Norman Mailer and the Cutting Edge of Style/An American Dream

From Project Mailer
Norman Mailer and the
Cutting Edge of Style
  1. Introduction
  2. The Naked and the Dead
  3. Barbary Shore
  4. The Deer Park
  5. An American Dream
  6. Why Are We in Vietnam? and
    The Armies of the Night

If The Deer Park marks the most radical internalization of the themes first sounded in The Naked and the Dead, it also marks the beginning of what must, in retrospect, be viewed as Mailer’s desert sojourn as a writer of fiction. Between 1955 and 1964, Mailer published no novels. He wrote, of course: essays, poems, short stories, even the beginnings of another novel. But for those nearly ten years it seemed as if his chosen vocation, fiction, had somehow betrayed him into an imaginative impotence from which he could not escape. The razor-edge exigencies of Hip, after all, projected a standard of awareness, poise, and paradoxical engagement/disengagement for the novelist which were all but impossible in their severity. Especially during the last years of Eisenhower’s administration and the first of Kennedy’s, such a pose seemed militated against by the very structure of the society. The war between the Naked and the Dead, after all, between the Hip and the Square, assumed at the very least that there remained some spark of curative violence, some vestige of Hip even in the heart of the most unregenerate Square. Otherwise it would not be a war at all, only a pointless ranting against a power too absolute to take account of its attackers (the nightmare situation that a Cummings might not even notice the “neat terrorism” of a Hearn). War, in other words, broods over Mailer’s imagination in much the way “mental fight” broods over that of his great imaginative-revolutionary ancestor, William Blake. His is a talent that feeds upon and demands violence, verbal or physical, at the same time it fears violence, the possibility that chaos may escape the power of style to contain and direct it. Thus it is no surprise that the best prose work of his arid decade, and perhaps the best nonfiction of his career, is the series of columns he wrote in the early sixties for Esquire, called The Big Bite and partially collected as The Presidential Papers. In this series of meditations on the events of the Kennedy administration, Mailer voices again and again his hope that the Kennedy presidency will mark a return, after the tepid late Eisenhower years, to an atmosphere of possibilities, both for great violence and great attainments in the political sphere. In one paper, for example, he urges that the real solution to the problem of crime in the streets for New York and other major cities would be to organize the murderous youth gangs into gladiatorial societies and sponsor street-fighting jousts in Central Park; and the outrageous absurdity of the suggestion only underscores the deep commitment to the mythology of purgative action it articulates. Or, in his open letter to Kennedy on the disastrous Bay of Pigs incident, he utters what may well be the definitive Hip sentence, in its scandalous, arrogant, artificially innocent mixture of the public and the private, the serious and the deliberately frivolous: “I mean: Wasn’t there anyone around to give you the lecture on Cuba? Don’t you sense the enormity of your mistake—you invade a country without understanding its music.”

Mailer’s nostalgia for apocalypse was to be satisfied, on November 22, 1963, in a more terrible fashion than The Presidential Papers had imagined. If the assassination of Kennedy was, as it appears more and more to have been, the signal public disaster in the American imagination of the sixties, then no writer registered the force of its trauma more immediately or accurately than Mailer. It is surely not accidental that the year after the assassination saw Mailer’s return to the novel, with the publication of An American Dream, first in Esquire serialization and then, much revised, in book form in 1965.

An American Dream is, of course, a heavily ironic title, and one intimately related to the assassination and its aftermath—for the “dream” is of violence, murder, vengeance, and rape. Stephen Richards Rojack, the book’s narrator, relates how he has killed his wife, defied the Mafia and his wife’s Irish millionaire father, brutally beaten up a powerful black musician, taken the black’s place with Cherry, a sexy nightclub singer—and gotten away with it all. Rojack’s dream is the dream of all those disruptive, annihilating forces which the Eisenhower decade—in Mailer’s reading of our psychic history—had banished from the daylight world of public consciousness, and which the assassination explosively reintroduced into our official version of life. Without sounding overly ghoulish about it, we can say that the assassination provided Mailer with the realization of that psychic warfare, that intimately intertwined public and private struggle for identity, in expectation of which his fiction has always thrived. There is even a sense of crisis, of physical urgency, in the details of the book’s composition; for, as Mailer has said, he agreed to the arduous task of writing An American Dream in monthly, deadline—bound installments precisely in order to force upon himself a pressure which would reveal either new strengths or deep weaknesses in his talent.

