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Channelling God

Kevin Power

Four Books of the 1960s: An American Dream / Why Are We in Vietnam? / The Armies of the Night / Miami and the Siege of Chicago, by Norman Mailer, edited by J Michael Lennon, The Library of America, 926 pp, $45, ISBN: 978-1598535587

In 1954, on holiday in Mexico, Norman Mailer discovered weed. He had smoked it before, but this time was different. He experienced “some of the most incredible vomiting I ever had … like an apocalyptic purge”. But soon “I was on pot for the first time in my life, really on.” His second wife, the painter Adele Morales, was sleeping on a couch nearby. “I could seem to make her face whoever I wanted [it] to be,” Mailer wrote later, in the journal he kept during his marijuana years. “Probably could change her into an animal if I wished.” After that he got high on a regular basis. On “tea” (he called his weed diary “Lipton’s Journal”), he felt that “For the first time in my life, I could really understand jazz.” He also got to know the mind of the Almighty, which bore, he discovered, a marked resemblance to his own. Hotboxing in his car every night for a week, Mailer groped his way to the ideas that would shape his work during the 1960s and beyond. They were not, on the whole, very good ideas. But by 1954 Mailer was a desperate man. He was thirty-one and had published two novels: The Naked and the Dead (1948), which had been a smash, and Barbary Shore (1952), which had tanked. He felt like a failure. He needed “the energy of new success”. Eventually, of course, new success would come. But things had to get a lot worse before they could get better.

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, an increasingly stoned and drunk Mailer cooked up a feverish vision of a world in which Western Man was challenged by the “Faustian” forces of technology and capitalism to remake himself at every moment of existence into either a devil or a saint. It was, he wrote in an essay called “The White Negro” (1957), a vision of

the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence for it sees every man and woman as moving individually through each moment of life forward into growth or backward into death.

It was, in plainer terms, a farrago of Marx, Freud, and the easier bits of Heidegger and Sartre, with some Old Testament monotheism thrown in here and there to shore things up. This vision, as it grew, led the Mailer of the late 1950s and early 1960s to make a number of large and confusing statements about capitalised abstract nouns: Sex, Time, God, Cancer, the Mass Media, Psychopaths, the Hip and the Square, and so on. The final paragraphs of his third novel, The Deer Park (1955), offer a fair example of Mailer in Gnomic Existential Visionary mode. These lines, he later confessed, were written “at the end of a long and private trip” on mescaline:

There are hours when I would have the arrogance to reply to the Lord Himself, and so I ask, “Would You agree that sex is where philosophy begins?”
But God, who is the oldest of the philosophers, answers in His weary cryptic way, “Rather think of Sex as Time, and Time as the connection of new circuits.”
Then for a moment in that cold Irish soul of mine, a glimmer of the joy of the flesh came towards me, rare as the eye of the rarest tear of compassion, and we laughed together after all, because to have heard that sex was time and time the connection of new circuits was a part of the poor odd dialogues which give hope to us noble humans for more than one night.

Poor odd dialogues indeed. When The Deer Park mysteriously failed to revolutionise the popular consciousness, Mailer sank even further into addiction and despair. By the autumn of 1960, he was, according to his sister Barbara, “surly and difficult” (these details are taken from J Michael Lennon’s gripping and exhaustive 2013 biography, Norman Mailer: A Double Life). It was around this time that an increasingly deranged Mailer looked into running for mayor of New York. “I thought I was unique,” he said, a decade later. “I had something to do in the world.” Scraping together support for his mayoral bid, writing little, “bombed and sagged” on pot, booze, Miltown and Benzedrine, and burdened with the task of bearing “God’s message”, Mailer went looking for trouble. He got into scraps in bars and spent a few nights in jail.

On November 19th, 1960, Mailer and Adele threw a birthday party for a friend in their Greenwich Village loft. Mailer was drunk and stoned from early on that day. At one point, he went out onto the street and invited the bums he met there to crash the party. The evening descended into a free-for-all. At around 3 am, Mailer ordered his remaining guests to divide themselves into two groups: supporters and enemies. By this point, his shirt was bloody and he had a black eye. Adele began to taunt him: “Come on you little faggot, where’s your cojones?” Mailer produced a two-and-a-half-inch penknife and stabbed Adele twice. “By great luck,” J Michael Lennon writes, “he missed his wife’s heart by a fraction of an inch.” Adele was hospitalised. When she awoke from life-saving surgery, Mailer was standing by her bed. “Do you understand why I did it?” he said. “I love you and I had to save you from cancer.”

