An American Dream Expanded/The Harbours of the Moon (Review)

From Project Mailer
Written by
Robert Dana

This review is late. And with cause.

Perhaps the proper place to read An American Dream is in a jet airliner at 37,000 feet. Anyhow, that’s where I began it (going east to D.C) and where I finished it (going west to Tacoma). One knew at the beginning that reviewing it would be a job; the kind of job one would rather not do.

Dana - North Am Review Page1.jpg

Other reviewers would make it even tougher. Perhaps because the novel had been serialized in Esquire before the book was published, there was already a predatory scent on the air; the scent of animals prowling for a kill. Mailer invites such prowling, to be sure; he has always courted a bad press. Every year is “Jump-on-Norman-Year,” and one distrusts the seeming heedlessness of such a prey as much as the cats which stalk it. Finally, and most important, there was the novel itself: a violent, painfully probing work; its style a surreal combination of scalpel and bazooka.

In the end, one decided it would have to wait. Let other reviewers have their say. Studiously avoid reading them. Let the novel and one’s ideas and impressions of it ferment slowly in some earthy cellar at the back of the mind. Check the brew periodically to see if it had deepened, taken on body. Finally, chill and serve.

Mailer’s novel concerns the fantastic life of Stephen Richards Rojack. He is a war-hero (Italian campaign, WW II), an ex-congressman (contemporary with Jack Kennedy), an author-professor at a New York university, a TV personality, a “marginal socialite” by virtue of his marriage to heiress Deborah Kelly, and a man on the verge of madness. At the onset, one is inclined to discount the novel on the grounds that its leading figure is conceived without regard to reality, that he is a fairy-tale character. Maybe it’s the jet; maybe it’s the company aboard; maybe it’s the tendency of the novel to invite the reader to examine the number of different roles he plays in a single day; but one recognizes slowly that Rojack is a living, American reality: not a man for all seasons, but of many.

At this point, the final sentence in the opening paragraph of the novel leaps out at you, and the title begins to take on its proper and ominous significance. Not The but An. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lifetime exploring; the ironic difference between the idea (“a fresh, green breast of the new world”) which America once offered and the “lunar” reality of modern American life where success is corruption even for the strong an the lucky. Even the marriage of Rojack to Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly suggests Fitzgerald. In the novel’s first paragraph Mailer seems to be making a public announcement of Fitzgerald when he has Rojack say of Deborah that “she would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.” Both Deborah and Rojack are at the pinnacle of “success” when the novel begins. But in the process of this achievement, their marriage has collapsed; and Rojack has discovered that the American version of “success” includes personal and psychic failure, a condition rift with the voices of suicide and murder:

… Instinct was telling me to die.

. . . . . . . .

“You can’t die yet,” said the formal part of my brain, “you haven’t done your work.” “Yes,” said the moon, “you haven’t done your work, but you’ve lived your life, and you are dead with it.”

Deborah, too, is a schizophrenic in her role. As a lover she is one thing, as a wife another:

… That was love with Deborah and it was separate from making love to Deborah. … When she felt love, she was formidable; making love she left you with no uncertain memory of having passed through a carnal transaction with a caged animal. … It was not just her odor. … There was something other. . .. something a calculating and full of guile as high finance, that was it—she smelled like a bank. …

In her role as “the Great Bitch.” It is Deborah who brings Rojack to the crucial action of the novel: her murder.

The murder itself is well-conceived: half-intentional, half-accidental. And its aftermath involves Rojack with a host of other important minor characters: Roberts and Leznicki, the police investigators; Ganucci, a Mafia boss; Shago Martin, a Negro entertainer; Cherry, the singer with whom Rojack discovers that “love was not a gift but a vow”; and finally, with his wife’s father, Barney Oswald Kelly, at the top of the Waldorf Towers.

None of these characters exists independently of any of the others as Mailer clichés tight the fabric of his American nightmare. The fantastic quality of the novel is made perfect when the reader discovers that Cherry has been the mistress of both Shago Martin and Barney Kelly, that Kelly controls Ganucci, that Roberts and Leznicki give over the investigation of Rojack because of pressure exerted by Kelly through government channels. The shock is at its deepest when we finally discover, in a twist that owes something to Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, that the novel’s chain of sexual failure and corruption has its source in Kelly’s earlier incest with Deborah.

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.

The import of these relationships is clear: none escapes the corruption of his dream and the small nastiness of capitulation.

Rojack is never punished for the murder of Deborah. The reader may even wonder whether a crime has been committed. For Deborah’s character and Rojack’s near-madness are mitigating factors. And where all is corruption, how is one to determine crime? These considerations will more than likely be ignored by those critics of the novel who have a tendency: in any case, to slap the label “Obscene” or “Immoral” on any work containing a seduction or a four-letter word. However, an apt comparison might be between An American Dream and that most moral of novels, Crime and Punishment.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Stephen Rojack has been living in a kind of Hell all along. Just prior to the showdown scenes with Barney Kelly at the Waldorf, Rojack describes the lobby as “A vision of Hell. …” And the Las Vegas to which he flees towards the end of the book is no different from the New York he has fled:

…as if you were in the pleasure chamber of an encampment on the moon. …You caught the odor of an empty space where something was dying alone. …The night before I left Las Vegas I walked out in the desert to look at the moon. There was a jeweled city on the horizon, spires rising in the night, but the jewels were diadems of electric, and the spires were the neon of signs ten stories high. I was not good enough to climb up and pull them down. So I walked out into the desert where the mad before me had come. …

Who are the mad who have preceded Rojack into the desert? Traditionally, the desert suggests the place or penance, of contemplation, to which the prophets have gone and whence they came. Too, it suggests, by its conjunction to the “jeweled city” of pleasure, that An American Dream is a radically moral book, a jeremiad against those forces within and without man which foster his perversion and the corrosion of his ideals.

One quarrel with Mailer, if we wish to make one on legitimate grounds, must come, it seems to me, not with respect to the almost unrelieved pessimism of his view of American life; not with his style (for it is powerful, contemporary in the best sense, and never dull; perhaps the best in America at the moment); not with his conception of the character or the jaggedness of his plot; but with the weakness of the ending of the novel.

After what Rojack has gone through, and in view of what he is, it is simply not enough to pack him off in a car “to Guatemala and Yucatan.” For there is only the slightest suggestion of the meaning of Rojack’s action, and no suggestion at all of the significance of his destination. As it stands, An American Dream is Mailer’s best and most powerful novel since The Naked and the Dead, but it has neither a conclusion nor an ending.