The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/4. An American Dream
The eight-volume supra-novel of which The Deer Park was to have been the first volume was conceived as a comprehensive statement on every facet of American society. An American Dream touches on most elements of society within one volume, compactly but not simplistically. Although the scope of this novel would seem to imply that Mailer has discarded the careful mechanical limitations of subject matter and setting which we have observed in the earlier novels, certain elements of structure are employed which are reminiscent of the classical unities. The entire action takes place within a twenty-four hour period, in Manhattan, and much pertinent action is related in retrospective flashbacks. The central character and narrator, Stephen Richards Rojack, moves constantly through the city, facing one confrontation after another; and though he is not chained to one spot, the nature of these repeated conflicts as they complicate and clarify the position of the protagonist, are parallel to those experienced in Samson Agonistes or Prometheus Unbound. Because of the significant Christian overtones in An American Dream, a more apt literary analogue may be found in Pilgrim’s Progress.
Conflict is the stuff of which every scene in this novel is composed. The proposed untitled novel referred to in Advertisements for Myself was to have dealt centrally with a murder. An American Dream begins with one. Stephen Richards Rojack, television personality, Professor of Existential Psychology, ex-congressman, holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, strangles his wife, Deborah, in a violent struggle at her apartment. The remainder of the novel traces his perilous journey through a hostile world to the ultimate achievement of personal salvation.
A central contention of this chapter should be stated here. Rojack’s movement through the world of this novel represents a pilgrimage in the strictest religious sense of that word. He is a man who moves from imminent damnation to a state of grace by intimately encountering evil in many forms. But Mailer’s message, although similar in structure to Pilgrim’s Progress, presents a far more sophisticated and frightening concept. For Rojack can survive to achieve grace only by giving himself first to the Devil. He needs the evil within himself in order to combat the evil besieging him in the world.
This is not to say that the more difficult choice is not made at every point. The way in which Rojack earns salvation is through a courage which is constantly tested, one which is nurtured further by each successively more difficult victory. The early confrontations are faced with considerable weakness and trepidation, and barely won. All of them are faced unwillingly. But toward the last, there is presented a growing sense of strength and of commitment to good, as the need for evil is supplanted by something stronger and more positive in nature. Ultimately, the massive holocaust which he has precipitated spews Rojack forth not unscathed, but purged of his evil, the only person involved not to be destroyed or defeated. Mailer’s message is one of carefully qualified hope. From much evil, in an external world decidedly blacker than that of The Naked and the Dead, good can come, but only at great personal cost in torment and courage.
It must further be stated that the pilgrimage Rojack undertakes is marked by clearly defined steps, each represented by a personal confrontation with another human being, each of whom presents a particular kind of evil which Rojack must overcome. And each prepares him for the more difficult one to follow, by giving him something of him or herself, as if Rojack had drunk the other’s psychic blood.
A brief plot summary may be in order here, in the way of a catalog of the conflicts which Rojack faces in the course of the novel. In the first few pages, the narrator relates the story of how he won his D.S.C. by the single handed killing of four German soldiers in two machine gun emplacements during World War Two. The episode is related in somewhat mystical terms, and it is suggested by Rojack that he had been touched briefly by fate as represented by the full moon on that night. A full moon is again present on the night, some twenty years later, when the major action of the novel takes place. In those twenty intervening years, Rojack has found some nominal success as an intellectual figure and marginal socialite. But he is actually at the end of his psychic rope. Unable to do any productive work on a long-planned and neglected major book, deeply in debt and estranged from his wife, Rojack has lost his self-respect and is on the verge of despair. Speaking particularly of his dependence on Deborah, and of his consequent compulsion to visit her frequently at odd hours, he tells the reader, “Probably I did not have the strength to stand alone.”
Thus, recognizing his current condition, Rojack stands alone on the balcony of a friend’s apartment after a late party and, staring at the full moon, feels a powerful compulsion to suicide. He goes so far as to step over the balustrade; then, wavering, he clambers in fear back to safety. The failure to obey his impulse to jump is invested with great significance by Rojack, and described in terms of the theory of cancer introduced in the previous chapter of this book. Because he has stifled a pure impulse to destruction, he has generated cancer within himself:
Will you understand me if I say that at that moment I felt the other illness come to me, that I knew then if it took twenty years or forty for my death, that if I died from a revolt of the cells, a growth against the design of my organs, that this was the moment it all began, this was the hour when the cells took their leap?
Frightened and sick, Rojack hurries from the building to visit Deborah. After a brutal exchange of insults, the two struggle and Rojack strangles his wife. The act of murder is described by Rojack in terms of a vision of some heavenly city, and in the aftermath he feels as though he has been reborn. The purifying outpour of hatred leaves him in a calm and surrealistic mood which he compares to the experience of taking peyote. In this state, he leaves his wife’s body on the floor of her bedroom, enters the maid’s room, and engages in an extensive sexual bout with her. Later, he hurls Deborah’s body from the window, and proceeds to counterfeit a suicide.
Although his course of action is at no time premeditated, he reacts intelligently and cooly to the pressures which begin to assail him. Roberts, the chief investigating detective, presents an immediate and recurrent challenge. Ruta, the German maid, though unaware of the true circumstances of Deborah’s death, must be instructed to with hold the nature of her earlier actions with Rojack.
Deborah's body, landing on Riverside Drive, has precipitated a minor traffic accident which has far-reaching reverberations in the action. Eddie Gannucci, a Mafia leader, is caught in one of the cars involved. With him is his nephew Tony, and a blonde named Cherry who is to figure prominently in Rojack’s life.
In the first of several scenes at the police station, Rojack holds police suspicions at bay through boldness and quick, logical answers, aided immeasurably by the fact that the police, preoccupied by the capture of Eddie Gannucci, have no time to work over him all night. Released temporarily, Rojack makes his way downtown to the after-hours club, owned by Tony, where Cherry sings. In a palpably alien and hostile atmosphere, Rojack finds himself in a state of heightened psychic awareness and confidence. The ultimate result is a tense confrontation with an ex-prizefighter, Ike “Romeo” Romalozzo, through which Rojack wins Cherry’s favor. An intense, cryptic communication between Cherry and Rojack leads her to leave work early, defying Tony and quitting her job.
Shortly thereafter, the two arrive at a lower east side tenement, where Cherry maintains a secret retreat. Several revelations from Cherry precede their sexual union. Her younger sister, new to New York as an aspiring artist, had taken the apartment. When the sister’s sexual affair with Shago Martin, a famous Negro singer, worried Cherry, she arranged a meeting and became herself involved with him. The sister, on the rebound, had a brutal affair with a nameless pimp, which ended in her suicide. In one of the many patterns of retribution which recur throughout the novel, Cherry had the man killed.
The graphically recounted sexual encounter between Rojack and Cherry is sharply different from his earlier one with Ruta. Here, a choice is made to commit oneself to love. A tender and powerful sense of positive human emotion is engendered, culminating in the only sleep Rojack experiences in the novel. Awaking after several hours of sleep to a new day, he leaves Cherry asleep and enters the hostile outer world again, fighting a consuming desire for alcohol with the self-imposed decision not to have a drink until he can return to Cherry that evening.
Returning to his apartment for the only time in the book, Rojack shaves and changes, then undergoes the ordeal of dealing by phone with Arthur, the producer of his television show, and Dr. Frederick Tharchman, the head of his department at the university. Both squirm to appear sympathetic, but both are firm in cancelling his connections with their institutions. The conversations are important in establishing with a few deft strokes the hypocrisy which governs mass media and institutions of higher education alike, and the insecurity which governs men of authority in them. But another element is introduced for the first time here, in the veiled suggestion by Dr. Tharchman that secret governmental agencies are investigating Deborah’s death. The incipient revelation is immediately supported by a phone call from Gigot, a mentally disturbed friend of Deborah, who earnestly suggests that Deborah was not merely a spy, but a double agent, and then caps this with the fact that Ruta is the mistress of Deborah’s millionaire father, Barney Oswald Kelly, and was used by Kelly to spy on his daughter’s personal life.
Feeling compelled by some arbitrary inner force to walk rather than take a taxi, Rojack arrives late for his appointment with Detective Roberts at the station house. In the climactic struggle between them, Roberts puts all the pressure of the doubtful autopsy report upon Rojack, falsely stating the strength of the police suspicions in a final attempt to extract a confession. As at each such en counter, Rojack wavers inwardly but remains firm. The result is a strikingly sudden reversal, a major turning point in the novel’s action. Roberts, though obviously not convinced of Rojack’s innocence, informs him that all charges have been dropped and he is free of suspicion. The detective contributes to the growing air of intrigue by telling Rojack that strong but unidentified pressure from above has been exerted to expedite the closing of the case, and, strangely, the release of Eddie Gannucci as well. He is, in fact, impressed enough to voice the suspicion that Rojack is a CIA operative.