Adele concluded that Mailer was “hopelessly crazy”. But when he was arrested, she declined to press charges. Mailer spent three weeks in Bellevue under observation. In the opinion of the assistant district attorney, he was in the middle of “an acute paranoid breakdown with delusional thinking”. After three weeks in Bellevue – where he played pinochle and extracted the life stories of his fellow inmates for later use in his fiction –he was declared “not psychotic” and released on parole. A few months later he wrote a short poem: “So long as you use a knife,” it said, “there’s some love left.” It is entirely characteristic of Mailer that he went on to include this poem in a 1962 book called Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters). By then Norman and Adele’s marriage had ended. In 1997, Adele published an angry memoir, The Last Party, in which she blamed Mailer for ruining her life. Their daughter Susan would describe the stabbing as “the single most painful thing in my childhood”. Mailer himself occasionally commented on the assault. “It was madness,” he once wrote of the stabbing itself, which he claimed not to remember in detail. “I was pretty drunk at the time and probably on pot.”

This story is the one thing that everybody knows about Norman Mailer: he stabbed his wife at a party in 1960. In 2018, this may in fact be the only thing that many people know about a writer who was once regarded as a totemic presence in American literature. In what we must call, faute de mieux, the current intellectual climate, wife-stabbing is not likely to be looked upon with indulgence; it seems fair to say that many twenty-first century readers are content to dismiss Mailer as a violent misogynist and to leave his work unread.

Certainly, since his death in 2007, the value of his stock has collapsed. The literary Mount Rushmore on which his face was engraved, alongside those of John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, has succumbed to the forces of ideological erosion; round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. Writing in 2011, Jonathan Lethem, a former fan, ruefully admitted that Mailer was now “fatally out of fashion … Mailer is as much on the skids as the world of referents in his work is evaporating”. The appearance of A Double Life in 2013 sparked a brief revival of interest in the work. Graydon Carter, writing in The New York Times, praised Mailer’s “thrusting, lapidary prose”, but concluded that he had written “no single volume that captured and continues to capture the hearts and minds of successive generations”. This is true: for Mailer, there was no Herzog, no Slaughterhouse Five, no Catch-22. Between 1948 and 2007, he produced over forty books, some of them enormously long; but if his name still rings a bell, it is largely for extra-literary reasons (he stabbed his wife; he punched a lot of people).

This was not the sort of immortality that Mailer craved. In what is almost certainly his best book, Advertisements for Myself (1960), he confessed that “I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time … I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years.” During the years he spent popping pills and smoking pot, Mailer had discovered that it was his destiny “to write a novel which Dostoyevsky and Marx; Joyce and Freud; Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Spengler; Faulkner, and even mouldering old Hemingway might come to read, for it would carry what they had to tell another part of the way”.

Mailer’s error, during these years, was this: he decided that he could only be a great and original novelist if he could invent some great and original ideas. He expended vast energies trying to gin up a metaphysics, drawing on his reading and his stoned perceptions about an existential deity. He then spent ten years wondering why his great novel was proving so difficult to write. But this isn’t really how literature operates. We don’t need to grapple with a writer’s metaphysics before we can love his or her work. (You don’t need to be persuaded by the tenets of High Church Anglicanism to be moved by Four Quartets.) Literature is about responding to the given world. But by 1960, this was no longer enough for Mailer. He doubled down on his mistake, and made his stoned visions the centre of his work. When a novelist starts talking about Time with a capital T, you know that he has forsaken literature as such for the grander shores of unmoored metaphysical speculation and that the quality of his work will now sharply decline. The good bits in Mailer – and there are many good bits – are never the pages in which he expounds his ideas. The good bits are the moments in which he forgets about Sex and Time and the Existential Hero and directs his senses to the world around him. Responding to the world, Mailer was a kind of genius; when he was busy being a genius, he was all but unreadable.

It seems safe to say that Mailer’s ideas – both the ones that he professed to hold and the ones that he held unknowingly – were at the root of the psychotic episode that sent Adele to the hospital and led Mailer himself to Bellevue and public disgrace. His ideas also explain why he is little read today. Novels of ideas tend to suffer from built-in obsolescence after all; and many of the ideas that he expressed – particularly those about men and women, homosexuality, religious belief and contraception – make him seem, in 2018, palaeolithically out of touch.

