The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer/5. Why Are We in Vietnam?

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The Structured Vision of Norman Mailer
  1. The Naked and the Dead
  2. Barbary Shore
  3. The Deer Park
  4. An American Dream
  5. Why Are We in Vietnam?
  6. Deaths for the Ladies and Other Disasters
  7. Advertisements for Myself, The Presidential Papers, and Cannibals and Christians
  8. The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago
Wikipedia book Books • Project page Projects

Why Are We in Vietnam? is Mailer’s latest novel. It comprises most of the thematic concerns found in the first four novels and employs a system of metaphor similar to that of An American Dream. Thus, the novel is very much a part of the continuum established thus far by the Mailer canon. But structurally and stylistically, Vietnam repre­sents a retrogression rather than an advance in the develop­ment of Mailer’s art.

The novel does not deal directly with Vietnam, but the significance of the title is fairly obvious, as the book jacket hastens to point out:

. . . Vietnam is mentioned only once in the book, and then on the final page. Nor does the author once refer to international affairs or American involvement overseas. Why then the title? Could it be that in this scandalous, ribald, hilarious, frightening account of a hunting expedition in Alaska’s Brooks Mountain Range, Mr. Mailer is drawing a dread parallel? Or that in the behavior of a few hunters from Texas a reader may sense why America goes to war? . . .[1]

It could be, and is. The “dread parallel” is a well chosen one, but the execution is weak. Eliot Fremont-Smith, who holds a high opinion of the book's political message, points out at the outset of his review that the novel:

was, by the author’s admission, written “in a great hurry”; it is difficult to get into, messy, insulting . . . and deliberately relentless in its use of revolting imagery. It will be mistakenly reviled . . . and mis­takenly thought a “swinging” book.[2]

But Fremont-Smith goes on to say that:

It is also the most original, courageous and provoca­tive novel so far this year. . . . Norman Mailer, who is, among other things, this country’s most intrepid polemical metaphorist, not its Hemingway but its Swift, has said that his novel is an attempt to place “the shortest possible equals sign” on the Vietnam war. He sees the war as a wholly destructive, wholly brutalizing exercise of American violence whose only rationale now is the verification of a vulgarized self­-image of potency, toughness, masculinity. Why are we in Vietnam? Because it’s there, man. And violence is as American as cherry pie.[2]

What is indisputable here is the reviewer’s understanding of Mailer’s political position and artistic intention in the novel. Less acceptable are Fremont-Smith’s generous super­latives. But in order to dispute these, we must first outline the plot structure of the novel.

The major characters are D.J., the narrator; Rusty, his father; Tex Hyde, his best friend; and Big Luke Fellinka, their hunting guide. The narrative is carried out in stream-of-consciousness form within D.J.’s mind as he sits at a formal dinner in his parents’ Dallas mansion on the night before he and Tex leave to fight in Vietnam. The Alaskan hunting trip with which the novel deals has taken place two years before, when D.J. was sixteen. The narrator suggests that his initials stand for “disc jockey” and for Dr. Jekyll. The tone of the text often resembles the patter of a disc jockey, and D.J. tells us that he is “Disc Jockey to America”[3] speaking into a tape recorder for the ear of God. The Dr. Jekyll motif has several reverberations which become clearer later in the book. First, D.J. and Tex Hyde are to undergo a communion which will fuse them into “killer brothers.” Secondly, the narrator himself is a split, Jekyll-Hyde personality. D.J. tells us repeatedly that he is not merely a white Texan, but also a crippled Negro writing or transmitting from Harlem. The story is told in chapters (called “Chaps”), with an “intro beep” introducing each. Both chapters and intro beeps are related by D.J., although he usually refers to himself in the third person in the chapters. The chapters are more directly relevant to the plot line, and sometimes more coherent than the intro beeps.

The story of the hunting trip embodies certain mythic elements (notably the initiation into manhood of D.J. and Tex) and proceeds along a line of progressively more crucial conflicts between man and nature. In this respect the structure is similar to that of An American Dream, but the narrative stance makes the execution of the later novel far less effective. The initial conflict takes place between Rusty and Big Luke, in the very American and artificial bar of a deluxe motel in Fairbanks, the descrip­tion of which makes it clear that the urban portions of Alaska have become very much a part of commercial America. Rusty is the archetypal Ugly American: a top­ level corporation executive (who brings two corporate sycophants along on the hunt) and ex-All-American tackle. He is in search of a reassuring moment of truth of the sort that has become permanently associated with Hemingway,[4] and only killing a grizzly bear will satisfy him. The tension generated by his first failures to realize this aim while other members of the party do kill bear is strikingly similar to that which helped spur the narrative of Green Hills of Africa, in which Hemingway is repeatedly frustrated in his desire to shoot a Greater Kudu. But the similarity highlights the significant differences. This is not Africa, but Alaska, a place very much a part of the United States. For this is a totally American novel, very much in the stream of social consciousness which has been observed in all of Mailer’s earlier work. The fact that the hunting party comes from Texas is significant, for Mailer portrays that state as the repository of the most undiluted and unabashed American qualities of vulgarity and commercialism. Rusty wants his moment of truth as a commodity, one he can hold up for public inspection back home (which is, as D.J. suggests, why his two corpora­tion inferiors are along, so that they can later substantiate and embellish the story); and one with a lifetime guaran­tee: “. . . so I’ll never have to be so scared again, not until I got to face The Big Man.”[5]

