Norman Mailer: Tough Fights

By Bill Marx and Harvey Blume

I was asked by National Public Radio’s Morning Edition to write an appreciation of the late Norman Mailer. I have posted an unabridged version of this necessarily short piece. After that, I have placed an interview Harvey Blume had with Mailer after the publication of his 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer attends a lecture entitled ‘The 20th Century on Trial’ at the New York Public Library, Wednesday, June 27, 2007, in New York.

Norman Mailer was the wayward pugilist of American writing, a self-proclaimed heavyweight. In interviews, Mailer would often pit his books against the works of his contemporaries and even Tolstoy and Hemingway. He refereed these fights for literary immortality, and he awarded himself a golden glove. But Mailer threw a lot of wild punches. He occasionally wrote too much too fast. Some of his books are more ego than artistry. For Mailer, nothing less than the Great American Novel would do. That meant everything got Big: over the past decades he ground out thousand-page tomes about Egyptian pharaohs and the CIA clotted with eccentric musings about sex, violence, religion, and politics.

But Mailer’s allegiance to excess brought some impressive rewards. He examined as well as anyone America’s obsession with power in all its forms. From his first novel The Naked and the Dead to this year’s The Castle in the Forest the forces of good and evil, control and desire, and sex and death power up and duke it out. And he helped invent New Journalism in Armies of the Night, in which he was a combination existential kibitzer and reporter eying an antiwar march on the Pentagon in 1967.

The prerogatives of power so fascinated Mailer that, at times, it was hard to figure out whether he was on the side of the exploiter or the exploited. He enjoyed, perhaps too much, the anti-social mystique of rebels and criminals. His empathy for transgression sometimes slid into a facile nihilism. The sixties brought some of his worst amoral posturing. Mailer’s novel An American Dream suggested that violence brings with it a kind of spiritual grace. His determination to stay on top of the cultural pecking order also produced a lot of nonsense in and out of his fiction, including his public feuds with other writers, especially feminists.

Ironically, Mailer excelled when he balanced rather than brawled his way through the extremes of American life. He picked up on the on the faultlines in American culture, from puritanism to promiscuity, spirituality to materialism. At his best, as in 1979’s The Executioner’s Song, Mailer was not driven by ego alone. His generation assumed that literature plays an important role in the larger culture. What novelists said had the power to make a difference. Norman Mailer may have abused the privilege, but his career is a valuable reminder of that now anachronistic belief.

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer

Oswald was a secret agent. There is no doubt about that. The only matter unsettled is whether he was working for any service larger than the power centers in the privacy of his mind.

From Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery

When I spoke to Norman Mailer re Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, I was one of three interviewers going at him. One wanted to know about Mailer’s marriages and his love life. Another wanted tips about how to stack the books up against each other; he wanted help structuring the Mailer canon. (What I wanted from Mailer is evident enough in the interview). Mailer had no problem granting three unrelated interviews simultaneously. We all got lots of what we came for.

As I read my interview with Mailer now, it occurs to me that something he said about Oswald applied to him. “Oswald,” Mailer said, “was always a bell-shaped curve, always all of a bell-shaped curve. In any activity he engages in you can see him at his worst, you can see him at his best, and there’s very little similarity.”

However true that may be about Oswald, it was profoundly true about Mailer. In his life, in his works — and even, sometimes in individual works — Mailer was a great bell curve, spanning vast distances between terrific and abysmal, exemplary and embarrassing.

The interview was the only time I met him but as a writer, an activist, and a personality Mailer had been part of my life for decades. He was a figure — and a force — to reckon with. I mourn and will miss him.

— Harvey Blume

HB: It’s important to you, in Oswald’s Tale, to see Oswald as something more than “a snarling little wife abuser.” You write, “If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”

Again and again in Oswald’s Tale, you equate that absurdity with postmodernism.

NM: I hate postmodernism.

HB:So if you can invest Oswald with some size, you’ve won a round against it.

NM: Let me reverse it for a moment. What is the passion everyone has to have him small, essentially meaningless, a non-entity? For instance, there was a fairly good review of Oswald’s Tale in the Sunday Times Book Review and then, at the end, the reviewer says, Mailer’s dead wrong about Oswald as a tragic figure; he’s a cockroach.There’s a passion there, a passion to see Oswald small.

I would ask why you have a strong feeling that you don’t want him bigger?

HB: I don’t have that feeling. My gut feeling is, I don’t know who killed President Kennedy and that postmodernism could be defined, in a phrase, as 30 years of not knowing who killed your President or why, not really being sure.

It occurred to me that’s what drew you. If you could get to the bottom of that question, maybe you could put to rest all the uncertainties that spread out from it.

NM: I’m not sure that was my motive. I had mixed motives, one of them to learn more about the KGB because I wanted that for “Harlot’s Ghost”. But I also had been absolutely obsessed with Oswald. For 30 years I had been a conspiratorialist. I’d read a lot of the literature over the years; I’d lived with it.