Leaving the station, Rojack pauses to arrange an appointment by phone with Barney Oswald Kelly, then returns to Cherry’s tenement retreat. This time, their communication begins on the same highly tuned sexual level of their last meeting, then proceeds to tense revelation of the past. Rojack freely admits to Deborah’s murder, and Cherry paints a frighteningly sordid picture of her early youth in a home without parents, in which her older brother and sister regularly engaged in incest. She goes on to tell of her life in Las Vegas as the mistress of an older man, a wealthy and influential businessman who was integrally connected with the Mafia. When prodded by Rojack, she reveals that her lover was Barney Kelly. Their painful conversation turns next to Shago Martin, and it is at the point where the tension between them begins once again to give way before trust, that Shago himself enters.
Shago is angry and frightened at the intensity of feeling apparent between Rojack and Cherry, though his own affair with her has ostensibly been ended already. Rojack faces Shago’s threats and then the knife he draws, and after some talk beats the singer, throwing him down the stairs to the street. Then, carrying (at Cherry’s suggestion) Shago’s forgotten umbrella, he goes off to meet Barney Kelly.
The confrontation with Kelly in his Waldorf Towers suite is the climactic one of the novel. At first, other people are present: not surprisingly at this point, Eddie Gannucci and Ruta; also Deidre, Deborah’s young daughter, and a cousin of Deborah’s mother named Bess. But soon the two antagonists are alone, and as they drink, Kelly reveals his own incestuous attachment to Deborah, along with a complex tangle of sexual, financial and mystical dealings. Ultimately, the perverse intimacy established by Kelly’s tale breaks out into hatred. Rojack feels compelled to face death by a walk around the penthouse parapet with Kelly the sole witness, a walk Deborah is said to have attempted on earlier occasions and one which echoes Rojack’s flirtation with suicide in the novel’s first chapter. Aware that Deborah’s death was not suicide, Kelly attempts to push Rojack over the edge with Shago Martin’s umbrella, thrusting as with a sword. Grasping the umbrella, Rojack pulls himself back to safety and bludgeons Kelly once across the face with the umbrella, then leaves the hotel.
The final drama is played out when Rojack arrives at Cherry’s building to find her badly beaten, and Roberts present, along with an ambulance. Roberts tells him that Shago Martin had been beaten to death two hours earlier, and a moment before she dies, Cherry whispers to Rojack that her beating was administered in mistaken revenge by a friend of Shago.
The epilogue finds Rojack, after a brief perception of death and madness, both of which have brushed him repeatedly throughout the novel, setting out on a drive to South America. Various involved patterns of plot, theme and imagery have been presented throughout Rojack’s first person narrative, and all are resolved or knotted together by the story’s end. One of the most important patterns to be considered is the interlocking system of sexual involvements by which the major characters are linked.
In his essay, “Some Children of the Goddess,” written before An American Dream and reprinted in Cannibals and Christians, Mailer discusses such a system in James Baldwin’s Another Country:
. . . There is a chain of fornication which is all but complete. . . . With the exception of Rufus Scott, who does not go to bed with his sister, everybody else in the book is connected by their skin to another character who is connected to still another. . . . All the sex in the book is displaced, whites with blacks, men with men, women with homosexuals; the sex is funky to suffocation, rich but claustrophobic, sensual but airless. Baldwin understands the existential abyss of love. In a world of Negroes and whites, nuclear fallout, marijuana, bennies, inversion, insomnia, and tapering off with beer at four in the morning, one no longer just falls in love—one has to take a brave leap over the wall of one’s impacted rage and coward ice. And nobody makes it, not quite. . . . They cannot find the juice to break out of their hatred into the other country of love.
In An American Dream, Mailer presents a series of characters as promiscuously connected to one another sexually as those who people Baldwin’s book. But while the sexual world of Mailer’s characters is as dark as those in Another Country, it is finally in the realm of sexual love that Mailer presents his statement of hope for salvation; for Rojack and Cherry are ultimately able to take the “brave leap over the wall of . . . impacted rage and cowardice.” The significance of their breakthrough cannot, however, be fully appreciated without first understanding the sexual patterns in which the other characters figure.
The most consistent pattern of parallel sexual involvements is that between Rojack and Barney Oswald Kelly. Both men have had sexual relationships with Deborah, Ruta, and Cherry, and in his confrontation with Kelly, Rojack becomes aware of a sense of brutal sexual connection between the two men themselves:
His body gave off the radiation of a fire, there was heat between us now the way there had been heat between Ruta and me in Deborah’s hall; suddenly I knew what it had been like between Cherry and him, not so far from Ruta and me, no, not so far, and knew what a hot burning two-backed beast, and I could hear what he offered now: bring Ruta forth, three of us to pitch and tear and squat and lick, swill and grovel on that Lucchese bed, fuck until our eyes were out, bury the ghost of Deborah by gorging on her corpse, for this had been the bed, yes, this Lucchese had been the bed where he went out with Deborah to the tar pits of the moon. Now, he had a call to bury her raw. Desire came off Kelly to jump the murderer of his beast, and unfamiliar desire stirred in me, echo of that desire to eat with Ruta on Deborah’s corpse.
This is a lust spawned of hatred, as Rojack realizes in the passage shortly preceding that quoted above:
. . . a breath, an odium, came up over my face as if finally I had blundered through a barrier. Kelly was near to that violence Deborah used to give off, that hurricane rising from a swamp, that offer of carnage, of cannibals, the viscera came from him to me like suffocation. I was going to be dead in another minute; all Deborah’s wrath passed now through him, he was agent to her fury and death set about me like a ringing of echoes in ether, red light and green. I waited for Kelly to attack—he came that close—I had only to close my eyes and he would go to the fire, pick up a poker—his stopped-up violence filled the room.
It is implicit that a similarity exists between two men who have lived intimately with the same woman, and that the recognition of oneself in another can lead to hatred. For Mailer’s characters, the violent expression of such hatred can have overtly sexual overtones. A parallel situation has erupted earlier, in the fight with Shago Martin, and the two conflicts are linked tangibly by the umbrella, an object of highly symbolic import here. Before discussing the homosexual overtones of the Shago episode, and the major ramifications of that conflict within Mailer’s existential vision, it is necessary to clarify Mailer’s position in regard to homosexuality and anal intercourse. In the play version of The Deer Park, Eitel responds to a sexual proposition from Marion Faye with this speech:
I’d never let a man touch me. I think that’s the end of . . . change. It’s what all the people who run the machine want us to be. Queer. Queer as cockroaches. Once you want it from behind, there’s nothing to do but run. Thanks a lot, Angel, but I don’t want to swish.
Mailer’s protagonists, then, reject overt homosexual activity because there is something cowardly about it. But anal intercourse with women is not proscribed. Rather, it falls, in Mailer’s system, somewhere between the cowardice of homosexuality and the bravery that must accompany a real heterosexual love such as that between Rojack and Cherry.
The two major instances of heterosexual anal intercourse in Mailer’s fiction are the Ruta passage in An American Dream, and the final sexual bout in “The Time of Her Time.” In both, the act is characterized by brutal force and hostility, although the result is pleasure. Even lust, on the male side, is dampened by cool calculation, and the terms used in description suggest a battle:
. . . anger traveled from her body into mine, the avenger came to attention, cold and furious . . . and I was ready, not with any joy nor softness nor warmth nor care, but I was ready finally to take her tonight, I was going to beat new Time out of her if beat her I must. . . . And so I took her with a cold calculation, the rhythms of my body corresponding to no more than a metronome in my mind. . . . I worked on her like a riveter, knowing her resistances were made of steel, I threw her a fuck the equivalent of a fifteen round fight, I wearied her. . . . I sprinted, I paced, I lay low, eyes all closed, under sexual water, like a submarine listening for the distant sound of her ship’s motors, hoping to steal up close and trick her rhythms away.
• • •
. . . I turned her over suddenly on her belly, my avenger wild with the mania of the madman, and giving her no chance, holding her prone against the mattress with the strength of my weight, I drove into the seat of all stubbornness, tight as a vise, and I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound, but fierce not to allow me this last of the liberties, and yet caught, forced to give up millimeter by millimeter the bridal ground of her symbolic and therefore real vagina. So I made it, I made it all the way—it took ten minutes and maybe more, but as the avenger rode down to his hilt and tunneled the threshold of sexual home all those inches closer into the bypass of the womb, she gave at last a little cry of farewell. . . .
This is, then, an invasion, carried out with cold strategy and implemented by physical force. This is the arena where the hostility/lust offered by Marion Faye and Barney Kelly, but rejected by Eitel and Rojack, can be carried out, in a parody of the sexual act between real lovers. It is acceptable to Mailer’s code, but not, by any means, admirable, for it is a sterile act both biologically and emotionally. The “avenger” travels into “the bypass of the womb” and because he has chosen to bypass even the possibility of impregnation, the act is rendered ugly and insignificant. The central antithesis between the sterility of Rojack’s sexual relations with Ruta and the fertility of those he shares with Cherry is important to an understanding of Rojack’s development and of Mailer’s message.
“The Time of Her Time” shares with the Ruta episode certain basic characteristics, which show that Mailer’s own view is consistent, and not limited to the experience as seen by Rojack. In the latter passage there is, again, a sense of combat and the female unwillingness to allow what Ruta calls verboten, resulting finally in a sort of virtuoso success by the male. But Rojack’s experience with Ruta introduces a number of other thematic ramifications. Where “The Time” is concerned almost entirely with the psychological makeup of the two characters and the conflict between male and female, the later passage is firmly tied into a complex web of themes and plot relationships.