Big Luke’s position is that he cannot guarantee Rusty a shot at a bear. His reasons are several. The Brooks Range has been invaded by too many clumsy hunters, who wounded bear and left them to suffer and survive, growing in cunning and hatred of man. Big Ollie, Luke’s Indian assistant, elaborates on the upsetting of nature by man:

He talks like a cannibal in a jungle bunny movie. “Brooks Range no wilderness now. Airplane go over the head, animal no wild no more, now crazy.[6]

Big Luke is influenced by another consideration as well, as D.J. points out:

Big Luke used to be a big hunter, but those grizzly scratches have weakened his Arnold Toynbee co­ efficient—he interested less in challenge than response—if he caught his share of the three grand a head without having to lead various grades of assholes and tough but untrained adolescents into the brush to look for Mr. Wounded Honey Grizzly holding the head of a magnum in his bear gut and a last dream of murder in his bear eye, well, Big Luke, despite the big man death-guts charisma, may have had his day. Who’s to say there is no actors in Alaska?[7]

Thus, though D.J. has described Big Luke as very much a man,9 he is not to be seen as an unqualified representa­ tive of nature. American civilization has tainted him as well as it has Alaska. He wins the confrontation with Rusty in the motel bar partly because he is a better man, but partly because his skill as a guide has become known as the best of that commodity available on the market. Luke guides only the social and political elite, and so when he hints that Rusty can have his deposit back and forget the hunt, Rusty must back down. It is far worse to go home a rejected client of Big Luke than to accept the safari on Luke’s terms and risk getting no bear.

Big Luke is midway between the totally corrupt Rusty and nature. When, on the first morning in camp, Tex cleanly kills a wolf, Luke performs the ritual of giving each of the boys a cup of blood to drink. But when the degree of inept impatience which characterizes this group of clients becomes clear to Luke, he commits himself to compromise. Barely conforming to hunting regulations, and renouncing any pretense of sportsmanship, Luke brings in a helicopter and thus enables each member of the party to bag mountain goat and caribou effortlessly.

Bear are another matter entirely. Even from the air, they are difficult to find. When one is finally encountered, Rusty experiences a failure of nerve and is ignominiously saved from the bear’s charge by the patently artificial aid of the helicopter. The failure brings the situation to a sharp focus, in Rusty’s mind and that of the reader. What is at stake is Rusty’s manhood, and the sleepless conclusion he reaches that night is conceived in sexual terms and related directly to Rusty’s relationship with Hallie, D.J.’s mother:

Rusty was sick. He had to get it up. [My italics] They had to go for grizzer now. Well, he was man enough to steel his guts before necessity, he not D.J.’s father for naught. . .

• • •

Blasts of rage and gouts of fear burn like jets and flush like bile waters and he is humped [my italics] in his mind on Hallie. D.J.'s own father, Rusty, married twenty years to a blonde beauty he can never own for certain in the flesh of his brain.[8]

The passage is significant in terms of point of view as well as symbolism. The sexual nature of Rusty’s drive to kill is made patently obvious. But D.J.’s view into Rusty’s mind seems not so much a tendency to omniscience as a capacity to identify with his father’s plight. The differences between father and son may be conditioned primarily by the discrepancy in age and experience, rather than innate personality traits. In this sense, Rusty’s name is of some significance. He is rusty in the ways of courage because he has been corroded for twenty years by corporate falsity as well as emasculation at the hands of a representative of tough American womanhood.

The next bear episode is a failure as well. Two are sighted, and Tex kills the male immediately. Although Rusty hits the female, the kill is awarded to one of his subordinates. Everyone involved is immediately sorry for the decision when it becomes clear how crucial a bear kill now is to Rusty. D.J., too, is anxious to get a bear. His own performance up to this point is disappointing to him for several reasons. First, Tex, with whom he has a compe­tition in every endeavor, has both a bear and a wolf, while D.J. “had blown up in bull buck bear fever,”[9] and failed even to shoot at the female bear. Father and son are closer in character and motivation at this point than they have ever been:

Rusty scurries about in his gut and reamasses his cool. He is getting to feel taut and not without his ready—D.J. is more so than a young assassin with a knife. He too has got to get grizzer. The wolf is burn­ing fever in him now, best future of his blood is going to boil off if he

can’t get on a bear. . . .[9]

Rusty has a certain potential for courage, and he is ready to rise to the occasion. But D.J., I have said, has one additional motivation. He has begun to sense the force of natural Alaska. In shooting his mountain goat earlier, D.J. has begun to recognize the falsity represented by helicopter hunting:

and when he [the goat] died, Wham! the pain of his exploding heart shot like an arrow into D.J.’s heart, and the animals had gotten him, they were talking all around him now, communicating the un­spoken unseen unmeasurable electromagnetism and wave of all the psychic circuits of all the wild of Alaska, and he was only part of them, and part he was of gasoline of Texas, the asshole sulfur smell of money­ oil clinging to the helicopter, cause he had not gotten that goat by getting up in the three A.M. of morning and climbing the mountain.[10]

And so it is that father and son elude the rest of the hunters and set off together after bear.