HB: You reviewed Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment when it came out in 1963.

NM: I gave it a good review. I was terribly suspicious of the whole thing. The more I got to know about the CIA the more I began to understand that with the exception of the Bay of Pigs they really did very few things from the top. They even quarantined the Bay of Pigs so not all the top knew what was going on at the same time. It seemed to me it was beyond their measure to plot the assassination of President Kennedy from the top. Probably there were enclaves in the CIA; if anybody would have done it, it would have been enclaves.

HB: You portray Oswald as a single man facing the bureaucracies of capitalism and a failed communism. He has a vision; he’s deeply idealistic, willing to take it all on, willing to be a terrorist against it all.

NM: He is that. He’s a great many other things as well. That’s the side of him that’s boldest. He’s also the failed husband, the bad worker, the man who can’t spell. He’s a complex figure.

We have to look at Oswald under three possibilities, as for instance when he’s alone in Dallas during those weeks where nobody knew where he was. Either he’s being trained as some sort of agent for an intelligence organization or he’s having a homosexual affair or he’s so sick of all the pressures he’s been under he’s just holing up to have time to think. We have to keep all three possibilities in mind as we move forward.

One of the reasons you write–you write for many reasons–but one of the reasons you write is to learn more about writing. And what I learned is that you can do this and your character becomes more alive. Giving him three possible motivations, all different, didn’t blur him; it rounded him in an odd way. And I realized that’s the way we look at all our friends. Most of the time–with friends, mates, children, enemies–we don’t think they’re doing it for A or for reasons; they’re doing it for some reason in the middle we haven’t found yet.

HB: You clean up the spelling and syntax that results from Oswald’s dyslexia. Do you give him your syntax? Is this a sign of identification with him?

NM: No, I gave him my assistant’s syntax. She’s a very intelligent woman and I gave her specific instructions: don’t improve him, just clean him up. There were spots where she was unsure what to do and we’d discuss it.

I didn’t want to give him a style he didn’t deserve. A member of my family who is very bright had dyslexia so I had a certain personal feeling there.

HB: As the book proceeds, conspiracy theory falls away and the lone gunman becomes more likely and more comprehensible, at least so far as
character goes.

NM: When I started studying Oswald I was surprised at how ballsy he was. When a guy’s got guts, I never look upon him as a non-entity. We all know that guts are the hardest single thing for a man to have. It’s just not routine. It’s in disrepute now because machismo is scoffed at.

He was a gambler at a high stakes table, at the least. He’s betting that everything he reads in the papers and everything he hears in the media about the Soviet Union being a terrible place is wrong. That’s a very large bet. You’re betting with your life.

Once he’s over there, my astonishment is that he’s a pathetic figure. He reminded me of myself in Paris at the age of 23. Can’t speak the language–thought I could and now I can’t. No, I didn’t stay in my hotel room but that indicates to me just how terrified he was. He used all his courage to get there and then he collapses.

Slowly, he regains his courage over a couple of years. He becomes repelled by life in the Soviet Union and decides he wants to go back. And he takes on both bureaucracies. That’s not a small business; he takes on both bureaucracies, and he succeeds. He’s at his most adroit there because he understands bureaucracies, understands their fear of getting caught with something they can’t handle.

That took more than ordinary stick-to-itiveness. It took him a year to get back, a year and a half, writing letters all the time, keeping up the pressure. Then he gets back and takes a potshot at General Walker. He goes out in an alley at night facing a John Bircher who might well have people guarding the house. He’s got guts.

HB: Is Oswald’s Tale the continuation of Harlot’s Ghost?

NM: Oswald’s Tale is not the continuation.

HB: It will be a novel, then, that fulfills the promise of those last words — “to be continued?”

NM: I made the promise. Let’s see if I can keep it. It’s hard writing a novel.

I’ve been writing about fights all my life. I’ve finally come to understand old fighters. I know why old fighters don’t like tough fights. They kill you. They really age you. At the end of it, their bodies have taken a beating from which they won’t finally recover.Writing is like that, writing fiction. Too much anxiety just eats up your guts. I mean there are a great many benefits to it but you pay a physical price.

Fiction’s got a lot of virtues for me nonfiction doesn’t have. It’s more interesting, more exciting, chancier. It’s like grace, like falling in love. You can’t say I’m going to fall in love next year. You can say next year I’m going to write a book of nonfiction about this or that. I can choose a nonfiction book, decide I want to do it, and do it. The odds are very much in my favor that I’ll finish that book.

With fiction, you can start with a marvelous idea and it comes apart. Your characters can disappoint you, disappear on you. It’s scary because on a given day you can wreck the book. It’s a high-wire act. When you have a good book, anxiety increases.