This, the second link in the chain of three sexual relationships which create in Rojack a parallelism to Kelly, introduces a carefully articulated polarity between good and evil, God and the Devil, represented respectively by the vagina and the anus:
. . . a host of the Devil’s best gifts were coming to me, mendacity, guile, a fine-edged cupidity for the stroke which steals, the wit to trick authority. I felt like a thief, a great thief. And like a thief returning to church, I seesawed up from that bank of pleasures up to her deserted warehouse, that empty tomb. But it was more ready now. Those flaccid walls had come together—back of my closed eyes I could see one poor flower growing in a gallery—what love she still possessed might have been in a flower. Like a thief I was out of church again and dropping down for more of that pirate’s gold.
So that was how I finally made love to her, a minute for one, a minute for the other, a raid on the Devil and a trip back to the Lord. . . I was drunk with my choice . . . and then I was traveling up again that crucial few centimeters of distance from the end to the beginning, I was again in the place where the child is made.
• • •
I was gone like a bat and shaking hands with the Devil once more. . . . I was leaping back and forth in separate runs for separate strokes, bringing spoils and secrets up to the Lord from the red mills, bearing messages of defeat back from that sad womb, and then I chose—ah, but there was time to change—I chose her cunt. It was no graveyard now, no warehouse, no, more like a chapel now, a modest decent place, but its walls were snug, its odor was green, there was a sweetness in the chapel, a muted reverential sweetness in those walls of stone. “That is what prison will be like for you,” said a last effort on my inner tongue. “Stay here!” came a command from inside of me; except that I could feel the Devil’s meal beneath, its fires were lifting through the floor . . . I was up above a choice which would take me on one wind or another, and I had to give myself, I could not hold back. . . . I had one of those splittings of a second where the senses fly out and there in that instant the itch reached into me and I jammed up her ass and came as if I’d been flung across the room. . . . And with my eyes closed, I felt low sullen waters wash about a dead tree on a midnight pond. I had come to the Devil a fraction too late, and nothing had been there to receive me. But I had a vision immediately after of a huge city in the desert, in some desert, was it a place on the moon? For the colors had the unreal pastel of a plastic and the main street was flaming with light at five A.M. A million light bulbs lit the scene.
A number of metaphorical patterns are introduced in this passage which will be seen to develop in complexity and significance as the novel progresses. The question of good and evil, of belonging to God or the Devil, is one with which Rojack is obsessed throughout the story. He constantly wonders whether he himself or Deborah were the evil partner, and discusses a parallel situation at length with Cherry, that of herself and Shago. It is necessary to recognize that there is a uniquely religious quality about the conflicts within Rojack.
The immediate situation must be emphasized. This man has left his wife’s warm corpse scant yards away to engage in this sexual conflict, and it must be recognized as much more, therefore, than a physical act. It represents a major turning point in his life, the first of many decisions to be faced during the next twenty-four hours. Before leaving Deborah’s room, Rojack has come to no decision on whether to confess or attempt to cover up his crime. A long prison sentence conducive to serious writing has momentarily appealed to him, in fact, and he has come close to giving himself up. It is clear to him that if he is detected in an attempt to falsify the circumstances of death, he will be executed.
The choice available to him within Ruta’s body is made clear. The vagina is a peaceful retreat, which he consciously sees as a preview of prison. But he does not choose that direction. The reasons are several. He has be come aware that too much evil remains bequeathed to him from Deborah, as a consequence of his act of murder: “I was doomed if I thought to do my work in jail, for her curse would be upon me.” Whether this evil is internal, or externally generated, Rojack senses that it must be propitiated or expiated before he can have peace. But the irrevocable commitment which he makes when he chooses Ruta’s anus, and therefore the way of the Devil, comes about largely because of what he assimilates from her spiritual makeup. He has said (see quotation above) that while within the Devil’s orifice, “a host of the Devil’s best gifts were coming to me, mendacity, guile . . . the wit to trick authority . . . ,” and these are the very qualities he requires for his next confrontation, that with the police. His decision, then, is made, not when he picks up the phone and reports a suicide, but when he gives himself, through Ruta, to the Devil.
But there is good still within Rojack. He thinks, with momentary regret, of the sterility of his choice: “I had a thought then of what had been left in her. It was perishing in the kitchens of the Devil. Was its curse on me?” And before the police arrive, he takes Ruta again, this time leaving that part of himself in her vagina, although the brief black lust by which the act is motivated detracts from its significance. Nonetheless, the good and evil within Rojack remain in conflict, and the pattern for the rest of the novel has been established by this first of many choices.
Rojack’s decision to defy Shago Martin, even when the latter flourishes a knife, is central to the development of the protagonist’s strength. It has been suggested earlier that this conflict is sexual in tone. The physical position from which Rojack beats Shago, and the words of abuse used by the latter are too suggestive of homosexual contact to be ignored:
And with that he walked over to me, put his fingers on my chest, gave a disdainful push, “Up your ass, Mother Fuck,” and turned around, leaving the scent of marijuana on my clothes. The pressure back of my neck let go of itself and I was a brain full of blood, the light went red, it was red. I took him from behind, my arms around his waist, hefted him in the air, and slammed him to the floor so hard his legs went, and we ended with Shago in a sitting position, and me behind him on my knees, my arms choking the air from his chest as I lifted him up and smashed him down again. “Let me go, I'll kill you, bugger,” he cried out, and there was a moment when I could have done that, I had the choice to let him go, let him stand up, we would fight, but I had a fear of what I heard in his voice. . . .
The expressions “up your ass” and “bugger” are almost always used figuratively, but this does not obviate the possibility of some literal reverberation, particularly when it is strengthened by the refusal of Rojack to relinquish his aggressive position of control, from behind. The sexuality of the encounter becomes consciously apparent to Rojack immediately afterwards, and this frightens and enrages him still further:
Shago looked up at me from the ground and said, “Up your ass.”
I almost kicked in his head. Close as that. Instead I picked him up, opened the door, manhandled him to the hall. There he put up resistance, and when I got a whiff of his odor which had something of defeat in it, and a smell of full nearness as if we’d been in bed for an hour—[my italics] well, it was too close: I threw him down the stairs. Some hard-lodged boulder of fear I had always felt with Negroes was in the bumping, elbow-busting and crash of sound as he went barreling down, my terror going with him. . . .
Even the “fear I had always felt with Negroes” has a sexual basis, if we are to apply Mailer’s often-stated (in his remarks preceding “The White Negro,” for example) thesis that the white American male is jealous and afraid of the supposedly superior sexual capacity of the Negro male. And the classic triangle situation which has precipitated the fight makes such fear concretely applicable to Rojack at this point.
The beating of Shago does not show Rojack in an unmitigatedly good light: his rage is prompted at least in part by fear, and his earlier ability to face Shago in fair challenge wavers in the end. But more good than bad has come of it, whether because he has purged some of his own fears and hatreds, or because he has gained some of what is good in Shago; and when he leaves the apartment, Rojack carries Shago’s umbrella. It is significant that Cherry gives it to him. He has bested Shago in the fight and also sexually, with Cherry (although there are qualifications to both victories), and the phallic quality of the object she takes from her old lover and presents to the new is obvious. Her words, too, are important: “Then she saw me looking at Shago’s umbrella, and handed it to me. ‘Now you got a stick,’ she said.” The possible ramifications of the word stick in Hip argot are numerous. It can be a marijuana cigarette; a man can be a stick (that is, adept) at something; it can be a knife, and has in fact been used a few pages earlier by Cherry to refer to Shago’s brandished switchblade. Not only do these connotations come from Shago’s Harlem domain, but each of these uses of the word is directly related to Shago himself: he has the smell of marijuana about him, which contact leaves on Rojack’s clothes (refer to quotation above); he is a stick sexually, as is Rojack now; and the sense of the stick (umbrella) as a weapon has been suggested earlier, upon Shago’s entrance:
With his left hand he held a furled umbrella, taut as a sword in its case [my italics], and he kept it at an angle to his body, which returned—since his body was tall and slim—some perfect recollection of a lord of Harlem standing at his street corner.
The sword simile is not idly chosen, since the umbrella is used as such by Kelly when he thrusts at Rojack on the balcony, with intent to kill. Nor is the term “lord of Harlem” (a picture suggested to Rojack partially because of the umbrella, which is as indispensable a badge of office to such a lord as sceptre or crozier) insignificant. Shago is, in fact, an aristocratic power in his world, as he makes clear before the fight:
“. . . Listen, you,” he said to me, “I should have brought my army down here. We could have put toothpicks under your nails. I’m a prince [Mailer’s italics] in my territory, dig? But I came alone.”
There is real nobility in the choice to come unescorted, and still more in Shago’s refusal to have his spirit broken. Lying badly beaten at the bottom of the stairs, Shago:
started trying to climb the stairs on his hands and knees which released still another core of rage in me as if it were doubly intolerable that his will would not break. . .
And finally, Shago leaves on a note of noble forgiveness: “Tell you something, man. I don’t hate. Never. . . . Tell Cherry, her and you, I wish you luck.”