In this way, at any rate, An American Dream begins the second phase of Mailer’s novelistic career, a phase which curiously reverses the movement of his first three books. If, from The Naked and the Dead to The Deer Park, he progressively internalized and personalized his overwhelming sense of the war-to-come which would be the real war for the freedom of America, then from An American Dream to The Armies of the Night he has created a fiction which tries, at least, to move from the intense privacy of the stylized Hipster to a more public, explicitly political, almost at times rhetorical role for the novelist as a shaper of social awareness. The two phases taken together, in fact, are the clearest way in which Mailer’s work recapitulates that paradigmatic action of so much important post-war fiction, the reconstruction of the myth of the good city on the basis of the bitter lessons of inauthenticity and fictiveness which are our century’s inheritance.

An American Dream, in fact, takes the form of a mirror image of the Kennedy assassination. For if the nightmare forces of repressed violence were unleashed, against his will, against the radiantly successful Kennedy, Mailer gives us, in the fable of Rojack, a picture of an equally successful man’s willing descent into the same spiritual maelstrom—which, implicitly, is the maelstrom beneath all our lives. Unlike Hearn, Lovett, or O’Shaugnessy, Rojack is a resounding success. A former New York congressman, an author and television personality married to a wealthy, glamorous woman, he is a deliberate—and deliberately not too close—parody of the main features of the JFK mystique. If The Deer Park was, formally, a reprise and inversion of the myth of success so central to Fitzgerald’s vision of America, An American Dream, in its opening paragraph, establishes itself as an even more explicit parody—inversion, beginning as it does with a reference to the great initial disaster of the decade and ending with a forthright quotation of the title of Fitzgerald’s best-known short story: “I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.”

Of all Mailer’s inauthentic men, Rojack comes closest to being a true equal in fictiveness to the obsessed characters of Barth, Pynchon, and the “black humorists” of the sixties, precisely because of the tone he maintains throughout his narrative, caught so successfully in this opening. A man whose “personality,” insofar as that dangerous term can be defined by our public media, is established firmly on the basis of fame and success, Rojack will, in the course of his story, learn how inescapable are the quotation marks around his “personality,” and upon how delicate and chaos-threatened a foundation the idea of a civilized personality rests.

The girl he seduces on his double date with Jack Kennedy is Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, the millionairess he will marry and murder. Surely we can recognize, in her frustrating, maddening allure and in the multiracial jumble of her names, an echo and a development of the myth of a feminized America first imagined in the Guinevere of Barbary Shore. By this stage of Mailer’s evolution, the bitch goddess of an impossibly liberated America and the bitch goddess of the novel itself have become more indissolubly fused than ever; Rojack’s murder of Deborah, in the midst of a violent marital quarrel, is also Mailer’s violent antagonism to the novel form, a deliberate shattering of its conventions for the purpose of political prophecy. (We might also remark, in relation to the movie-thriller conventions of the earlier novels, that the early killing-off of such a fascinating character as Deborah is almost certainly influenced by Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, which disposes of its heroine, Janet Leigh, before the film is half over. And we might remark, as a double irony, that it was Janet Leigh who played the role of Deborah in the film version of An American Dream.) The killing of Deborah is also an admission, for the America of the sixties, that the impossible dream of possessing the visionary, tawdry Guinevere is not only delusory but—in terms of the present state of the nation—suicidal.

This is an important point about the shocking plot of An American Dream and one which Mailer’s more rabid fans tend to get out of focus. To be sure, the novel is an enthusiastic embrace of the dark gods of the blood and the loins. And there is, as we have observed frequently, a strong tendency to the cult of outrage in his fiction and in his deepest poses. His lifelong imitation of the athleticism of Hemingway (if Papa went fishing with bullfighters, Mailer has arm-wrestled with Muhammad Ali) and his continual pronouncements upon death, rape, and cancer guarantee that no one but the most perversely ingenious of literary critics will interpret him to be the twentieth-century heir of Jane Austen. But, as I have tried to indicate throughout this chapter, his vision of total war between the forces of repression and those of the imagination is a more subtle, complex—and ultimately civilizing—warfare than his followers, and perhaps Mailer himself, have imagined. The fact is that An American Dream is not only the tale of a successful murder, but also the story of a kind of imaginative suicide. Mailer is an assiduous, if quirky, enough reader of Sartre and the Marquis de Sade to realize that the two acts are never, really, very far from each other. And Rojack’s murder of Deborah, which thrusts him—as Kennedy’s assassination thrusts us—directly into the nightmare underground of our public imagination, also robs him of all the certainties of his own selfhood except, always an important exception for Mailer, the saving visions of style.