The mixed feelings between father and son have been established earlier by two flashbacks to D.J.’s childhood, both of which are involved with sexuality and conflict. One establishes a classically Oedipal situation, while the other involves an incident of open physical conflict be­tween father and son. But now, for a few hours alone in the woods, D.J. and Rusty are on the same frequency. Their paths coincide briefly before they diverge forever. The two find a bear, both shoot, and the wounded grizzly escapes into dense undergrowth. Frightened but deter­mined, the two follow. They find the bear dying quietly. The difference between their two reactions defines the direction that each has chosen for life:

. . . Rusty was for pouring in some lead just to make shit-and-sure, but peace was coming off that bear . . . and so Rusty contented himself—being a camera-con­scious flash-bulb poking American—to heist a little stone and bap that bear on the hide.

• • •

Rusty raised his gun, but D.J. touched the rifle slightly with a little salute, and started walking down toward the bear.

• • •

. . . and D.J. looked in from his twenty feet away and took a step and took another step and another step and something in that grizzer’s eyes locked into his, a message . . . those eyes were telling him some­thing, singeing him, branding some part of D.J.’s future. . . .

• • •

. . . and when D.J. smiled, the eyes reacted, they shifted . . . they looked to be drawing in the peace of the forest preserved for all animals as they die . . . and Rusty—wetting his pants, doubtless, from the ex­cessive tension—chose that moment to shoot, and griz went up to death in one last paroxysm . . . all for­giveness gone.

• • •

D.J. didn’t speak to Rusty on the way back. And when they hit camp at dark, Big Luke so relieved he couldn’t even read various prescribed riot acts, they asked at last who had got the bear, and D.J., in the silence which followed, said, “Well, we both sent shots home, but I reckon Rusty got it,” and Rusty didn’t contradict him—one more long silence—and Rusty said, “Yeah, I guess it’s mine, but one of its sweet legs belongs to D.J.” Whew. Final end of love of one son for one father.[11]

Rusty has come closer than ever before to true manhood, and then retreated. He has been for too long committed to the American ethic, and so he chooses to claim the trophy and the public manhood implicit in it, over the true courage and commitment to nature toward which D.J. is progressing.

One final confrontation remains, and it is the most crucial and revealing. Tex and D.J., disgusted by the artificiality of the hunt, awake long before dawn the next day and spend a day and a night in the woods alone. With an intuition closely parallel to that of Ike McCaslin in Faulkner’s The Bear, the boys divest themselves of guns, knives and compasses, purifying themselves by giving up the protection of manmade instruments. Tough in the face of their fear, they encounter a wolf (whom they frighten off by sheer concentrated waves of psychic murder) and a bear (whom they watch, unobserved, from a tree). They spend the night in bedrolls, closely skirting the edge of a murderous love/hate homosexual union similar to those approached by Rojack with both Shago Martin and Barney Oswald Kelly. Then, through communion with nature they become united in a new telepathic sense:

. . . something in the radiance of the North went into them, and owned their fear, some communion of telepathies and new powers, and they were twins, never to be near as lovers again, but killer brothers, owned by something, prince of darkness, lord of light, they did not know; they just knew telepathy was on them, they had been touched forever by the North and each bit a drop of blood from his own finger and touched them across and met, blood to blood . . . and they left an hour later in the dark to go back to camp and knew on the way each mood of emotion building in Rusty and Big Luke and Ollie and M.A. Bill and Pete and their faces were etched just as they had foreseen them and the older men’s voices were filled with the same specific mix of mixed old shit which they had heard before in the telepathic vaults of their new Brooks Range electrified mind.[12]

It is significant that D.J. and Tex are shown, at the end of this last chapter, in clear contrast to the older men, not excepting Big Luke. D.J. has told the reader early in the book that he “sees right through shit,”[13] and it now becomes clear where both he and Tex gained this faculty. Eliot Fremont-smith calls the book “profoundly pessi­mistic,”[2] and it is indisputably that. But there seems to be a glimmer of hope held out in D.J. and Tex: in their capacity to “see through shit,” to recognize and reject the false ideals and national motives disseminated by the older men who govern America; and in their peculiarly Ameri­can initiative and, if you will, pioneer spirit.