It is therefore an interesting moment to find Mailer enshrined in the official US literary canon by the Library of America. Four Books of the 1960s has been edited by J Michael Lennon, his stalwart biographer; Mailer’s presence on the LoA list is presumably the result of some dedicated campaigning by Lennon and others, and may come as a surprise to those who had written him off as a relic of the bad old days. The Library of America was originally an idea of Edmund Wilson’s. Wilson envisioned an American equivalent of the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, which keeps the canon of French literature in print in sturdy, attractive volumes. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth have already been included; it was by no means inevitable that Mailer would join them, but here he is, with four of his 1960s hits printed on onionskin paper and given a light sprinkling of editorial fairy dust. Omitted is the seminal Advertisements for Myself. Instead, Lennon has chosen two novels (An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam?) and two works of reportage (The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago). The resulting volume is, as the French might say, une salade mixte.

An American Dream was Mailer’s fourth novel, and a bestseller at the time. He wrote it as a stunt: Esquire serialised it in eight instalments between January and August 1964, and Mailer revised it for hardcover publication in 1965. Writing for serial publication, Mailer said, was “like playing ten-second chess. You have to take the bold choice each time.” He churned out ten thousand words a month; the final instalment clocked in at 22,000 words and delayed the presses until the last possible minute.

Alas, the circumstances of its composition are probably the most interesting thing about An American Dream. A lurid mishmash of pulp diabolism and bargain-basement Kierkegaard, the book will find, I suspect, few champions among twenty-first century readers and critics. To read An American Dream now is to wonder at the distance we have travelled since 1964: Mailer’s primitivist fantasy of male empowerment feels as out of date in 2018 as the thrillers of Mickey Spillane. Plenty of second- and third-rate books have, of course, been immortalised by the Library of America; but none, I think, has been as grossly prurient or as philosophically unsound as An American Dream.

The book borrows its structure from Crime and Punishment. Former congressman Stephen Richards Rojack is now “a professor of existential psychology with the not inconsiderable thesis that magic, dread, and the perception of death were the roots of motivation”. Not inconsiderable perhaps; but not very original either. Rojack is married to, but separated from, an heiress named Deborah Caughlin Mangaravidi Kelly, whose spirit animal, we’re told, is “a violent, brutish beast”. As the novel begins, Rojack is suicidal. His career has stalled. Deborah is stiffing him for alimony: “I was something like $16,000 in the hole already and probably worse.” More outrageous still, Rojack has taught Deborah an unnamed sexual technique – “something she had done with me and never with anyone else” – that she is now performing with her “new beau”. (In one of the more entertaining conjectures in A Double Life, J Michael Lennon suggests that what Rojack and Deborah are discussing here is female-to-male analingus, a pastime that makes an encore appearance in the equally murderous 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance.) This clinches it (“Shut your fucking mouth”): Rojack strangles Deborah to death. “I was trying to stop, but pulse packed behind pulse in a pressure up to thunderhead; some black-biled lust, some desire to go ahead not unlike the instant one comes in a woman against her cry that she is without protection came bursting with rage out of me.” Soon “She was dead. Indeed she was dead.” But Deborah’s death has – wouldn’t you know it? – given Rojack supernatural powers. Freshly virile, he pauses to have anal sex with Deborah’s German maid, Ruta, before evading the cops and embarking on a two-day bender, encountering along the way a nightclub singer named Cherry, a pimp named Shago Martin, and Deborah’s father, Barney Oswald Kelly, with whom, it is strongly hinted, Deborah was having an incestuous affair. (Oh, and Ruta the maid turns out to be working for the CIA – bet you didn’t see that coming.)

An American Dream contains more outright nonsense than anything else Mailer ever published. “[M]urder offers the promise of a vast relief,” Rojack reflects. “It is never unsexual.” Sure. Or how about this? “[M]urder sounds like a symphony in your head, and suicide is a pure quartet.” Okay then. “[I]deally a Great Bitch delivers extermination to any bucko brave enough to take carnal knowledge of her.” I needn’t go on. The novel also contains some of the very worst prose that Mailer ever wrote. From the murder scene: “She gave one malevolent look which said: ‘There are dimensions to evil which reach beyond the light,’ and then she smiled like a milkmaid and floated away and was gone.” As Rojack copulates with Ruta, the German maid: “I felt for the first time in my life like a healthy alley cat, and I stroked at her with a delicate hatred lacquered clean up to a small flame by the anticipation of my body.” Switching between Ruta’s vagina and her anus: “Like a thief I was out of church again and dropping down for more of that pirate’s gold.”