This page is part of
An American Dream Expanded.

Rojack has had his moment of maximum vitality, his moment of existential nakedness in the same world war which generated Mailer’s first and fullest novel. As he keeps remembering throughout his narrative, once he had singlehandedly stormed a German machine-gun emplacement, hurling grenades with a wild and totally efficient energy, in complete control of his body and his senses. It is precisely one of those moments which, in The Naked and the Dead, come as the redemption and justification of the sordid business of living through a war fought for corrupt interests. But for Rojack the moment is only a memory. If there is a counterpoint to that moment of nakedness in his “American Dream” life, it comes when Barney Kelly, Deborah’s millionaire—possibly incestuous—father dares him, if he wishes to escape vengeance, to walk around the parapet of Kelly’s high-rise apartment patio. But this latter is a child’s game, albeit raised to the level of (foolish) life-and-death risk; and as a child’s game, it is perhaps Mailer’s sad commentary on how much of vitality, how much of truly effective heroism, has been lost both from the public life of the republic and from the life of Stephen Rojack. Having plumbed the depths of rage and destruction, Rojack finds, in the richest and grimmest irony of this highly ironic tale, that those depths, instead of containing the existential terror of the abyss imagined by Lawrence and Kafka, contain only the incorrigible silliness of a Mafia- and mogul-ridden underworld which is nowhere adequate even to the yearnings of a Dostoievskian killer-for-justice.

Not that An American Dream articulates these themes with total success or conviction. Indeed, despite its occasional genius and immense wit, it is perhaps the weakest of Mailer’s novels, just because the story is such a bald and finally unsatisfying allegory for the dark myths of national madness and psychic cancer it attempts to realize. Of all Mailer’s novels, at any rate, it is the one to which the reader returns with the greatest reluctance and which seems to grow less complete, less adequate, with rereading. Since The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s career has been marked by the tension—often creative, often disastrous—between his ideas and the fictive form through which those ideas strive toward articulation. An American Dream, in fact, is fascinating precisely because in it this perennial tension of his work seems to have reached a breaking point, or a point of new departures. Rojack’s melancholy memory of his perfect moment during the war is partly an elegiac memory of the lost strength of America; but it is also, surely, Mailer’s melancholy reminiscence of his own single moment of absolute control, of absolutely unquestionable narrative power. There is something inexpressibly touching about the fact that the book is, to date—and discounting the autobiographical Armies of the Night—Mailer’s only novel about a man in middle age, striving with the entrapments of his own success: a man, that is, in Mailer’s own position. Rojack is Hearn, Lovett, O’Shaugnessy grown up, confronting an older and more problematic America as well as an older and more problematic self.

As the nature of the psychic war has become more terminal in An American Dream, so has the author’s reliance upon the saving power of style—the assertion of personality in a moral vacuum—to resurrect at least a vestige of sense, a trace of the good life of the mind, from the morass of cheap dreams into which we have betrayed ourselves. The opening paragraph, with its witty and bitter invocation of the Fitzgerald tradition in American writing, heralds the most rewarding feature of Rojack’s narrative, the virtually uninterrupted, monologistic parody of classic American fiction which underlies the action of the “American Dream,” and which, as parody, makes the book’s strongest and most clever point about the encroachments of nightmare upon our own best vision of ourselves.

The man who dedicates his life to the discovery of his own, inalienable and distinctively personal style is likely to find, at the end, that there is no style, no voice which is his own, which is not borrowed or unconsciously adapted from another writer, another man. This is very old wisdom, of course, but wisdom which our age has had to rediscover in a particularly passionate, disturbing fashion. And Mailer is, if not our most self-conscious explorer of the dialectics of style and originality, at least its exemplary and most highly intelligent victim. All his books, as I have indicated, have tended toward parody in one way or another. But it was not until sometime between An American Dream and his next novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, that he discovered, in parody itself, his most sourly efficient political and fictive style.