’s frigid Brook’s Range with D.J.’s father, Rusty, and two “yes men.”

Rusty is a corporate executive, ruling a vast conglomerate based on the manufacture of plastic cigarette filters. He is ultra-aggressive, bullying, pompous, territorial, and boastful. His code of conduct is comparable to that of an alpha male in a baboon troop.

He brings along the two “yes men”—called “medium asses” in the book—to act as witnesses when he slaughters a bear. His only motive for the hunt is to ensure that he is respected and feared as a sexually superior and merciless leader. In order to impress his prowess upon his peers, he must bring back a “grizzer.” Concepts like “sporting chance” and “grace under pressure” have no meaning to him. He operates on a grossly animalistic level, considering ruthlessness and sexual domination as supreme virtues.

In D.J.’s words, “He sings the song of the swine.”[2] And in Mailer’s estimation, Rusty is analogous to the American corporate mind which would seek out a Vietnam to attack in order to release an explosive, repressed sexuality and reaffirm its status as pack leader of the world.[a] In Rusty—and the American corporate mind—Mailer sees the worst kind of genetic tyranny and conditioning by tribal mores.

His son, D.J. (self proclaimed “disk jockey to the world”) stands in great contrast to the uncompromising animal values embraced by Rusty. Sixteen at the beginning of the hunt, his mind has been so riddled and scrambled by the constant electronic chatter of modem media that he can only think in a non-stop breathless stream of obscene monologue.

As he is telling the story, we are bombarded by a curious, often annoying, adolescent style and a series of naive boasts. (This may be the one most disturbing aspect of an otherwise well-conceived satire.) In certain ways he does resemble his father: sneering boastfulness, shallow sexuality, arrogance, domineering stance. But he differs in a drastic way that forever separates the two from each other. D.J. knows the anxiety of self-awareness. As he puts it, he is a victim of “Herr Dread.”[3][b] His intimacy with his own rationality produces a free-floating fear which plagues him constantly, nibbling at his confidence like a rat trapped within his chest. In his own words, D.J. “sees through to the stinking root of things” and “can watch his own ass being created. . . . ”[4]

. . .


  1. This metaphor is further expounded in Mailer (1971), in which the author suggests that the American expedition to the moon was analogous to an ejaculation of spermatozoa towards the waiting egg cell.
  2. Though Mailer refers to his personal concept of dread, he apparently obtained his basic idea of “Herr Dread” from Søren Kierkegaard’s dark philosophical classic, The Concept of Dread. It is this awareness of spiritual emptiness which separates D.J. from his father.


  1. Broyard 1967, p. 4.
  2. Mailer 1959, p. 34.
  3. Mailer 1967, p. 122.
  4. Mailer 1967, p. 35.

Works Cited

  • Broyard, Anatole (September 17, 1967). "A Disturbnce of the Peace". New York Times. 3, 4–5.
  • Mailer, Norman (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dial.
  • — (1971). Of a Fire on the Moon. Boston: Little, Brown.
  • — (1959). "The White Negro". Advertisements for Myself. New York: Putnam. pp. 357–358.
  • — (1967). Why Are We in Vietnam?. New York: Putnam.