The dialogue is frequently risible. Here’s a sample of Deborah’s verbal style: “I mean, figure-toi, pet, I had to keep up a conversation with the detective, a horrible man, and he was laughing at me.” Here’s Cherry: “Chookey-bah lamb. Gigot!” And here’s a specimen of the excruciating repartee that Mailer gives to Shago Martin, the black pimp whom Rojack bests in a bout of highly suspect wish-fulfillment fisticuffs: “What about you, uncle, going to give a kid with a white ass, with a white diarrhetic old ass? Kiss my you-know-what.”

Elizabeth Hardwick, reviewing An American Dream for Partisan Review in 1963, called it “an assortment of dull cruelties and callous copulations”. Reassessing the book in 1981, Martin Amis wrote that it was the work of “a man in a transport, not of sexual excitement so much as the tizzy of false artistry”. These judgments stand. But we must add two further charges to the indictment: as well as being cruel and badly written, the book is flatly racist and misogynist. It evokes a humid, cloistral world of wounded narcissism, sexual violence and fear of the other. Nowhere in its pages does Mailer put to use his extraordinary gift for writing about real people and real places; the America of An American Dream – with its incestuous tycoons, its Bitch-Goddess heiresses and its cannibalistic Knights of Faith – never existed outside of a pulp magazine. It is somehow fitting that the 1966 Warner Bros film version it was called See You in Hell, Darling – the sort of title the book should have been given in the first place.

Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) is a better book than An American Dream, though not by much. It recounts the story of Ranald “DJ” Jethroe and his friend Tex Hyde, scions of wealthy Texas families, as they hunt bears in Alaska before shipping out to fight in Vietnam. The style of the book was inspired by Naked Lunch (which Mailer believed entitled William Burroughs to “a purchase on genius”) and by the routines of Lenny Bruce; it takes the form of a scatological hepcat monologue that has dated exceptionally badly. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Hip hole and hupmobile, Braunschweiger, you didn’t invite Geiger and his counter for nothing, here is D.J. the friendLee voice at your service – hold tight young America – introductions come. Let go of my dong, Shakespeare, I have gone too long, it is too late to tell my tale, may Batman tell it, let him declare there’s blood on my dick and D.J. Dicktor Doc Dick and Jek has got the bloods, and has done animal murder, out out damn fart, and murder of the soldierest sort, cold was my hand and hot.

Later Mailer would suggest that Why Are We in Vietnam? was, of his novels, “the least alienated from genius”. He also thought: “I had never written a funnier book.” He was wrong on both counts. Why Are We in Vietnam? is not a work of genius; and it is not funny. Its many “experimental” riffs on flatulence, faecal matter, masturbation, blood, gore, and phallic insecurities scarcely repay the effort they require to construe. And yet, despite its fossilised pop-cultural references and its achingly Sixties bebop daddy-O affectations, it does gather an eerie emotional power as it nears its climax. Even at the peak of his culture-prophet narcissism, Mailer never lost his gift for describing American landscapes, and his paragraphs about the final bear hunt are potently evocative:

… and the ridgelines, the ridgelines now beginning to dance in the late afternoon with transparencies behind turns of transparency and sunlight rising up straight from the snow in lines of razzle reflection, their eyes gritted, and afternoon chill was still good on them yes, and yes, for the colours began to go from snow gold and yellow to rose and blue, coral in the folds of the ridges where the sun still hit …

If Why Are We in Vietnam? is a more affecting book than An American Dream, it may be because it takes cognisance of an America that actually existed. Hovering over the whole book is Mailer’s tragic sense of what the war in Vietnam was doing every day to kids like DJ and Tex. The book’s last line is “Vietnam, hot damn”; in context, it is savagely ironic, and awakens us to a painful truth. This is the sort of stuff that Great American Novels are made of. But in 1967 Mailer had long since been derailed by his quest to clobber America over the head with his ideas. He didn’t publish another novel for thirteen years; when he returned to fiction, it was with Of Women and Their Elegance (1980), an imaginary memoir supposedly written by Marilyn Monroe (it is as bad as it sounds).

In the meantime, he did what he should probably have been doing all along: he looked out at the world around him and wrote a series of unique, supercharged books about American politics and culture. Two of the best of these appear in Four Books of the 1960s. In The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer delivers his report on the March on the Pentagon, organised in October 1967 by an ecumenical assortment of anti-war groups. In Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968), he writes about the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions; the latter, of course, descended into chaos when Chicago’s union-boss mayor, Richard Daley, ordered his cops to round up anti-Vietnam protesters by any means necessary.