Rojack carries with him, when he leaves Cherry’s apartment for his meeting with Kelly, certain qualities of courage, power, and masculinity, in the umbrella which is their tangible representation. And the connection is more than metaphorical for Rojack. The handle feels “alive to my fingers” and, sensitive to his moods, “felt sullen to my palm” when he falters in his resolve. The simultaneous multilevel symbolism of weapon, phallus, and badge of power is maintained in the scene between Rojack and Kelly on the balcony, so obviously that it need not be belabored further.
What is of further significance here is the connection of the Shago episode to Mailer’s conception of American existentialism as it is set forth in “The White Negro.” In murdering Deborah, Rojack has set himself outside of the structure by which the world is governed, and as an outsider, an outlaw, he is besieged by paranoid fears which are all too well founded:
No, men were afraid of murder, but not from a terror of justice so much as the knowledge that a killer attracted the attention of the gods; then your mind was not your own, your anxiety ceased to be neurotic, your dread was real. Omens were as tangible as bread. There was an architecture to eternity which housed us as we dreamed, and when there was murder, a cry went through the market places of sleep. Eternity had been deprived of a room. Somewhere the divine rage met a fury.
Mailer has a sense of paranoia which, if one accepts his vision of the world order in An American Dream, must be taken as a quality necessary to survival. No matter how frightening the intuitions of dread which bombard Rojack, they must be heeded; and any false sense of security which could lead him to ignore them would result in disaster. This view is not limited to this novel. Mailer has earlier dealt with it at length in “The White Negro.” One of the central contentions of the essay is that the motivations of the Hip world are based primarily upon a paranoia necessary to survival in a world of constant nuclear uncertainty, and that this paranoia is the legacy of the American Negro:
And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. . . . in such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could.
What, then, is the hipster as Mailer sees him? Speaking of the degree of debilitating conformity in American society, Mailer states in “The White Negro”:
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 concentrationaire, or with 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 an immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist with out roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self. In short, whether the life is criminal or not, the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself. . . .
The concept that knuckling under to conformity poisons the body as well as the mind, resulting in a more than metaphorical cancer, had fascinated Mailer for many years before he incorporated it in An American Dream. The parallel corollary that indulging the psychopath in oneself (especially to the extent of committing murder) can cure or prevent cancer is also dealt with in the novel, as part of an interlocking symbolic system of real cancer (in Deborah, in Eddie Gannucci, and even momentarily in Rojack himself) which supports the metaphorical statement that American society and culture is being destroyed from within by the cancer of conformity and fear. When Rojack kills his wife, he has taken the first instinctive step toward purging his own cancerous tendencies, and toward fulfilling Mailer’s prescription for the American existentialist (see quotation above): “to live with death as an 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.” This is what Rojack has contracted for. When his roots are cut out from under him by both of his employers, the external professions by which he is defined within society are removed, leaving him alienated. The course he takes is to face the immediate danger of death through external violence, and concurrently to make a journey into himself. But it must be remembered that this choice, though it is the only one that can lead to survival and salvation, is a voluntary and courageous one on Rojack’s part. At almost any point, he can confess and have the pressure removed from him, be redefined and replaced in society’s hierarchy, by going to prison. This, then, is an existential journey which we follow in An American Dream. And Rojack has at the very beginning of the work the potential to define himself as an existential hero. The murder is no gratuitous accident of circumstance, but an act conditioned by the situation generated within Rojack, the primary symptom of which is the confrontation of death upon his friend’s balcony in the first chapter. And this voluntary courting of destruction is repeated again and again throughout the journey to peace, not only in the dangerous confrontations with people to which Rojack is instinctively compelled, but in the last walk on Kelly’s balcony at the novel’s end.
But what most clearly defines Rojack as the embodiment, for Mailer, of the American existentialist, is his relationship to Shago Martin. In “The White Negro,” Mailer further explains the development of the hipster:
In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-à-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip.
Compare to this the discussion of the conflict between Rojack and Shago Martin (see above) which is conceived, as is the above passage, in terms of sexual or marital terms, and which deals with the significance of the marijuana and Hip argot which define Shago and are transferred to Rojack. Rojack has become, in effect, the White Negro. It is no accident that this transformation takes place immediately before the confrontation with the most powerful and evil of Rojack’s adversaries, Barney Kelly. For the strength derived from Shago (as he represents the best virtues and strengths of his people) is necessary to Rojack for victory.
Rojack is very much a different man at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning, and what helps to highlight the extent of the change is the tight circular structure of the plot. Certain events occur at the end of Rojack’s ordeal which have obvious parallels in the early chapters. Their very external similarities serve to underline the major differences in Rojack’s reactions. The most important is the brief battle with Kelly, as compared to that with Deborah in the first chapter:
One of her hands fluttered up to my shoulder and tapped it gently. Like a gladiator admitting defeat. I released the pressure on her throat and the door I had been opening began to close. But I had had a view of what was on the other side of that door, and heaven was there . . . and I thrust against the door once more and hardly felt her hand leave my shoulder, I was driving now with force against that door: spasms began to open in me, and my mind cried out then, “Hold back! you’re going too far, hold back!” I could feel a series of orders whip like tracers of light from my head to my arm, I was ready to obey. I was trying to stop, but pulse packed behind pulse in a pressure up to thunderhead; some blackbiled lust . . . came bursting with rage from out of me . . . and crack I choked her harder. . . .
In significant contrast to the irrational but conscious decision to allow his rage to go beyond the point of control in strangling Deborah, is Rojack’s ability to stop hitting Kelly:
. . . and he lifted the tip of the umbrella to my ribs and gave a push to poke me off. But I turned as he pushed, and the tip was diverted, turned just enough to grip the umbrella as it went by, which brought me back from going off, and I jumped down to the terrace even as he let go, and struck him across the face with the handle so hard he went down in a heap. I almost struck him again, I was in a rage I could not have stopped, and in relief, some relief, wrong or right, I did not know, I turned and hurled the umbrella over the parapet—Shago’s umbrella was gone. . . .
Here, Rojack is again enraged, and justifiably so. Kelly has just attempted in cold blood (“His smile was pleasant,”) to push him over the parapet. This is more of an obvious death struggle than that with Deborah had been, and Kelly is, in both his own and Rojack’s eyes, the carrier of Deborah’s wrath (see quotation above). Despite this, Rojack throttles his rage, and after one quick retributive blow, flings the now unnecessary stick over the edge. This action would seem to have a dual significance: first, having internalized the qualities of masculinity and courage represented by the umbrella, he no longer needs the external symbol of them; and secondly, the umbrella’s fall to the street may be seen as a final sacrifice to the drive in Rojack (now totally purged) for suicide or murder. (After Deborah’s death, it may be remembered, he momentarily considered suicide, as though the cathartic quality of the murder could not alone purge the destructive elements within him.) It is not until this very moment that these drives are totally gone. Just as Rojack, through overcoming Shago, earned the strength to face Kelly inside the suite, he has earned by his final walk on the edge of death the right to overcome Kelly, this time in an almost merciful (and therefore Christian) manner. Of the parallels we have set out to draw, then, this is another: that the final walk is a productive and successful one, where the first was abortive and inconsequential.
Still in some control of himself, Rojack rushes from the suite, ironically retracing several parallels of his actions immediately after the murder. As he leaves, he catches a glimpse of Ruta coming toward him in a negligee, but this time he rejects the implicit invitation. Then, in a panic to be outside as great as that which prompted his headlong flight down the stairs from Deborah’s apartment, he controls himself and stops midway to the street to wait for the elevator.
The most ironical of the parallels to be noted comes when Rojack arrives downtown to find Cherry dying. When a policeman attempts to hold him back as he goes to her side, he says, “She’s my wife, officer,” almost the same words he used when being held back from Deborah’s body. Ironically, in the first instance he was telling the literal truth and in the later one a literal lie, while in moral terms the situation is reversed.
A final parallel may be cited, one which Rojack himself points out when he senses the frightful lust emanating from Kelly (see quotation above), a desire on Kelly’s part to “bury the ghost of Deborah by gorging on her corpse,” an “echo of that desire to eat with Ruta on Deborah’s corpse” which Rojack experienced after return ing to Deborah’s bedroom from Ruta’s. Here is that passage:
Let me tell you the worst. I had a little fantasy at this moment. It was beyond measure. I had a desire to take Deborah to the bathroom, put her in the tub. Then Ruta and I would sit down to eat. The two of us would sup on Deborah’s flesh, we would eat for days: the deepest poisons in us would be released from our cells. I would digest my wife’s curse before it could form.
We have said that Rojack, upon leaving Ruta, has given himself almost totally to the Devil, and this passage is indicative of the depths of mad depravity he is capable of envisioning. At the same time, it is significant that he rejects such fantasies and the madness that they represent, and does the capably satanic thing: calling the police to forge his big lie. And what he has rejected is, for a moment, more than a fantasy, as the necessary details of disposing of Deborah’s bones and teeth present themselves and solutions begin to form in his mind. For Rojack, though perhaps more committed to the Devil at this point than at any other to follow, retains some small pocket of good and sanity which mitigate the blackness of his capa bilities. Later, midway through the novel, drained by his latest confrontation and dreading the next, Rojack conceives, and then rejects with difficulty, a similar fantasy of escape:
And I thought of Ruta then . . . Satan’s heaven at the thought of diving into a bar, and calling her.