The “Terminal Intro Beep and Out” following the last chapter qualifies this hope drastically, perhaps de­stroys it. For on the last page of the novel, D.J. reveals that:

. . . tomorrow Tex and me, we’re off to see the wizard in Vietnam. . . . This is D.J., Disc Jockey to America turning off. Vietnam, hot damn.[3]

The question, then, is whether the energy and insight attributed to the new generation of American males as they are represented by Tex and D.J. is meant by Mailer to imply some hope for the future of the country. Cer­tainly, the boys have rejected the American faults and blindnesses represented by the older men. But the arena in which they choose to define their future, and the eagerness in which they choose it (“Vietnam, hot damn.”), raise the question of whether the aims of the new genera­tion are not as wrong as those of the old, however different their methods and motives. In this light, the indictment of American society intended by Mailer may appear all the more bitter for the degree of youthful potential which is wastefully misdirected. The issue is somewhat ambiguous, but what resolution there is must be understood in terms of the nature of the purification which the boys undergo.

This purification is tied to the use of obscenity in the book. It is significant that the amount of obscenity drops as the narrative proceeds. D.J. suggests a reason for this early in the lone expedition with Tex:

Listen, fellow Americans, and D.J. here to tell you, don’t get upset by the boys’ last dialogue, they so full of love and adventure and in such a haste to get all the mixed glut and sludge out of their systems that they’re heating up all the foul talk to get rid of it in a hurry like bad air going up the flue and so be ready to enjoy good air and nature. . . .[14]

The purifying effect of giving free rein to obscenity in one’s speech or writing is a theory in which Mailer truly believes. He elaborates further on it in The Armies of the Night:

He [Mailer] was off into obscenity. It gave a hearti­ness like the blood of beef tea to his associations. There was no villainy in obscenity for him, just­ paradoxically, characteristically—his love for America. . . . what none of the editorial writers ever men­tioned was that [the] noble common man was obscene as an old goat, and his obscenity was what saved him. The sanity of said common democratic man was in his humor, his humor was in his obscenity.[15]

But “The war in Vietnam was an obscene war,”[16] and Mailer explains why America’s leaders are opposed to verbal obscenity:

Yes, the use of obscenity was indeed to be condemned, for the free use of it would wash away the nation­—was America the first great power to be built on bull­ shit?[17]

Those who ban obscenity are, like the Rustys of America, bottling up their own rages and fears, which are then channeled into an obscene war:

. . . the American corporation executive, who was after all the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungles, yet felt a large displeasure and fairly final disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in pub­lic.[18]

And, speaking particularly about obscenity in Why Are We in Vietnam?, Mailer made a statement last year on the Merv Griffin television show to the effect that “one day in the life of General Westmoreland is more obscene” than all the obscene books ever published in this country. The audience booed him.

The result of the purging of obscenity does effect a purification in D.J. and Tex, one which culminates in the mystical communion with nature. But why do the boys take their new sensitivity and awareness to Vietnam? John W. Aldridge, in an excellent article on this novel, takes the following position:

It may be an irony that on the last page of the novel D.J. reveals that he and Tex are on their way to the Army and Vietnam. But the point, one suspects, is that by now they have conquered the impulse to Viet­nam in themselves. They do not need Vietnam as an outlet for their hostilities, and so it is certain that they will be as derisively antagonistic to the war as they have been to the sick pretensions of Rusty’s world.[19]

This seems to me a somewhat suspect interpretation of the novel’s end. Not only are D.J. and Tex anxious to get to Vietnam, but their communion with nature and with one another has turned them into “killer brothers”[12] told by God to “Go out and kill—fulfill my will, go and kill.”[20] All of their heightened awareness and purified energy is defined in terms of violence, and the implica­tion is that such powers can be effectively channeled only into killing. In this sense, America’s presence in Vietnam may be seen as the natural outgrowth of the character of the new generation of Americans, represented by the “killer brothers,” D.J. and Tex. Mailer expresses a sym­pathetic understanding of the situation of the young Americans fighting in Vietnam, in The Armies of the Night when he speaks of the

{{quote|very air of the century (this evil twentieth century with its curse on the species, its oppressive Faustian lusts . . . its entrapment of the innocence of the best—for which young American soldiers hot out of high school and in love with a hot rod and his Marine buddies in his platoon in Vietnam could begin to know the devil of the oppression which would steal his soul before he knew he had one. . . .[21]

These young men are not of Rusty’s ilk, but their courage and idealism are misdirected. And D.J. and Tex, though not as innocent and unaware as the hypothetical soldiers Mailer describes, are nonetheless governed by the same “air of the century.” The God who speaks to D.J. and Tex in the Brooks Range and sends them off to kill is “a beast, not a man,”[22] the representative of those “Faustian lusts” of which Mailer speaks.

Thus, although Mailer’s criticism of the American character in Why Are We in Vietnam? is mitigated some­ what by the fact that D.J. and his generation are more honest and courageous than their fathers, they are still governed by the violent tone of our time, and we are still in Vietnam. A very crucial further step will be taken in Mailer’s position less than a year later, in The Armies of the Night. In that book, the best of the younger generation is shown as capable, not merely of rejecting outmoded values in American society, but of courageously combatting the national violence which informs support of the war. Their courage is tested, as Mailer sees it, in a war here at home.