Both of these books are written in an ironised third person (Mailer said he got the idea from The Education of Henry Adams); in Armies, he refers to himself as “Mailer”, and in Miami, he goes by “the reporter”. It was a simple idea. But it released his energies in an unprecedented way. He wrote the first part of The Armies of the Night in six weeks; the Chicago section of Miami and the Siege of Chicago was composed in eighteen days – and he performed both of these feats in the same nine-month period. That these books contain some of the best writing Mailer did in the 1960s is not a coincidence. It was already clear from The Naked and the Dead that his true gift was as a stenographer of the real. He had an uncanny ability to capture in prose the sensory affect of being in an American city – the true essence of what it felt like on the ground. This is his description of Chicago, from Miami and the Siege of Chicago:

The reporter was sentimental about the town. Since he had grown up in Brooklyn, it took him no time to recognise, whenever he was in Chicago again, that the urbanites here were like the good people of Brooklyn – they were simple, strong, warm-spirited, sly, rough, compassionate, jostling, tricky and extraordinarily good-natured because they had sex in their pockets, muscles on their back, hot eats around the corner, neighbourhoods which dripped with the sauce of local legend, and real city architecture, brownstones with different windows on every floor, vistas for miles of red-brick and two-family wood-frame houses with balconies and porches, runty stunted trees rich as farmland in their promise of tenderness the first city evenings of spring, streets where kids played stickball and roller-hockey, lots of smoke and iron twilight. The clangour of the late nineteenth century, the very hope of greed, was in these streets. London one hundred years ago could not have looked much better.

His visit to Miami is equally prodigal of memorable apercus:

The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air which entered the lungs like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.

The political analyses Mailer propounds in Armies and Miami are now chiefly of historical interest. But he was a shrewd observer of American politicians – Nixon was “like an actor with good voice and hoards of potential, but the despair of his dramatic coach” – and a reliable witness to scenes of conflict. Here he is, watching the Chicago protesters clash with police:

The action went on for ten minutes, fifteen minutes, with the absolute ferocity of a tropical storm, and watching it from a window in the nineteenth floor, there was something of the detachment of studying a storm at evening through a glass, the light was a lovely grey-blue, the police had uniforms of sky-blue, even the ferocity had an abstract elemental play of forces of nature at battle with other forces, as if sheets of tropical rain were driving across the street in patterns, in curving patterns which curved upon each other again.

Mailer went on to write several more books in his by now patented third-person style: Of a Fire on the Moon (1970) was commissioned by Life magazine and ruminates upon the Apollo 11 moon shot; St George and the Godfather (1972) visits the party conventions of 1972. There are marvellous things in both books (the account of the Apollo 11 launch at Kennedy Space Centre is Melvillean in its grandeur and eloquence); but soon Mailer was humping his way back to the idea-mines, in search of more grand notions with which to alter the consciousness of his age.

Styles, of course, are born in human postures, of which there are only a limited number. Mailer’s posture was essentially Romantic; he needed to step outside of himself before he could produce work that spoke to the world he lived in. In other words, he was not a natural novelist. (His novels, Clive James once wrote, “stretch out in a line that only a tenured academic could love”.) After Advertisements for Myself, Mailer’s best book is probably The Executioner’s Song (1979), a monumental account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore. In the austerity of its prose, and in the plangent power of its empathy for the suffering of ordinary Americans, it bears little resemblance to his other work – which should have told him something, but didn’t. His later career included the unreadable Ancient Evenings (1983), the cheesy Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984), and the embarrassing The Gospel According to the Son (1997). His last novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), was narrated by an existentialist devil tasked with influencing a young Adolf Hitler. To the end, Mailer remained faithful to his ideas, even as they prevented him from understanding the true nature of his talent.

I met him once, at a party in his house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 2006. His eyes were a very pale blue and he gave the impression of being vastly more intelligent than anyone I had ever met. He was kind to me – I asked him for writing advice, and he gave it. Over the last fifteen years, I have read everything Mailer published, and I don’t regret the effort. Every age assumes that its judgments are final – otherwise, why get out of bed in the morning? Mailer’s untimely meditations are not what we want to hear right now. But fashions change, and writers can wait decades before finding their natural readership. For now, we must perforce think of Mailer’s career much as the Victorians thought of the dinosaurs: as an alluring and terrible story that just might tell us the truth about where we’ve been – and where, in this minatory new age, we think we’re going.


Kevin Power is the author of Bad Day in Blackrock (2008). He teaches in the School of English, Dublin City University.



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