Book Review: Advertisements for Democracy — Norman Mailer’s Anti-Fascist Eloquence
By Peter Keough
Guns, anti-Semitism, paranoid conspiracy theories — it never gets old.
A Mysterious Country: The Grace and Fragility of American Democracy by Norman Mailer, edited by J. Michael Lennon and John Buffalo Mailer. Arcade, 336 pages, $24.66 (hardcover).
Are we ready for the return of Norman Mailer, the centenary of whose birth was on January 31? Could the once preeminent American writer, filmmaker, activist, and pundit, who died in 2017 at 84, be about to enter his second (or perhaps third or fourth) act? Though his cultural impact and stature have waned over the years and his reputation as a misogynist has never fully recovered from the 1960 stabbing of his second wife, could this — to paraphrase the titles of his 1998 anthology and his infamous 1959 short story about the transformative powers of anal intercourse — be the time of Norman Mailer’s time?
So would argue his son John Buffalo Mailer and his biographer J. Michael Lennon in their collection of the late author’s pronouncements about his rocky love affair with the American system of government. And indeed this era of moronic MAGA rantings, of rampant hypocrisy, shameless mendacity, malignant racism, anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, and arrogant ignorance calls out for the kind of fiery vitriol and inspired diatribe that fills this volume. Beginning with a scene from his sensationally successful first novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), in which a general demonstrates fascism in practice by humiliating a subordinate, and culminating with a note from Herman Göring that Mailer unearthed while researching his last novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), these texts examine the many ways the ideal of democracy has been subverted by the allure of totalitarianism.
But the best comes from the middle of the pack — the ’60s to ’70s when Mailer toned down his pompous philosophizing and focused on acerbic and sometimes hilarious observational political reporting leavened by genuinely stirring proclamations in an Old Testament prophetic mode. Even the titles of the books had an apocalyptic ring to them, such as The Armies of the Night (1968) — though its subtitle History as a Novel/The Novel as History demonstrates Mailer’s orotund inability to let well enough alone. A first-person account related in the third person (a stylistic crotchet Mailer would repeatedly draw on in subsequent works to sometimes annoying effect) of his participation in the 1967 anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington DC, the volume captures something timeless in the American character in this description of a US Marshal:
…he just hated the sheer Jew York presumption of that slovenly, drug-ridden weak contaminating America-hating army of termites … he was full of American rectitude…and savage, savage as the exhaust left in the wake of a motorcycle club…yeah, this Marshal loved action, but he was in that no man’s land between the old frontier and the new ranch home – as they, yes they—the enemies of the Marshal – tried to pass bills to limit the purchase of hunting rifles, so did they try to kill America…
Guns, anti-Semitism, paranoid conspiracy theories — it never gets old.
Unfortunately, these days we don’t have anyone of the caliber of a Mailer — or a Hunter S. Thompson, or a Gore Vidal — to counter the madness with ruthless mockery. The art of invective is just another American institution that Trump and the MAGA crowd have devalued, reducing it to repeated puerile taunts and name calling. But Mailer could be a master of it, as with his descriptions of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention: “…he radiated…the skinny boyish sincerity of a fellow who wears glasses but is determined to have a good time…he had indeed the mind of a powerful freshman…” Almost endearing. More sinister, though, are his followers:
…the worst of these workers looked like divinity students who had been expelled from the seminary for embezzling class funds and still felt they were nearest to J.C. – there was a dark blank fanaticism in their eyes…And the best of the Goldwater professionals…[had] the lean flat look of the hunter, full of moral indignation and moral vacuity.
Most ominous, though, are the bagpipes:
…this was the true music of the Wasps. There was something wild and martial and bottomless in the passion, a pride which would not be exhausted…the Faustian rage of a white civilization…the cry of a race which was born to dominate and might never learn to share, and never learning, might be willing to end the game, the end of the world was in the sound of the pipes.
Nearly 60 years later, the pipes are still calling.
Devastatingly acute as he was as an observer and satirist, Mailer also aspired to punditry, with mixed results. For decades he warned that racial divisions would spark civil war and the rise of totalitarianism. The hostile energy aroused by the Cold War lost direction when the Soviet Union collapsed, he explained, and was turned inward — he compared it to iron filings that lose direction when the magnets are removed — and would break out into open conflict between the races. He even wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton in 1992 suggesting that Bill should “dedicate [and] consecrate the next four years to bringing whites and blacks…together.” When he perceived that, after being elected President, Clinton had dropped that plank and pushed instead a watered down agenda of minute progressive fixes, Mailer denounced him for his “boutique politics.”
But he himself balked at the specter of a Black uprising. In his account of the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) he complained that “he was getting tired of Negro rights and Black Power — every black riot was … pushing him to the point where he might have to throw his vote in with the revolution – what a tedious perspective of prisons and law courts and worse.”
Oddly, for someone so dismayed by the prospect of totalitarianism, he promoted as a solution to that threat one of the key elements of fascism — a charismatic leader. Someone who, as he explains in his 1960 Esquire essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” could tap into “that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation…[A] hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradictions and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people.”
He saw John F. Kennedy, the subject of that essay, as filling that role. JFK was murdered. Then he anointed John’s brother Robert; he, too, was murdered. After that he found the pickings slim. Eugene McCarthy he saw as “the dean of the finest English department in the land,” but not as a President. Then he started getting flaky. Clint Eastwood? Warren Beatty? Patrick Buchanan?
Perhaps he was fortunate that he did not see that dream candidate turn into the nightmare of the Trump Presidency. But he also did not live long enough to see Barack Obama elected in 2008. Since Mailer was a supporter of Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the ’80s, one wonders if that milestone might have delivered to him the “time of his time.”
Mailer had the clarity to foresee much of what was to come, and also to realize that the future was for the most part dark and unshaped and unknowable. “What a curiosity is our Democracy, what a mystery,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 1974 at the height of Watergate a few months before Nixon resigned. “No novelist unwinds a narrative that well.”
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Even in our moribund times there is a tiny space for racy, lively journalism. Thanks, Peter, for a most enjoyable read.
J. Michael Lennon
Many thanks — for your perceptive review.