Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Mailer looks back in Anger
South China Morning Post, November 1998
A meeting with Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is angry. Anger is after all what he does best, his stock-in-trade for the past half-century. “I don’t lose any sleep over what I have done to American morality,” bellows the man whose raunchy novels made profanity respectable. “What I have done is nothing compared to what the big corporations have done. We have become a corporate nation.”

At 75, the man once described as a bantamweight Don Quixote is crippled by arthritis and hard of hearing, but still tilting recklessly at windmills. In Bangkok recently to speak at the 20th annual Seawrite awards, Mailer showed he had lost none of his readiness to savage everything from the media to his homeland.

“There’s something about American patriotism that I find weak and unpleasant.” he says. “It is like dealing with someone who’s six foot eight (about two metres) and 275 pounds (125 kilograms) and still constantly going around saying. ‘I’m a real man’.”

Beginning with his wartime epic The Naked And the Dead, written when he was only 25, Mailer has written and reported on practically every event that has shaped America: subjects as diverse as the assassination of John .F. Kennedy, Hollywood, the Vietnam War, the moon landings, Watergate, the CIA and the feminist movement. Along the way he has won two Pulitzers, a National Book Award and acclaim and outrage.

This year he celebrates 50 years of writing with a new book, The Time of Our Time (Random House, $395), a collection of his best (and worst) writing over the years, filling 1, 275 pages. “I didn’t want to write an anthology,” says Mailer in the foreword. “I would like the book to offer some hint at a social and cultural history of these 50 years. I have had the good fortune to be able to write about my time as if it were our time. So I can have the hope that this book may stimulate your sense of time.”

That it certainly does. The book is a giant kaleidoscope of Americana, with evocative excerpts from The Naked And the Dead, The Executioner’s Song, An American Dream, The Deer Park, The Armies Of the Night. Harlot’s Ghost and The Presidential Papers. The best are Mailer’s sparkling magazine pieces on his encounters with such American icons as Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote, collected in one volume for the first time.

His take on chat-show host David Letterman, both perceptive and wickedly funny, should ring true to every 1990s couch potato. “Letterman’s number one asset is that he stands for nothing at all …. and would not be caught dead offering one indication of how to conduct your life. At 11.30, when his audience is ready for a little mild pleasure before bed. Letterman serves as their Ovaltine-a little flavour, a lot of pabulum (food for thought) and the implicit promise that nothing will happen. To be meaningless in a meaningless world is to be the Buddha of the Befuddled.”

Here is his wry comment on the liberal movement in America. “Liberalism had become about as stimulating as motel furniture. You could get through a night with it provided you didn’t have to hang around in the morning. Liberalism was opposed to war, poverty, hunger, drugs, sexism, racism … but it had not had an idea in 25 years for solving any of those problems.”

In person, as in his writing. Mailer is at his finest and funniest when commenting on American politics. Speaking to a mostly American audience at a “Meet the author” session at the historic Neilson Hays library in Bangkok, he was in his element. Why does Bill Clinton enjoy enduring popularity? “In America, there is a tendency for people to take their soap operas very seriously. Clinton is the biggest soap opera hero since J.R. He’s the kind of car salesman whose clients would trust him even after he had palmed off a lemon.

“Here you have a man who’s scared of his wife; that makes him all the more human to me,” Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s report, he believes “would make a great minimalist novel.”

Asked whether he fancied Monica Lewinsky, he retorted: “You’re asking me that when my wife is sitting right in front of you. I cannot take refuge..”

Often, though, a little of Mailer goes a long way. He read the audience a lengthy extract on embalming from his grisly 1983 book on pharaonic Egypt, Ancient Evenings.

As he lingered over details of hooks being plunged into skulls and brains being yanked through nostrils, the audience turned greener and greener. Mailer continued, oblivious.

That same compulsion to provoke constantly and ramble endlessly is apparent in some of the tiresomely wordy fiction extracts chosen for The Time Of Our Time. For a writer who says he is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s spare and understated prose, Mailer sometimes does not seem to know when to stop.

Surprisingly for a man who once wrote that he never felt more like an American than when he was “naturally obscene”. Mailer says he does not believe in unrestricted freedom of speech. “One of my beliefs is that there is no such thing as an absolute good – even freedom of speech. Too much is deadly – we all have our own prurience level.”

He talks disapprovingly of a recent play he saw “where every other word was ‘f**k’”. “When I was a young writer we couldn’t even say the word,” he says. “I had to use the substitute ‘fug’.”

He overcame that barrier soon enough with his relentlessly profane and controversial 1966 novel Why Are We In Vietnam? When asked how that fits with his anti-gratuitous obscenity view, some arrogance shows, “I disapprove of gratuitous obscenity, but I think I did it artfully and with a certain style.”

Where to now? The majority of Mailer’s writings have been on America, and Mailer says he does not plan to move on. “America is such a huge and diverse country. I’ll be happy if I write the great American novel, though I am not sure if it can be done.” How does he find the motivation to keep going after 30-odd books and innumerable magazine essays? Mailer has been quoted as saying he only writes to support his nine children by his six marriages.

“At my age, it’s easier to work than not to work. I don’t think I will ever retire; I would be terrified of not writing,” he says now. He refuses to be drawn on his plans for his next book, but is considering a sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, his 1991 novel on the CIA.

With 50 years of writing behind him, one might think Mailer has vanquished writer’s block. Not so. “Every established writer still knows one terror. Does it stop tomorrow? There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the white page.”

Neither is he immune to bad reviews. He says he’s still smarting from the description of his second novel. Barbary Shore, by a reviewer from Time magazine as “paceless, graceless, tasteless”. “A hole in the ego is like a hole in the heart,” he says ruefully.

His advice for would-be-writers – develop a thick skin. “Writers must rise above despising themselves. If they cannot, they will probably lose the sanction to feel like a god long enough to render judgement on others.” He also advises writers to “climb high enough above their egos to see every flaw” in their work. “If you are going to survive you had better become the best critic of them all. It is amazing how many evil reviews one can digest if there is confidence that one has done one’s best on a book. This may appear to be simple, but how few of us ever complete work of which we are not in fact a bit ashamed?”

Yet he’s philosophical about being panned by the critics. “Unlike other more active creative artists, the writer labours in no immediate peril. Why then, should open season not begin as soon as the work comes out? The critics are there to keep our numbers down,” he says, only half in jest.