• • •
We would drink for hours, then disappear into some Germanic fleabag of a hotel, a bed fortified with the crazy molecules of a thousand fornications, one hundred sodomies and the Devil’s tale of the tongues. We would tie one good one on, two days, three days, five empty bottles at the foot of the bed.
With the exception of his decision to commit himself to love Cherry, all of Rojack’s major moral decisions are won through the refusal to yield: to temptation, to cowardice, to societal pressures. This definition of oneself through negatives has been observed in several of Mailer’s earlier characters, notably Red Valsen, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, and Charles Eitel.
The peculiar accoutrements and codes of the Hip world have been treated as the prescriptive requirements for the American existentialist, the White Negro. But what seems most crucial to the uniquely American existentialism Mailer posits in this novel is the commitment to a positive good represented by Rojack’s decision to love Cherry bravely and unselfishly. It will be seen that such positive action is indicative of a particular quality which Mailer sees in the American character at its rare best. It takes Rojack a step further than Red Valsen, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, or even Charles Eitel could go; and it defines the note of hope in this novel which represents perhaps the most significant development in Mailer’s vision of the individual. It seems necessary now to study the character of Cherry, to determine what there is in her that makes Rojack’s love particularly significant in an American context.
Everything about Cherry is rife with symbolic significance. Her very name is common slang for “virginity” or “virgin,” which, in a sense, she is, for Rojack. Her physical appearance is everything clichéd in mass-media sex symbols, and she is in fact defined in such terms on their first meeting: “And now I realized the detective had seen me chatting with nothing less than a blonde.” And she is totally American, exactly the kind of girl to turn up in an American dream:
. . . she had one of those perfect American faces, a small-town girl’s face with the sort of perfect clean features which find their way onto every advertisement and every billboard in the land. . . . Her nose was a classic. It turned up with just the tough tilt of a speedboat planing through the water.
Immediately behind these superficial characteristics lie other less attractive ones, which give the lie to the simplistic values generated by American mass culture. Watching her sing at Tony’s club, Rojack studies:
the character of her bottom, that fine Southern piece. Occasionally she would turn, she would sing over her shoulder, and show that of course her butt had nothing to do with her face, no she drove it on its own rhythms, pleased with itself and her, practical, the heart of every Southern girl’s pie, marvelous, just a little too big and round for the waist, a money counter, Southern-girl ass. “This bee-hind is for sale, boy,” said it to me, “But you ain’t got the price, you!” Her face, having nothing to do with all of that, smiled demurely at me for the first time.
And her toes are, in Rojack’s vision, even more symptomatic of corruption:
. . . five sensuous, even piggish, but most complacent little melons of flesh surrounding five relatively tiny toenails, each broader than they were long, which depressed me. She had the short broad foot of that very practical kind of woman who has time to buy the groceries and time to jazz the neighbor next door, and I looked from there up to the delicate silvery cut of her face, that delicate boy-girl face beneath the toned blonde hair. . . .
There is, here, a dichotomy between the corruption represented by Cherry’s body, especially her behind and her feet, and the relative innocence apparent in her face. Even her hair has an artificial quality about it, being “toned.” Later, in bed, Rojack is to remark upon how its natural silkiness has been made harsh by bleaching.
In keeping with the comprehensive scope of Mailer’s concern with all of American society in this novel, Cherry presents a remarkable tableau of experience. She comes from a small southern town, moves northwest to Las Vegas, and then east to New York, becoming involved with men who are consistently corrupt, but whose power spans underworld and “legitimate” areas. Her nightclub act presents her as a series of personalities:
And she came back with another voice, belting the same song now, swaying her hips, tough and agreeable and very American, as if she were an airline hostess or the television wife of a professional footbal1 star. There was another spot on her, an orange spot, Florida beaches, the red-orange tan of an athlete. . . . She was hard now, nightclub hard, an embodiment now of greed, green-eyed, brown-skinned flaming golden blonde-that was orange spotlight.
• • •
Well, the set went on. There was a champagne light which made her look like Grace Kelly, and a pale green which gave her a little of Monroe. She looked at different instants like a dozen lovely blondes, and now and again a little like the little boy next door. A clean tough decent little American boy in her look: that gave charm to the base of her upturned nose . . . yes that nose gave character to the little muscle in her jaw and the touch of stubbornness of her mouth. She was attractive, yes. She had studied blondes, this Cherry, she was all of them. . . . She could have been a nest of separate personalities if it had not been for the character of her bottom, that fine Southern piece.
Ultimately, she is most clearly defined by her origins. And the corruption in them underlines both the social criticism of Mailer’s message, and the complex system of ironies which governs the human relationships in the novel. Cherry’s older brother is, externally, the type of the ambitious young American boy. Orphaned, he not only supports and raises his younger sisters, but becomes Sheriff. Yet he is at the same time regularly committing incest with the oldest of his sisters. The fact of his legitimate marriage drives the latter sister to compulsive prostitution. And the self-righteously proper facade maintained by the family becomes more ludicrous in retrospect for having produced the two younger sisters, both of whom engage in miscegenation with Shago Martin.
Yet from the consummate corruption of her background there emerges a Cherry who nonetheless maintains a certain hard-core integrity. Within the brutal world she revolves in, she is effectually able to survive and to carry out the Old Testament blood vengeance which is one of its cardinal rules, as in the case of the pimp who caused her sister’s death. And beneath her cynicism there is honesty. But to break through to the good in Cherry, Rojack must himself be strong and daring in a dangerous world. With a very real sense of the danger posed by Cherry he nonetheless realizes that:
Women must murder us unless we possess them altogether . . . and I had a fear now of the singer on the stand, for her face, yes, perhaps I could possess that altogether, perhaps that face could love me. But her bee-hind! of course I could never possess that ass, no one ever had, maybe no one would, and so the difficulty had gone down to her feet, yes the five painted toes talked of how bad this girl could be.
After her set, Cherry goes to the bar for a drink with several friends of Tony, among whom is Romeo Romalozzo, the former prizefighter. One of the first of many flashes of intuition by which his course is charted strikes Rojack:
something now decided I must go up to Romeo in the next few minutes. “You’ll never get past the police,” said my mind to me, “unless you take the girl home from this bar.” . . . I felt the anxiety of a man hearing he must undergo a dangerous operation.
The scene which follows is one of tense banter between Rojack and Romalozo, and Rojack is very much alone, as Cherry and the others noncommitally await the outcome:
The mulatto with the plump mandarin face and the goatee was staring at me from his table. He looked like one of those jungle crows who sit high on a tree and watch the lions and the lion cubs take blood, foam and flesh from the entrails of a wounded zebra.
His fear overcome only by a rage at being used by Cherry, Rojack stands his ground when ordered to leave by Romeo:
“You’re going to get hurt,’ said his eyes. ‘I have something going for me,” said my eyes back. His expression turned dubious. The odds were not established for him. He had no ideas in his eyes, only pressure. Maybe he thought I had a gun.
In any case, the duel is won, the tension broken. And Cherry, the willing spoils, leaves the group to join Rojack at his table. But more is at issue here than a barroom face-down over a woman. Rojack has overcome not only his opponent, but his own fear and weakness. Some of the slag in his soul has been burned away by an honestly courageous act, and he is one step closer to a state of grace because of it. An understanding of Romeo’s attitude is important here. After backing down:
Romeo laughed. He laughed with a big flat dead sound at the center of his amusement, a professional laugh, the professional laugh of a fighter who has won a hundred fights and lost forty, and of those forty, twelve were on bad decisions, and six were fixed, and for four he went in the tank. So it was the laugh of a man who has learned how to laugh through all sorts of losses.
Compare this description to that of Detective Roberts after he informs Rojack that charges against him have been dropped:
With each breath Roberts was becoming more genial. It was as if we’d been wrestlers and Roberts had proceeded on the assumption it was his night to win. Then the referee had whispered in his ear—his turn to lose. So he hulled around the ring. Now we were back in the dressing room exchanging anecdotes, trading apologies.
• • •
He had never looked more like a cop. The dedication of his short straight nose hung above the confirmed grin of corruption at the corner of his mouth. Rectitude, cynicism, and greed threw off separate glints from his eyes. . . . He gave the leathery smile of a baseball manager who has lost a rookie he might have developed. . . .
The men whom Rojack confronts and overcomes are tough, but their toughness is based on total commitment to a corrupt system. They know their places in this system, and cannot conceive of breaking out of it. In accepting corruption as a necessary condition of life, they support it and become themselves corrupt. But Rojack, who has for most of his life accepted the system and his own place in it, has by his self-defining act of murder set himself outside of it. His intuitions tell him that the only course which will lead to survival is that of daring to challenge, rather than evade, the corrupt external forces which seek to destroy him. In doing so, he purges his own corruption and gains increasing personal strength.
