…the moment i made Mailer think he met his match in madness.
The one thing that troubles me in the posthumous discussion of Norman Mailer’s work is the widespread dismissal of what I believe was his finest work of fiction An American Dream.
Personally I was more a fan of Mailer’s non-fiction than his fiction. I recall the excitement I felt reading the original Harper’s version of The Armies of the Night in college and thinking I’d never read anything a magazine story that fused intellect and style so excitingly. And I thought The Executioner’s Song whether it called itself fiction or non fiction was a, if not the Great American Novel.
(Here’s something I wrote fairly recently for the New York Observer about Mailer’s influence and his idiosyncratic theology, which I think was at the heart of all his work.)
But the only unequivocally fictional novel I felt that kind of excitement about, the only one that truly transcended his novelistic work was that feverish Dream. To me it’s the one novel in which the dark side of Mailer’s psyche fused in a perfect mind meld with the dark underside of the American psyche.
It’s a novel about a wife-murderer who was an army buddy of John F. Kennedy and embodies the underside of the Camelot myth. One in which the wife-murder and its aftermath expose a phantasmagoric confluence of American demons. The way, fifteen years later, the extended investigations of the Kennedy assassination brought to light the Kennedy, CIA and Mafia collaboration in attempts to assassinate Castro.
CIA and the Mafia in bed with each other, and the Kennedys! Long before this unholy conjugation was exposed, indeed while it was happening, Mailer made this nexus the hidden heart of his Dream. Throw in sex, race, violence and rage and it fuses into a dizzying spiral of self-lacerating American nightmare.
Part of the reason for its unfair dismissal were the circumstances of its publication: in serial form in Esquire, in installments that ran from September 1963- to November 1964. He “churned it out” as one dismissive obiturist put it. An utterly obtuse dismissal by someone I suspect had not read the novel recently if ever.
And it’s not like great novels have not been written in serial form. There was this fellow Dickens for instance.
But the method of of publication is irrelevant to the final product which to me was Mailer’s most electrifying, compressed, visionary embodiment of his mind at the height of its powers and the depths of its psychotic vulnerability.
But there’s more than that to it. There’s an uncanny side. A “witchy” side to it to use a Mailerism in the novel. The prophetic element. And not just the JFK, CIA, M.O..B. nexus.
There’s the plumbers reference. The fatal post marital fight which results in the murder is climaxed by Mailer and the wife trading vicious sexual insults involving a kinky practice the wife says one of her lovers described as usually found only in Mexican whorehouses performed by specialists known as “plumbers”.
It’s fairly clear that what is being spoken of barely euphemistically is sometimes metaphorically known as “the Devil’s kiss”, the kiss required of witches by His Satanic Majesty.
In any case in earlier versions of the novel (it was later mysteriously elided) the phrase “plumber” was used for its practitioners.
This was ten years before Watergate. And when it turned out that the most serious crimes of Watergate iinvolved Nixon’s use of what became known as the “plumbers’ squad”, I thought to myself”: this is too strange. Is Mailer aware of this?
And so the next time I saw him (I knew him casually from Village Voice connections) at some crowded, gin soaked lit crowd party, I accosted him and asked him. Didn’t he think it was weird about the spookily prophetic elements of the Dream: JFK, CIA, Mob and now…plumbers!
He looked at me like I was slightly mad. he didn’t say anything to encourage me. He’d always been friendly but suddenly he seemed a little uncomfortable, sort of changed the subject quickly.
I had the feeling that I’d managed to do achieve something rare: say something too crazy for Norman Mailer. I felt proud. And I still think there’s something strange about it all.
Mailer had his faults, but some of the things he said, about the Holocaust and nuclear war unleashing the psychopath in the American psyche for instance, were insightful. And sometimes visionaries are so in synch with the undercurrents of things that it’s perhaps not surprising that they seem to anticipate the future. In an imaginative if not psychic way.
And then, when I went back to American Dream when preparing to write this, I was shocked to discover something hiding in plain sight. The middle name of the Joe Kennedy figure in the novel, who was the connection between the CIA and the Mob. The father of the murdered wife he accedes to a cover up of the crime because of what an investigation might disclose of the unholy devil’s kiss the CIA and the Mob shared.
Remember, the first installments of the novel containing the name were published in September months before the Kennedy assasination which would become a lasting preoccupation of Mailer as would the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald and his CIA and Mob connections. That name, the name of the villain (to oversimplify), the Kennedy Sr. figure in An American Dreama name Mailer chose before part of it became notorious: Barney Oswald Kelly.
Whoa. Where did that Oswald come from? Somewhere in the etheric fusion of history and dream vision? Only Mailer knows, if he does, and he ain’t talking any more. One of the reasons I’ll miss him is that I’ll never get the chance to ask him, see if he’d give me That Look again.
Anyway don’t listen to the convention-bound dismissal of certain literati. Read An American Dream for yourself. Yes Mailer had his faults, fictional and non fictional, but he had some memorable peak moments too. he took some risks in prose that were inspiring. The least I can do for Mailer is to try to redress the injustice done to this eerily prophetic metaphysical thriller.