HB: You give Oswald powerful language on the day of the assassination: “Will he have the courage to fire his rifle and will he shoot well? Everything else, including the mounting temper of excitement in the crowds outside the Book Depository, has no more presence for him than the murmur of a passer-by. Stationed within himself, he has now descended to those depths where one waits for final judgment.”

That could have been about a fighter–or, in your terms, a writer.

NM: I thought if he was going to succeed at that point, it was because he would transcend himself.

Oswald was always a bell-shaped curve, always all of a bell-shaped curve. In any activity he engages in you can see him at his worst, you can see him at his best, and there’s very little similarity. So I rather like the idea that he can miss a rabbit from ten feet with a shotgun and yet can pull off a couple of those rounds. That was his nature. The best of him and the worst of him were very far apart.

That doesn’t mean you feel a deep affection for the guy. You don’t. The hardest thing with Oswald is to feel affection for him of any sort. It was part of the problem in writing about him.

HB: Why did he keep a journal? What was a journal to him?

NM: He kept a diary and I found it meager–not terribly interesting and not well-written. There’s a lot of reason to believe he wrote that diary in a relatively short time–a couple of days or a week–a long time after the events. It has the ring of somebody summarizing events some time later.

HB: Why did he do that?

NM: He may have taken some notes because he was thinking of writing articles when he came back to America, and may have decided the way to
break into print was with a diary; it’s exactly the kind of thing a newspaper would print.

HB: You call him an intellectual.

NM: I don’t call him a good intellectual. He was a mediocre intellectual. But at the age of 24, he was writing stuff that wasn’t bad. His stuff on the Soviet Union, cleaned up, is readable. It’s nothing remarkable but I’ve read feature stories that were less interesting. Let’s say he was somewhere between a 23-year-old feature writer for a newspaper and an intellectual. I call him an intellectual because he did do some of his own thinking and his thinking was very important to him. Finally, if there’s anything positive about him, it’s that thought was so important to him.

HB: It isolated him.

NM: isolated him very much because nobody could understand him. It isolated him specifically because the entire Russian community in Texas was opposed to him, and of course, being down in the South at that point wasn’t exactly the place to be radical. On top of that, he just made people nervous with his air of political superiority.

HB: Let me come back to this question of postmodernism. You inveigh against it. But you were a pioneer of the nonfiction novel. You have crossed genre boundaries numerous times throughout your career. Now the New York Times doesn’t know whether to classify a given work of history as fiction or nonfiction. That, to me, is a sign of postmodernism, and you have helped bring it about.

NM: The reason I’m looking quizzical is you have a slightly different notion of postmodernism than I do. My idea of postmodernism is that you mix strawberries with mustard. In other words, the idea is that whatever you mix is interesting. And I think it’s because of a huge breakdown in values that finally the only way you can get a frisson any longer is to try something new, even though there’s not a hell of a lot of logic to it viscerally.

I was interested in breaking down a lot of those barriers because I felt there was much too much pomposity attached to the categories. Now you can say that’s a postmodernist impulse.

HB: I would.

NM: In that sense I’m a postmodernist.

HB: Despite yourself.

NM: Malgre moi!

HB: Exactly.

NM: All right. I always thought I was doing it to restore dignity to–I’m being pretty pompous myself–modernity. In other words, let’s not pretend that history has a sanctity the novel does not have. History is also fiction. I realized that with Armies of the Night. Anything anyone ever writes is fiction — having written all my life I know how impossible it is ever to be accurate. You mislead people by the act of writing. The hope is also that you spur their imagination, that they can find their particular misperceptions of reality to be better misperceptions of reality than they had before.

HB: So you would say the line between fiction and nonfiction is less thick than was assumed.

NM: Most people think of it as a Berlin Wall. On the contrary, it’s a barely marked boundary. I love working back and forth on either side of the boundary; I like being a range-rider on that line.

HB: Did you see the part of the book set in the Soviet Union as your chance to write a Russian novel, spanning great vistas of time and space, showing what it was like to live under Stalin, to fear him, to resist?

NM: I didn’t think ever that it was going to be my Russian novel because I knew that material was going to run out. I had just so much of that material and finally the emphasis was going to go from there to Oswald. But I wanted to locate Oswald in a milieu and structurally what I found interesting was to have him appear almost as a minor figure, somewhat mysterious and shadowy, in that milieu, then take the story forward and back in time.

HB: You write big books. Do you feel the novel has to be big to have impact?

NM: The reverse is true. Everywhere I go now, booksellers, publishers say, why don’t you write a short book. From top to bottom it’s all “do a short one.” Booksellers’ attitude is, short books take up less space on the shelves. Marketing has taken over writing now. The whole idea of a book is in the marketing. Big books are a luxury, an indulgence.

I was convinced at an early age by Thomas Mann who said, only the exhaustive is really interesting.

(First appeared in The Boston Book Review, Vol.2 #8, 1995)

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