After an anticlimactic scene with Tony, in which Cherry quits her job, the incipient lovers go to Cherry’s secret tenement apartment, and the scene which follows represents the absolute center of Rojack’s pilgrimage, the point of no return at which he decides to make his one positive commitment. As they enter the building and climb the stairs, Rojack, always acutely sensitive to the significance of odors, has a sudden frightening insight into mortality and the dangers of backsliding into his previous self-indulgent corruption:
The stench of slum plumbing gave a terror of old age. . . . “Fail here at love,” said the odor, “and you get closer to subsisting like me.”
After a few moments of brutally honest self-revelation which Rojack insists on drawing out of Cherry, they go to bed. The sexual description is graphic, deliberate, precise, and significant as always in Mailer’s writing. At first, the act is tentative, devoid of trust or feeling, professionally mechanical:
But we did not meet as lovers, more like animals in a quiet mood, come across a track of the jungle to join in a clearing, we were equals.
• • •
I had never moved so well. It was impossible to make a mistake.
Yet only the act was tender. Nothing was loving in her; no love in me; we paid our devotions in some church no larger than ourselves. . . .
Significantly, the turning point does not come until Rojack, disturbed by the contraceptive diaphragm Cherry is wearing, removes it. And now the issue confronts him clearly, the choice to be made between the evasion or the acceptance of love with all its dangers and responsibilities. Rojack decides on love, in a passage whose style is religiously lyrical:
I was passing through a grotto of curious lights, dark lights, like colored lanterns beneath the sea, a glimpse of that quiver of jeweled arrows, that heavenly city which had appeared as Deborah was expiring in the lock of my arm, and a voice like a child’s whisper on the breeze came up so faint I could hardly hear, “Do you want her?” it asked. “Do you really want her, do you want to know something about love at last?” and I desired something I had never known before, and answered; it was as if my voice had reached to its roots; and, “Yes,” I said, “of course I do, I want love,” but like an urbane old gentleman, a dry tart portion of my mind added, “Indeed, and what has one to lose?” and then the voice in a small terror, “Oh, you have more to lose than you have lost already, fail at love and you lose more than you can know.” “And if I do not fail?” I asked back. “Do not ask,” said the voice, “Choose now!” and some continent of dread speared wide in me, rising like a dragon, as if I knew the choice were real, and in a lift of terror I opened my eyes and her face was beautiful beneath me in that rainy morning, her eyes were golden with light, and she said, “Ah, honey, sure,” and I said sure to the voice in me, and felt love fly in like some great winged bird, some beating of wings at my back, and felt her will dissolve into tears, and some great deep sorrow like roses drowned in the salt of the sea came flooding from her womb and washed into me like a sweet honey of balm for all the bitter sores of my soul and for the first time in my life without passing through fire or straining the stones of my will, I came up from my body rather than down from my mind, I could not stop, some shield broke in me, bliss, and the honey she had given me I could only give back, all sweets to her womb, all come in her cunt.
“Son of a bitch,” I said, “so that’s what it’s all about.” And my mouth like a worn-out soldier fell on the heart of her breast.
That “heavenly city” which Rojack has seen only once before, during the act of murder, has now become attainable through love rather than hatred, positive good rather than destruction.
The experience precipitates a clearer self-definition in Rojack. He awakens to realize that:
. . . everything was all right inside the room. Outside, everything was wrong. Knowledge arrived from outside—the way a Negro child might understand on one particular morning that he is black. There was no desire to take my pulse. I was a murderer. I was: murderer.
Leaving Cherry asleep, he fights the desire to drink, to call Ruta, to renounce his commitment, all the way to his apartment, then undergoes the telephone confrontations with his academic and television superiors, and the climactic showdown with Roberts at the police station. Released from fear of legal retribution for Deborah’s murder, Rojack is still fearful of the confrontation yet to come, with Barney Kelly. Drained of strength, he feels a temptation to give up his pilgrimage, retrace his steps:
And I had a sudden hatred of mystery, a moment when I wanted to be in a cell, my life burned down to the bare lines of a legal defense. I did not want to see Barney Oswald Kelly later tonight, and yet I knew I must for that was part of the contract I had made on the morning air. I would not be permitted to flee the mystery. I was close to prayer then, I was very close, for what was prayer but a beseechment not to pursue the mystery. . . .
And the prayer which he imagines is of enormous significance:
“God,” I wanted to pray, “Let me love that girl and become a father, and try to be a good man, and do some decent work. Yes, God,” I was close to begging, “do not make me go back and back again to the charnel house of the moon.” But like a soldier on six-hour leave to a canteen, I knew I would have to return.
Two elements of this passage are important here. The prayer itself is the clearest articulation in the book of what Rojack discovers in himself in the course of his development: the desire for total commitment to goodness, to productivity, to fertility and love. His inability to rest upon prayer is based not upon a refusal to commit himself to God, but upon the awareness that he is not yet ready to come over to the camp of the good, for acceptance. His contract with the Devil is not yet fulfilled, there is external evil yet to be faced, and evil yet within Rojack to be purged. The Devil has kept his part of the bargain by providing the means of survival in an evil world, and “the wit to trick authority,” and the Devil’s gifts must be paid for before they can be renounced.
What, then, is the nature of the new contract Rojack has made, that with love? It is, to begin with, characterized by fertility. Cherry has been impregnated twice in the past, by Kelly and Shago Martin, and in both cases has aborted the pregnancy. But with Rojack she is mystically convinced that the depth of their first sexual act could not help but result in pregnancy, and both lovers are committed to bringing the hypothetical fetus to fruition. It is, in fact, Cherry’s conviction that she is pregnant by Rojack which most frightens and outrages Shago when he arrives, because of the intensity of feeling which that conviction implies.
Other parallels in the system of sexual relationships presented here serve further to highlight the significance of the love between Cherry and Rojack. Certain comparisons made by Rojack himself have already been noted. He is able to picture a similarity between his own sexual conflict with Ruta and that between Kelly and Cherry. And the judgment implicit in the comparison is a powerful one. Both partners in this new love have known the brutal, sterile sex of the Devil, Cherry with Kelly and Rojack with Ruta. But the qualitative worth of their sexual love together is different in kind rather than degree from these earlier contacts, just as Rojack himself has begun to become a different kind of man than the Roberts and the Romeos he faces.
This love, then, which grows out of two people whose world of experience includes incest, miscegenation, anal intercourse, abortion, and murder, is nonetheless one characterized by natural fertility, tenderness and honesty. But this is bought only by courage and the desire to be good, as Rojack realizes:
“I think we have to be good,” by which I meant we would have to be brave.
“I know,” she said. Then we were silent for a while. “I know,” she said again.
. . . now I understood that love was not a gift but a vow. Only the brave could live with it for more than a little while. . . . love was love, one could find it with anyone, one could find it anywhere. It was just that you could never keep it. Not unless you were ready to die for it, dear friend.
Love, as Mailer sees it, is a contract, not only with the beloved, but with oneself as well. It requires individual strength and courage, and the ability to stand alone, as Rojack realizes when, on his way to see Kelly, he is again tempted by fear to turn back from the right path:
Once again I wished to rush back to her—she was my sanity, simple as that—and then I remembered the vow I had made in her bed. No, if one wished to be a lover, one could not find one’s sanity in another. That was the iron law of romance: one took the vow to be brave.
Just as a commitment to God cannot be made as an evasion of personal responsibility, romantic love cannot be used as a false womb in which to hide from one’s frightening duties. Rojack has decided to take the path toward God and Cherry, but the mere decision to do so is not enough in itself. He knows that he must earn the right to earthly and divine love and salvation by completing the pilgrimage he has begun, and he must do it alone if it is to count.
We have stated that the sexual love for Cherry is the most crucial element by which Mailer defines the American existentialism of Rojack. It represents as well a major advance in Mailer’s capacity to present in valid fictional form a consistently structured personal philosophy of sex. The extent and significance of this advance can be fully appreciated only by reference to the vague and undeveloped suggestion that sex represents hope for the individual, which closes The Deer Park (N). In the final paragraphs of that book, Sergius carries on the following imaginary dialogue with God:
. . . One must invariably look for a good time since a good time is what gives us the strength to try again. . . . If there is a God, and sometimes I believe there is one, I’m sure He says, “Go on, my boy. I don’t know that I can help you, but we wouldn’t want all those people to tell you what to do.”
There are hours when I would have the arrogance to reply to the Lord himself, and so I ask, “Would You agree that sex is where philosophy begins?”
But God, who is the oldest of the philosophers, answers in His weary cryptic way, “Rather think of sex as Time, and Time as the connection of new circuits.”
Then for a moment in that cold Irish soul of mine, a glimmer of the joy of the flesh came toward me, rare as the eye of the rarest tear of compassion, and we laughed together after all, because to have heard that sex was time and time the connection of new circuits was a part of the poor odd dialogues which give hope to us noble humans for more than one night.
This closing statement may not be particularly integral to the rest of The Deer Park (N) except as it is consistent, in its vagueness, to Sergius’ own confused state of non-commitment to any clear, positive system of values. But it does represent, in embryonic form, Mailer’s intuition that sex is somehow connected to hope and to God. The nine years following this novel saw the development of a clear and sophisticated view of the role of sexual love in human hope for personal salvation, and culminated in the statement of that view in An American Dream. Those years of relative silence, however, led some critics, with justification, to seize upon the end of The Deer Park as a definitive part of Mailer’s existential position. The work of two such critics may be useful here in order further to define the role of sex in Mailer’s existentialism and the extent of his advance on this count in An American Dream.