Samuel Holland Hux, toward the close of his discus­sion of Mailer, states: “I would like to see Mailer become the American political novelist. . . ."[23] This was certainly a reasonable hope to have held for the future direction of Mailer’s fiction, considering the novelist’s consistent in­terest in the political climate of America; and Mailer’s work in 1968, The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, certainly fulfill that hope. But Why Are We in Vietnam? seems a rather unfortunate confirma­tion of Hux’s projection. It should be evident from what has been said up to this point that this novel is as much a vehicle of Mailer’s concern with social ills as any of his previous work, perhaps more explicitly so than any. But how effectively is this polemical message presented by the work of art of which it is ostensibly an integral part? Is Mailer’s artistic development, the progressively greater maturity and control that I have been at pains to document, carried further in this novel?

Certainly, Mailer has dealt once again with his re­curring theme of the individual in American society. And D.J., like Rojack, is able to reject much of the falsity of that society. But I do not believe that Mailer has con­tinued, in this book, his progress toward a fresh, essen­tially nonimitative art. His failure here lies, I believe, in the problems of point of view and the novelistic form dictated by it. And central to these problems are the metaphorical patterns established by D.J.

The metaphorical patterns which lace this novel are complex, but a few examples should suffice to show that these are essentially the same as those employed in An American Dream, with minor shifts of emphasis. The con­cept of cancer as a communicable byproduct of inner frustration is transmitted almost intact by Mailer from the mind of Stephen Richards Rojack to that of D.J.:

This ain’t young cunt from which you cop the goods­ this is used cunt, burnt meat, cliff-hanging menopause types which can’t get rid of the poisons by any hole but the pussy hole. . . . they get more out of you in three hours than a new chick emanating happy fucks would elicit in a day and a night. And the tooth and cunters are converting their schizophrenia into cancer juice for you.[24]

And there is a parallel theory involving urination:

Well, this is deep stuff. Excrement is defeat. Liquid excrement otherwise known as You’re-In Spa-ce-man is the defeat which comes from stand-up ventures where you had to wait. Someone talking, and you want to interrupt but you hold your tongue—that makes for piss. Gather near, D.J. tell you why. An impulse once it is frustrated crystallizes the chemicals which had been interacting in order to fuel the move.

• • •

Urine is a pipe running the dissolution of all unheard messages. That’s why people piss like horses at good parties and bad—they are getting uncouth oceanic messages from all over the room: come here, I want to fuck you; go there, I want to kill you. Whoo-ee! That bladder gets full of piss.[25]

The metaphorical emphasis has shifted slightly, so that excretory images are slightly more numerous than sexual ones, whereas in An American Dream the reverse was true. Eliot Fremont-Smith makes some perceptive points about the significance of the fact that “the rhetoric is not genital but anal.”[2] But my point is that this is nothing new in Mailer’s work, and that as old thought in a new book it is highly suspect. The issue is whether this is “courageous” writing, as Fremont-Smith suggests, or merely lazy writing. Concern with anal function in Mailer’s work takes two forms: excretory and sexual. The first has been dealt with in The Presidential Papers, in both a short fictional frag­ment[26] and an interview.[27] Even earlier, in the “Prologue to a Long Novel,” the scatological element was present as a complex and apparently significant metaphor. D.J. says “excrement is defeat.” The very complex theory of de­fecation presented in the three pieces mentioned above states, to oversimplify somewhat, (1) that defecation repre­sents the ultimate in rejection, and (2) that one’s feces reflect, in their contents, our personal failures. It seems, then, that D.J.’s theories on the subject represent no major new thought on Mailer’s part.

Anal intercourse, both heterosexual and homosexual, figures significantly in An American Dream. The latter looms particularly large in the scene between D.J. and Tex alone in the wilderness, toward the end of Why Are We in Vietnam? Consider the following passage, which includes the themes of simultaneous hate and love (for which Mailer is indebted to Freud); the struggle between God and the Devil and one’s commitment (often unclear) to one or the other; and the capacity of the aggressive partner to assimilate the strengths of the passive one through anal intercourse. All of these elements, it should be remembered, are significantly present in parallel scenes in An American Dream:

. . . and D.J. breathing that in by the wide-awake of the dark with Aurora Borealis jumping to the beat of his heart knew he could make a try to prong Tex tonight, there was a chance to get in and steal the iron from Texas' ass[28] and put it in his own and he was hard as a hammer at the thought and ready to give off sparks and Tex was ready to fight him to death, yeah, now it was there, murder between them under all friendship, for God was a beast, not a man, and God said, “Go out and kill—fulfill my will, go and kill,” and they hung there each of them on the knife of the divide in all conflict of lust to own the other yet in fear of being killed by the other and as the hour went by and lights shifted, something in the radiance of the North went into them, and owned their fear, some communion of telepathies and new powers, and they were twins, never to be near as lov­ers again, but killer brothers, owned by something, prince of darkness, lord of light, they did not know. . . .[29]

The question of the validity of these theories and of their effectiveness as metaphor is not at issue here. The issue is whether they are integral to the narrative voice which presents them, or merely scattered irresponsibly and self-indulgently through the book by the author. It seems reasonable that a system of perceptions originating from and characterizing a forty-three-year-old Professor of Existential Psychology who has just killed his wife cannot be accepted with equal credibility as the original thought of an eighteen-year-old Texan, no matter what degree of peculiarly American identity they may share.[30]

