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Remembering Mailer

 A commentator on my last blog suggested that it was time to shut this blog down. I took to the suggestion, thinking that I was being too self-indulgent, letting these blogs go in every which direction, expressions of a fickle and perhaps unstable mentality. But this then is what they are, unpaid snippets of a long life that includes sixty years of writing in a semi-professional (unpaid articles and stories for literary magazines) and then professional life.

I was thinking about this as I drove north for my granddaughter's second birthday and heard the news of Norman Mailer's death in the hospital where, twenty-nine years earlier, my mother died. It made me think of her astonished anger when she saw the angry little hole his cigarette made on her precious table. He and I had been talking, perhaps drinking a little and, in Norman's case, obliviously and carelessly. It was in the semi-relaxed, semi-intense mode which is once recorded in the piece which he named "Hip, Hell and the Navigator," and included in the book Advertisements for Myself, and reprinted in at least one anthology and talked about every now and then as his favorite interview. Apparently Lionel Trilling has either hailed or mocked it as a piece of extraordinary theology which back in the late Fifties would have gratified Norman enormously. He was not at the top of the wave. The two novels which followed The Naked and the Dead, The Deer Park and Barbary Shore, had been poorly reviewed, rightly so, except that half The Deer Park was, I thought, strong and interesting. That came up in the interview. I thought that his writing a preface to the dramatic version of the novel which said that its setting was actually Hell was a pretty inexpensive way of recharging the exhausted story. I can't remember if that initiated the switch from the discussion of Hip and its meaning for a writer to theology, but it was Norman's sudden, epiphanic insight that God, like Norman himself, was involved in a great struggle, and that much of what puzzled, dismayed and tormented his creatures could be traced to this which was to so please Norman later when he readied the interview for publication, first in the Western Review and then in the book which was to once again turn him into what mattered so much to him, the great literary challenger of the given, the obvious, the status quo ante Norman.

His competitiveness was well-known. Since I was a friend of Saul Bellow, he usually asked me what Bellow was about. I'd told him about Henderson the Rain King, which I'd read in manuscript. "Guess that makes him Number One," he said, reflectively. I remember that this was said from the wheel of his car. Out each of the rear windows stuck the head of a black pointer, striking, if contradictory turn signals. Such an odd, innocent picture; and so odd and innocent a driver.

Yes, this greatly talented man, who could tell you where the grocer bought his suits and what radio programs he listened to, who knew why the Cape Canaveral launchings brought out every tinkerer within five hundred miles, who knew why Jack Kennedy's hauling his injured shipmate to safety as he did (teeth gripped on the man's belt) revealed his ferocity, this brilliant reporter of the world's stuff, had a depth of innocence which he'd grown to dislike almost as much as he disliked and disowned the handsome Jewish boy swaddled in his herring bone suit on the back cover of The Naked and the Dead. "I never looked like that," he told me. In his eyes, he never did. As he disowned that boy, so he poured Nietszchean and other highfalutin' glop over the brilliant worldly reports of prize fights and movie stars, political conventions and the space program, burying his reportorial gift under Zaruthustrian rubble.

 A few times between his trips to where we summered in Twin Lakes, Connecticut, I drove down to the house he and his beautiful wife, Adele Morales lived in the dull countryside of southern Connecticut. The town's other literary light was Van Wyck Brooks; I don't think they'd met. There one would be coaxed into an old cedar orgone box to smoke marijuana or into an improvised ring where crouching, gesturing Norman would spar with you, his face menacingly innocent, his punches making little breezes by your ear.

When he stabbed Adele in the breast and was put into Bellevue, I wrote him that I'd testify to his sanity or essential benevolence and got back a touching penciled letter of gratitude and semi-contrition.

The few times I've seen him in the last twenty years, he was in official positions (President of PEN) or at the annual luncheon of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His gray hair was waved, his blue eyes were genial under agitated eyebrows, he was beautifully dressed and looked more like a banker than many at Davos. I'd become more and more the quiet burgher, Norman more and more the contrarian, often brilliant commentator and manufacturer of books which I think much of him knew were not the marvelous novels he wished to write. When the excellent book on Gary Gilmore received the National Book Award for Fiction, I wrote him (and the Times) that it was so carefully and deliberately a documentary work that it should have received the award for non-fiction. He wrote a good letter of partial agreement, but Jim Atlas, then working for the Times, felt the letters were somehow "self-serving," and they weren't published. The New York Review of Books did publish a comic exchange between us about what Norman had said or didn't say to an elevator operator after he'd finished talking at a Modern Languages Association meeting in Chicago. The dispute, genial as it was, saddened me as I drove north now on the Outer Drive, for it indicated the distance which had come between this decent, fascinating man and me which of course now would never be spanned.

--Richard Stern