The dissertations of James Burton Scott and Samuel Holland Hux both place considerable emphasis on the end of The Deer Park in treating Mailer’s existentialism. It must, in fairness, be emphasized that neither critic deals with An American Dream (both dissertations apparently being close to completion at the time of the publication of that novel). Nonetheless, both hazard generalizations on the present, and prognoses on the future role of sex in Mailer’s existentialism, which seem ill-founded, particularly in light of An American Dream, but even without the retrospective advantage of that book.
Scott's position is the more irresponsible and simplistic of the two. He says, in part:
Sexual activities permitted some altogether too convenient devices for enlarging upon his meanings. That these were too convenient, and finally specious, is indicated in The Deer Park, where Mailer comes to an acceptance of the varieties of sex on a simple experiential level. He does not try, in that novel, to make sex signify governmental affiliation, or political ideology; he does, however, still cling to the rather romantic notion that from sex one can come to some metaphysical conclusions about the nature of God and Time.
If this statement can be considered somewhat justified by the unformed nature of the conclusion of The Deer Park, its tone of derogatory finality (“That these were too convenient, and finally specious . . .” ) cannot. The supercilious application of the term “romantic,” (with implicit emphasis on the connotation of naïveté) to a novelist as cynical in his view of male-female relationships as Mailer, is singularly inappropriate. Applied in connection to The Deer Park, it becomes foolish. Despite the vagueness of the sex-time-God theory, The Deer Park does present a thematically significant statement on the failures in love of the major characters, notably Sergius and Eitel. This failure is invested with greater significance by Mailer’s emphasis on it in his “Advertisement for The Deer Park,” as well as by the fact that it represents a definite step in the progression toward Rojack, a character who does not fail. An American Dream may not have been available to Mr. Scott, but Advertisements for Myself certainly was.
Mr. Hux's statements are somewhat less offensive. He says at one point:
The close of The Deer Park presents us with the hope of the “enormous present.” Sex is time and time is the connection of new circuits. The most intense living of each present as it comes, and primarily the present of sexual intercourse, provides a “hope to us noble humans for more than one night.” It is at this point that Mailer’s existentialism becomes clearly programmatic—search ye for the good orgasm.
This is certainly a more fair and clear representation of what Mailer believed when he wrote The Deer Park. Yet whatever “programmatic” quality Mailer’s existentialism may retain by the time of An American Dream, it is considerably more complex and sophisticated than “search ye for the good orgasm.” Mr. Hux may not have known of the qualifications and complexities to be introduced to Mailer’s conception of sex as significant human action by An American Dream. But his prognoses for Mailer’s future fiction may be held up as inaccurate in light of that novel, particularly when he says:
The present direction of Mailer’s thought leads to certain dangers and, it seems to me, to a waste of his best talent. His increasing insistence on orgasmic fulfillment contains a hazard quite beyond my academic concern that it could explode the bounds of his Existentialism. The hazard is that Mailer could be come a “totalitarian” of sex, someone who offers a “quick solution for a permanent problem.” Mailer does not always keep clear the distinction between the valuable and the fantastic in sex, between sex which gives hope for one more night and sex as the way to God.
It is one of the basic contentions of this chapter that Mailer does not offer a “quick solution” through sex in An American Dream; and that the distinction between meaningless sex and sex as an expression of total commitment to love (and thereby to personal salvation) represents one of the major thematic elements of that novel. Mr. Hux is a perceptive critic, but it is dangerous to predict the future course of a writer not yet conveniently dead or unproductive.
We have said that Rojack, though consciously committed through his love of Cherry to the side of good, must still fulfill his contract with the Devil by facing Barney Oswald Kelly, before he can find his way to God. The meeting with Kelly is rendered more ominous and significant by the fact that the plot line pointedly omits any contact between him and Rojack during the course of the novel’s action. Even telephone arrangements for the appointment are carried out by Rojack’s answering service, rather than personally.
Rojack brings with him, to Barney Kelly’s suite, all the strength he has derived from Cherry and Shago, and from his own courage in the face of the earlier confrontations. But all of this is barely enough to enable Rojack to overcome this goatlike man who himself entertains the idea that he is one of Satan’s representatives. At one point, Kelly says to Rojack:
“Well, for all we know, I am a solicitor for the Devil.”
“But you really think so.”
“On occasion, I’m vain enough.”
And Rojack is willing to believe that Kelly is the Devil incarnate. Arriving at the Waldorf, he:
shivered in the open window of the cab. What was it Shago had said? “Man, I was spitting in the face [Deborah’s] of the Devil.” He was wrong. It was the Devil’s daughter. And the memory of Barney Oswald Kelly came back. For we were approaching the Waldorf and I could feel his presence in a room near the top of the Towers.
Rojack emerges from the violent scene on Kelly’s balcony alive and purified, free to pursue his new life. But the bargain with the Devil is not easily settled. Both Cherry and Shago must die violently to balance the infernal books. And the systematic ironies by which they die seem to support a sense of a malevolent order which must take its due. On the way to Kelly’s by cab, Rojack has experienced another intuitive flash, dictating that he go to Harlem and risk violent death in order to purge his treatment of Shago and to bless his love through gratuitous courage. Overcoming the urge by the realization that he may merely be avoiding his primary responsibility of meeting Kelly, Rojack proceeds to the Waldorf, but he is disturbed by a feeling that somewhere in Harlem a man is being bludgeoned to death in his stead. That man is Shago, killed to no apparent purpose with a length of lead pipe. And to complete the circle, Cherry is killed in revenge by a mistaken friend of Shago.
Cherry has left Rojack one further legacy, a gift of luck in gambling. Going to Las Vegas (the scene of Cherry’s affair with Kelly and a city which Kelly has compared to Hell), Rojack wins enough at the tables to pay the $16,000 in debts which Deborah has left him. Significantly, Cherry has thus freed him from the financial stranglehold which Deborah had engineered. And this last formal responsibility to the earthly ills represented by commercial America is significantly dissolved through a clear victory over its most Sodom—like capital. A parallel may be seen here between the ending of this novel and the beginning of The Deer Park, which finds Sergius O’Shaugnessy entering the tinsel world of Desert D’Or with $14,000 won in a poker game. Sergius, too, is indirectly released from the false society in which he has lived, by his trip to Las Vegas. But it is significant that Sergius’ escape is precipitated by a defeat at the gambling tables (which divests him of the bankroll which is his membership card in the world of Lulu Meyers). It is very much in keeping with the primary distinction hitherto drawn between Rojack and Sergius that Rojack leaves America on a note of victory over Las Vegas. For as I have earlier stated, Sergius is defined primarily in terms of negative values, while Rojack is the first of Mailer’s positive characters.
These plot devices do not seem to be dictated by blind chance, for fate does seem to play a role in the works (as has been seen in the plot of The Naked and the Dead). In An American Dream it is important, particularly at the beginning, when Deborah‘s falling body causes a traffic pileup on the East River Drive. Not only does this effect the meeting between Cherry and Rojack, but it brings Eddie Gannucci into the hands of the police. As a result, the police are too busy to keep Rojack all night, and his temporary reprieve enables him to proceed in the events later that night which lead to his relationship with Cherry. Finally, perhaps the clearest statement of the forces by which the world is governed comes from Rojack, who sees a structure, an “architecture to eternity.”
There is a structure, too, to the pilgrimage which Rojack makes. The development of his character proceeds along an ascending line, each stage of which is defined by the nature of his adversary. By murdering Deborah, he takes his first faltering step into what he sees as a new life, a rebirth, and the act itself provides him the first glimpse of a heavenly city which he must try to reach. I have said that The Deer Park (P) is Mailer’s vision of Hell. It is significant that in the world of An American Dream, a world viewed in as dark a cynicism as Mailer has ever held and peopled by characters perhaps more evil than those of his previous novels, we are nonetheless presented with a vision of heaven.
The sexual episode with Ruta represents the pact made with the Devil, and the gifts of guile which he takes away from her bed are the last positive (though evil) acquisitions he is to make until he is ready for Cherry. The confrontations with Romeo Romalozzo, Roberts and Tony are characterized by negatives: the refusal to back down and the rejection by Rojack of the inner corruption which he shares with these men. The relative purity of Rojack’s soul at this point enables him to take a major positive step, that of choosing to love Cherry. The en counter with Shago (who shows not only nobility but Christian forgiveness as well) provides Rojack with new power, this time originating from the camp of goodness. The ultimate test for which he has been prepared through out his ordeal is the triumph over evil as represented by Barney Kelly, and the consequent final release from his pact with the Devil.