What sort of narrative voice is D.J.? The book jacket and some of the reviews call him a genius, and compare him to Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. As for D.J.’s being a genius, it must be so, for he tells us himself early and often. The genius label, meant to be taken quite seriously, seems to be no more than an attempt on Mailer’s part to make the many long digressions (on such topics as existentialism and mass media, as well as urine and can­cer) acceptable as part of D.J.’s consciousness. It is also meant to make more credible the fantastic rate and scope of D.J.’s name dropping. This habit is, in fact, the direct source of the currently popular parallels drawn by book reviewers to Holden and Huck. For D.J. has, early in the book, suggested these earlier narrators as possibly com­parable to himself, then immediately dismissed them as inferior. The tone is offensively sneering, intentionally so. For D.J., as a genius, but still a tough outdoorsman and stud who “sees through shit,” can knowledgeably drop a name (such as, Marshall McLuhan, Soren Kierkegaard) and dismiss it immediately with a knowing sneer at both the reader and the name.

Perhaps D.J. can afford such sneers. Mailer, as the consciousness behind the narrator (which he all too evi­dently is) certainly cannot. This becomes an important issue in terms of the aesthetic form of the novel. D.J. makes references to James Joyce and William Burroughs, upon the latter of which he bestows a rare approval. Mailer seems unwilling to allow either his narrator or his novel’s form to stand on their own merits and themselves to elicit comparisons from critics. Instead, using a clumsy device, he suggests parallels to other novels, implying first the acceptability of this work because of its literary forbears, and then its superiority to them. The repeated mention of Burroughs serves another purpose as well. D.J. admits to being on pot, and later hints at the fact that it may be acid or horse instead. The admission that the narrative line is conditioned by marijuana, LSD or heroin would make more credible the rambling irrelevance of much of the text, but it is also suspect as an easy rationalization for a sloppy book “written in a great hurry.”[31] The parallel to Burroughs has a great deal of validity, that to Joyce almost none. Mailer has taken the license granted by the stream­-of-consciousness form but abandoned any pretense of economy. Because D.J.’s ideas themselves seem lifted from An American Dream rather than proceeding as the natural outgrowth of a new narrative voice, it does not seem reasonable to assume that the unchecked narrative style is a carefully purposeful one. No matter what he would have us believe, Mailer has not retained even a semblance of the control which distinguishes the work of Joyce.

Besides the references to Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye and to the work of Joyce and Bur­roughs, I have cited certain parallels in plot and theme to particular works of Hemingway and Faulkner. Consider­able stress has been laid throughout this study on the derivative quality of Mailer’s early work, and the im­portance of his attempts to divorce himself from such influence. It is all too easy to conclude, from the sloppi­ness of style and form, and the use of secondhand themes and metaphors, that these literary analogues represent a return by Mailer to the easy, secure method of imitation, but without the admirable qualities of originality and careful limitation of form to be found in The Naked and the Dead. Why Are We in Vietnam? is lazy rather than courageous writing. Although at the time of this writing at least one reviewer sees the book as praiseworthy pri­marily because its form is an effective vehicle for its message, precisely the opposite is true.[32]

The most intelligent reading of Why Are We in Viet­nam? of which I am aware at present is the article (men­tioned earlier) by John W. Aldridge. Nonetheless, his is a position with which I am in substantial disagreement. Mr. Aldridge explains at the outset that Mailer draws the basis of his story line from earlier American novels, but goes on to state that the book is made fresh and effective by the use of D.J. as narrative voice. This judgment is precisely antithetical to my own, although I am in accord with many of Aldridge’s perceptions about the intended func­tion of D.J. in the novel. The distinction I would like to draw is this: while I agree with Aldridge that the novel succeeds or fails in proportion to the effectiveness of D.J. as its narrative voice, I feel that that voice is a failure, a cop-out rather than a breakthrough. Mr. Aldridge has succinctly and incisively struck to the heart of what Mailer intended to do in this novel; but I think he has confused intention with execution. Mailer gets credit for yardage, but no touchdown.

One aspect of the narrative voice in this novel must be discussed further: the Negro alter-ego through which D.J. periodically addresses the reader. Two passages may be necessary to make clear the nature of this other identity. These passages, although cut away from the far less relevant material which surrounds them, also provide an hon­est representation of the style and tone of the intro beeps. The last passage is the very end of the novel.