Although the structure and symbology of the course traced by Rojack are obviously permeated by Christian and by existential elements, there is much that is peculiarly American here as well. Mailer is, as has been noted earlier, very much a social critic. The degree of proximity and accuracy with which he observes and criticizes American society is obvious in the scope of An American Dream, which encompasses the worlds of mass media, academia, politics, the stock exchange, organized crime, local law enforcement, and the CIA. In every case, no matter how brief the treatment, the criticism is effectively frightening, even when ludicrous as well. The ethnic and regional elements of the American population represented are various, and the Rojack/Ruta passage is given greater ironic significance by the fact that he is part Jewish and derives brutal pleasure from “plugging a Nazi.” This brief sense of the confrontation of American and European culture echoes the earlier scene in which Rojack killed the four Nazi machine-gunners. And it may be remembered that almost twenty years before Mailer chose to write about the Pacific theatre because he felt incapable of rendering the cultural impact of the European war effectively.
There are, then, two major levels upon which this novel proceeds: that of the individual and that of the society which surrounds him. Mailer’s view of the American society has remained as unqualifiedly black as that set forth in The Naked and the Dead. But his view of the individual has changed. Although most men are corrupt, weak and evil, it is possible through great courage and luck and anguish for a man to survive the American experience and remain an individual.
Into such an individual victory enter several elements of personal ethic which are peculiar to the American character. The first is the Protestant ethic which prescribes a drive for personal success, and which states that such tangible success is symptomatic of the fact that one is among those chosen for survival. In that this doctrine has been a major rationalization for the establishment of huge capitalistic fortunes earlier in the country’s history, it may be seen as not wholly admirable. And it is, in fact, the stated code of a nonadmirable capitalist in Mailer’s work. The movie mogul Herman Teppis, speaking of God, says in The Deer Park (P): “I believe He gives His vote to the man who wins.” It is possible that Mailer believes this of Rojack. Certainly, the mere desire to be saved is not enough to bring Rojack to a state of grace after his involvement with the satanic elements of American society. It is necessary that he find his way to God by overcoming the establishment as it is most clearly represented by the financial, governmental, and underworld power which are brought together in the person of Barney Oswald Kelly. In that he is an underdog who succeeds against great odds, Rojack is the hero of the Protestant ethic, and that success in itself implies grace and salvation. On one level, then, the title of the novel must be taken at face value. Rojack has achieved the American dream of individual freedom. At the same time, the title is invested with great irony, for the usual connotations of the American dream (military heroism, political success, a wealthy wife, social acceptance, academic recognition, one’s own television show, and numerous sexual partners) have all been achieved by Rojack by the beginning of the novel, at which time he is a weak man, an admitted failure, on the verge of despair and suicide. In showing the stereotyped American dream to be a false and shabby one, Mailer continues in this novel his consistent criticism of American society. By showing that there can be a true American dream in the achievement of personal freedom and integrity, he carries his concern with the plight of the individual in contemporary society one step further. He does this not by minimizing that plight, but by holding out a possible hope of salvation as the reward for courage.
The second major American ethic which conditions the nature and the means of Rojack’s success is one of which Mailer has been acutely conscious for some time. It is the commitment of the American male to the myth of the lone hero, taken from an oversimplified history of the nation’s early years and perpetuated as simplistically by the movie industry. In the Third Presidential Paper, entitled “The Existential Hero,” Mailer says:
Nowhere, as in America, however, was this fall from individual man to mass man felt so acutely, for America was at once the first and most prolific creator of mass communications. . . . Yet America was also the country in which the dynamic myth of the Renaissance—that every man was potentially extraordinary—knew its most passionate persistence. Simply, America was the land where people still believed in heroes: George Washington; Billy the Kid; . . . Hemingway; Joe Louis. . . . And when the West was filled, the expansion turned inward, became part of an agitated, overexcited, superheated dream life. The film studios threw up their searchlights as the frontier was finally sealed, and the romantic possibilities of the old conquest of land turned into a vertical myth, trapped within the skull, of a new kind of heroic life, each choosing his own archetype of a neo-Renaissance man, be it Barrymore, Cagney, Flynn, Bogart, Brando or Sinatra, but it was almost as if there were no peace unless one could fight well, kill well (if always with honor), love well and love many, be cool, be daring, be dashing, be wild, be wily, be resourceful, be a brave gun. And this myth, that each of us was born to be free, to wander, to have adventure and to grow on the waves of the violent, the perfumed, and the unexpected, had a force which could not be tamed no matter how the nation’s regulators . . . would brick in the modern life with hygiene upon sanity, and middle-brow homily over platitude; the myth would not die.
It is by means of this myth, within his mind, that the common man in America attempts to maintain his sense of individuality, while he subscribes in fact to the rules and habits of mass media and mass society. But Stephen Richards Rojack does in fact carry out the myth, setting himself outside of society, wandering free, facing danger with wily resourcefulness. To the extent that Rojack’s adventures seem to subscribe to the clichéd Hollywood myth, the novel’s success is mitigated for many readers. But what makes Rojack’s adventures credible, for the most part, is the fact that they proceed naturally out of his character; and that character is a substantial creation. Rojack is no stereotyped, square-jawed, unfaltering Hollywood hero, but a man who is weak, frightened and unsure in the face of challenge. That he forces himself to over come his own weakness and to face his antagonists successfully is rendered credible by Mailer’s sophisticated establishment of the rational and emotional forces operating within the narrator’s mind at each confrontation (for example, the compulsion to face Romeo). Once again, then, Rojack’s story represents the achievement of a real American dream, the desire to be free and brave. And once again, the simplistic aspects of that dream as seen by the popular eye are implicitly rejected.
A final statement on the source of Rojack’s strength is in order. It is significant that among the various interlocking layers of aristocracy and royalty existing in this ostensible democracy (princes of Harlem, of the Mafia, of finance, and of the social elite abound and are described as such) it is from the supposedly lower strata that Rojack derives his strength. He is himself a sort of sophisticated Horatio Alger figure, and those two people who give of themselves (and ultimately their lives) for his victory are a Negro and a Poor White Southerner. It is not that Mailer has changed his opinion of the common man in general since the writing of The Naked and the Dead, but rather that he seems to believe that whatever will enable the common man to achieve personal salvation must come from the strength of today’s particular downtrodden groups, especially the Negro. Whether or not this potential strength can save America itself in Mailer’s view is questionable. For Rojack, after his own purgation, does not commit himself to helping cut out America’s considerable cancers, but instead leaves the country. The message, then, is one of very limited hope, but hope nonetheless, and from the author of The Naked and the Dead, this is something remarkable.
- Mailer 1965, p. 24.
- Mailer 1965, p. 20.
- Mailer 1966, p. 114.
- Mailer 1965, p. 237.
- Mailer 1967, pp. 101–102.
- Mailer 1959, pp. 501–502.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 47–49.
- Mailer 1965, p. 44.
- Mailer 1965, p. 52.
- Mailer 1965, p. 182.
- Mailer 1959, p. 332.
- Mailer 1965, p. 189.
- Mailer 1965, p. 173.
- Mailer 1965, p. 181.
- Mailer 1965, p. 183.
- Mailer 1965, p. 190.
- Mailer 1965, p. 191.
- Mailer 1965, p. 192.
- Mailer 1959, p. 340–341.
- Mailer 1959, p. 339.
- Mailer 1959, p. 340.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 35–36.
- Mailer 1965, p. 243.
- Mailer 1965, p. 126.
- Mailer 1965, p. 63.
- Mailer 1965, p. 62.
- Mailer 1965, p. 95.
- Mailer 1965, p. 97.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 94–95.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 100–101.
- Mailer 1965, p. 103.
- Mailer 1965, p. 104.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 151–152.
- Mailer 1965, p. 116.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 120–121.
- Mailer 1965, pp. 122–123.
- Mailer 1965, p. 123.
- Ironically, through a passing reference made by the latter, Rojack learns Cherry’s last name for the first time.
- Mailer 1965, p. 153.
- Could there possibly be some significance in the vague similarity these names have to Rojack’s own? It is, after all, one of Mailer’s points that he renounces his similarities in character to these men.
- Mailer 1965, p. 155.
- Mailer 1965, p. 156.
- Mailer 1955, pp. 318–319.
- Scott 1964, p. 154.
- Hux 1965, p. 201.
- Mailer 1955, p. 319.
- Hux 1965, p. 209.
- Mailer 1965, p. 221.
- Mailer 1965, p. 204.
- The telephone conversation with the humorously despicable TV producer has already been mentioned. Another brief but telling jibe is implicit in the irresponsible newspaper treatment of Deborah’s death, to which a parallel may be found in the gossip column reference to Sergius in The Deer Park.
- Mailer 1967, p. 167.
- Mailer 1963, pp. 39–40.
- Hux, Samuel Holland (1965). American Myth and Existential Vision: The Indigenous Existentialism of Mailer, Bellow, Styron and Ellison (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Connecticut.
- Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
- — (1955). An American Dream. New York: Dial Press. Paperback edition published 1966 by Dell Publishing Co., New York. All page references are to the Dell edition.
- — (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: The Dial Press.
- — (1955). The Deer Park. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons. Paperback edition published 1957 by Signet (New American Library of World Literature, New York). All page references are to the Signet edition.
- — (1967). The Deer Park: A Play. New York: Dell Publishing Co.
- — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
- Scott, James Burton (1964). The Individual and Society: Norman Mailer versus William Styron (unpublished doctoral dissertation). Syracuse University, New York.