Or maybe I’m a Spade and writing like a Shade. For every Spade is the Shade of the White Man, and when we die we enter their mind, we are part of the Shade. And when Spades die?—well, that depends on how you dig Niggers you white ass chiggers says D.J. Come on now, says D.J., what if I’m not the white George Hamilton rich dear son of Dallas, Texas, and Halle­lujah ass but am instead black as your hole after you eat licorice and chew black cherries, what then, what if I’m some genius brain up in Harlem pretending to write a white man’s fink fuck book in revenge. . . . So you can’t know if I’m true-blue Wasp-ass Texas even if I know. . . .[33]

. . . tomorrow Tex and me, we’re off to see the wizard in Vietnam. Unless, that is, I’m a black-ass cripple Spade and sending from Harlem. You never know. You never know what vision has been humping you through the night. So, ass-head America contemplate your butt. Which D.J. white or black could possibly be worse of a genius if Harlem or Dallas is guiding the other, and who knows which? This is D.J., Disc Jockey to America turning off. Vietnam, hot damn.[3]

Several possible purposes are suggested by this device. The schizophrenic narrator may be seen as another re­verberation of the Jekyll-Hyde motif established by the D.J.-Tex Hyde fusion. On another level, the split in D.J.’s personality may reflect the fact that the parallel issues of the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement have polarized the country. This polarity may be even more explicitly emphasized by the antithetical political climates of D.J.’s Texas (home of the Rustys and scene of President Kennedy’s assassination) and the nameless Negro’s New York (with its vocal liberal establishment).

In An American Dream, Rojack derived much of his strength from the Negro race as represented by Shago Mar­tin, Prince of Harlem. Insofar as D.J. is to be seen as representative of the new American generation, Mailer may be making a similar statement here. His implication may be that much of the strength and motivation of D.J.’s generation to reject the old values is to be drawn from the anger of the Negro youth. Such a parallel is reinforced by Mailer’s portrait of Rusty, in which he implies (as he often has in previous works) that white bigotry has a basis in fear of the sexual supremacy of the Negro. Since D.J., too, presents a sexual threat to Rusty (particularly in the Oedipal scene mentioned above), this may be seen as a function of his Negro (and, by implication, potent) half.

If these are Mailer’s intentions, the presence of the Negro alter-ego is more than a puckish whim. But I don’t think the author succeeds here in establishing reader credibility in the world of his novel. The presence of Mailer himself in the novel is, unfortunately, more pal­pable than that of the nameless Negro. Perhaps the most reasonable view is to see the Negro narrator as a metaphor for Mailer himself, a hip consciousness standing behind D.J., critical of Texas values and writing from New York.

In his earlier novels (particularly The Deer Park and An American Dream), Mailer compromised the ambition to write a massive, loosely controlled work by limiting himself to a more modest form in which his considerable talent could be brought effectively and powerfully to bear. In his latest novel, he seems to have forsaken both high ambition and control. Yet when one reads of the ambitious goal he set himself in Advertisements for Myself it is tempting to slough Why Are We in Vietnam? off as a temporary pause in the development of his fiction. Speak­ing in Advertisements of a projected major novel, Mailer predicts:

The book will be fired to its fuse by the rumor that once I pointed to the farthest fence and said that within ten years I would try to hit the longest ball ever to go up into the accelerated hurricane air of our American letters. For if I have one ambition above all others, it is to write a novel which Dos­toyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tol­stoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even old moldering Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way.[34]

The ten years are almost up, and that ambitious project has not materialized. Although at the time of this writing Mailer has recouped substantial critical recognition as a result of The Armies of the Night, the period immediately following the publication of Why Are We in Vietnam? saw critics divided in their estimates of his current worth. Perhaps the most perceptive and sane position of those set forth in the early reviews of Why Are We in Vietnam? is that of Granville Hicks. Hicks, too, looks back to Adver­tisements for Myself and remarks caustically and sadly upon the fact that the latest novel falls so far below the potential of Mailer’s talent. He goes on to say:

Why do we—why do I—go on bothering with Norman Mailer? Not merely because he once had talent but because he still has it. There are passages in this book that nobody else could have written—as well as pas­ sages that, I hope, nobody else would have written. . . . Mailer has grown a great deal in power of lan­guage since he wrote The Naked and the Dead.

• • •

After the success, critical and financial, of The Naked and the Dead, he felt that he had been, so to speak, nominated for the presidency. He wanted to be and believed that he could be not only the best novelist of his generation but a decisive influence on genera­tions to come. . . . If he had been able and willing to do the best he could, without worrying about being President, he might have made a contribution to American letters commensurate with his abilities.[35]

Such constructive concern with Mailer’s tendency to waste his talent shows a sympathy on Hicks’ part which is not paralleled by any of the other critics who recognize the novel’s failure. Those publications whose political lean­ings favored administrative policy in Vietnam treated Why Are We in Vietnam? as an obscene and offensive book of no serious merit. And one New York critic evinced the most cavalier attitude of all to Mailer’s work, in a re­view which (by several glaring factual errors bearing upon crucial elements of the plot) betrayed a blatantly careless reading of the text.

This same critic concluded his review with a state­ment which implied that An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? were of a kind, and were both failures. Perhaps it is time that Mailer’s novels were read more closely, and that a qualitative distinction were drawn between those which fail, like Why Are We in Vietnam? and those which succeed but pose more critical problems than most readers feel they are worth. It is my contention that An American Dream is a more commendable and significant novel than any other Mailer has yet written, including The Naked and the Dead. In it, narrative stance, metaphorical patterns and a highly personal existential vision are integrally combined to effect an artistic state­ment which is exceedingly relevant to the life of every thinking American.[36] It is the lack of such integration upon which the failure of Why Are We in Vietnam? ultimately rests. Although the latter novel’s political mes­sage is a valid and justly well-received one, its artistic value is small. Its system of metaphor is too little changed from that in An American Dream to be rendered integral to its entirely different fictional situation and narrator.

Mailer has admitted the considerable difficulty which point of view caused him in the early novels. The achieve­ment of considerable control over a first person narrator (and concomitantly over a formal structure integral to him) in An American Dream seemed to imply that he had overcome this problem. But narrative voice and structural form in Why Are We in Vietnam? are clumsy and not credibly linked. Nevertheless, this novel represents no more than a momentary lapse in Mailer’s progress. The two works of nonfiction which immediately follow it, The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, are highly controlled narratives, structured much like novels. These books are very much an outgrowth of Mailer’s fiction, but they are also largely influenced by his earlier nonfiction works; and it is these to which we must first turn if we are fully to appreciate the significance of Mailer’s most recent work.

Notes

  1. Mailer 1967, jacket flap.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Fremont-Smith 1967, p. 37.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Mailer 1967, p. 208.
  4. This book is significantly rife with parallels and references to the works of other authors.
  5. Mailer 1967, p. 62.
  6. Mailer 1967, p. 65.
  7. Mailer 1967, p. 60.
  8. Mailer 1967, pp. 106–107.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Mailer 1967, p. 121.
  10. Mailer 1967, p. 99.
  11. Mailer 1967, pp. 145–147.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Mailer 1967, p. 204.
  13. Mailer 1967, p. 49.
  14. Mailer 1967, pp. 179—180.
  15. Mailer 1968, p. 47.
  16. Mailer 1968, p. 79.
  17. Mailer 1968, p. 201.
  18. Mailer 1968, p. 49.
  19. Aldridge 1968, p. 47.
  20. Mailer 1967, p. 203.
  21. Mailer 1968, p. 114.
  22. Mailer 1967, p. 28.
  23. Hux 1965, p. 210.
  24. Mailer 1967, p. 156.
  25. Mailer 1967, p. 151.
  26. Mailer 1963, p. 271.
  27. Mailer 1963, p. 277.
  28. Not only does Tex’s last name, Hyde, complement D.J.’s Dr. Jekyll, but his first name, in the context quoted here, seems to imply that he is the incarnation of the state of Texas, from which D.J. hopes to draw strength (“steal the iron”).
  29. Mailer 1967, pp. 203–204.
  30. In fairness, I must quote a remark from Armies of the Night which may bear upon this (p. 9): “Mailer had never had a particular age—he carried different ages with him like different models of his experience: parts of him were eighty-one years old, fifty-seven, forty-eight, thirty-six, nineteen, etcetera [My italics].” D.J. may very well be a valid representative, to Mailer, of the teen-aged part of his mind. This may help us understand why Mailer chose this narrator, but I don’t think it makes D.J. any more credible or integral to the metaphorical patterns of the novel.
  31. Quoted by Fremont-Smith 1967, p. 37. Mailer makes a further point of the fact that the book was written in four months in his interview with himself which accompanies the review of the novel in The New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1967. Although this seems offered as an apology for the novel, the author states in the same interview that it is “certainly the 200 pages least alienated from genius” of all his work; and later, “I do not know if I love the new novel or am indifferent to it.” Ultimately, of course, the book’s worth must be determined by a study of the text itself, but the author’s own apparent vacillation in his feeling for it may be symptomatic of the uneven quality of the work: the discrepancy between the valid political statement it makes and the less valid formal structure which carries it.
  32. Kroll 1967, pp. 100–101.
  33. Mailer 1967, p. 26.
  34. Mailer 1959, p. 477.
  35. Hicks 1967, p. 40.
  36. It must be admitted that even Granville Hicks, in the excellent review quoted above, refers to An American Dream as “an absurd and badly written book,” and states that Mailer prefers “to describe the novel as a potboiler.” Nonetheless, in his interview with himself (dealt with above) Mailer says: “I did An American Dream in installments because I was in debt and had to make a small fortune in a hurry. That didn’t make it a bad book. I think it’s my best book. I confess I still believe sentence for sentence An American Dream is one of the better written books in the language.”

Works Cited

  • Aldridge, John W. (February 1968). "From Vietnam to Obscenity". Harper's Magazine. 236.
  • Fremont-Smith, Eliot (September 8, 1967). "Norman Mailer's Cherry Pie". The New York Times. CXVI.
  • Hicks, Granville (September 16, 1967). "Lark in Race for Presidency". Saturday Review. L.
  • Hux, Samuel Holland (1965). American Myth and Existential Vision: The Indigenous Existentialism of Mailer, Bellow, Styron and Ellison (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Connecticut.
  • Kroll, Jack (September 18, 1967). "The Scrambler". Newsweek. LXX.
  • Mailer, Norman (1959). Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
  • — (1968). The Armies of the Night. New York: The New American Library.
  • — (1963). The Presidential Papers. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.
  • — (1967). Why Are We in Vietnam?. New York: G. P. Putnum's Sons.