Monday, November 12, 2007
Norman Mailer lives in a brick house on the left side of a wooden street, by the shore in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. His house is not hard to find. Drive past it, I was warned, and you'll end up in England.
Mailer was on the phone when I arrived, but he came to the door, walking slowly and heavily like a giant crab. He was wearing a denim shirt, open at the neck to reveal a snatch of white hair on red skin. There were chinos, tightly belted, and lace-up black shoes.
He put me on the sofa. Under a cushion there was a hardback by Zadie Smith and a pair of reading glasses. Mementoes everywhere. To the left, a proud display of family photos, the flashlit grins of the underexposed Mailers. To the right, a small painting of the author, his white hair flecked like surf. I was looking out to sea through the salt-streaked glass when Mailer emerged from the next room. "This," he said, motioning out to the grey brightness, "is as dull as it gets."
Provincetown is a fishing town where no-one fishes. Instead, it relies for its existence on tourism, and the fact that it has become the gay capital of the east coast. Commercial Street, the main drag, is like one of Pat Buchanan's nightmares: a clapboard idyll promenaded by gay couples and gym-toned cruisers riding mountain bikes against the flow of traffic.
Mailer has lived in the town for 15 years, but he first came in 1942. He arrived by train with his girlfriend Beatrice Silverman (who later became his wife, the first of six) and after a good weekend, they pledged that when the war ended they would spenda summer in the town.
That was the summer he started writing The Naked and the Dead, the book that made him a star.
"Agreeable things happened in Provincetown," he says. "It has always been the free-est small town in America. People took it for granted that marriages ended here and new marriages began. People lived together. In those days it didn't matter if you were gay. That you could also do."
Mailer, of course, shows no sign of being gay. Indeed, he may take an amount of pride from the fact that, in a town with such relaxed mores, he remains a misfit, a macho in khakis.
Sex, he calls "the great divide".
"Most women are totally opposed to the idea that being a man is a matter of substance and vigour, and think that they're just all brutes. But I am a great believer in opposition. The idea that you get the men to be exactly like the women is part of the horror right now. They had this women's revolution and they opened up a great deal for themselves, and where did they go? They've all gone to the corporation. There are the women all dressed in those little black uniforms with their laptop computers o n the aeroplane, trying to take over the corporation, which they won't be able to do very well, because it takes a big man to lose.
A mediocre man holds on to what he's got. And most people who work for the corporation lean more toward the mediocre than the huge and impressive.
"Women have sold their revolution for a mess of pottage, the corporation. They are more like men now than they used to be, and less interesting as a result.
"Put it this way: this is very romantic and old-fashioned, but the combination of the fire in a man and the profundity of a woman - human nature finds its best potential in that. Not in two people that are virtually interchangeable."
Mailer's approach to life is founded, he says, in a remark made by Somerset Maugham. "He said that nobody was any better than they ought to be. And I lived with that remark for a while, and then I decided no, that unless people are a little better than they ought to be, or a little worse, then the universe is nothing but an elaborate crock. So, I think you should be a little better than you ought to be. That's what manhood's all about. Being slightly more manly than the role of the dice predicted fo r you."
At the age of 77, with his legs and his hearing fading, Mailer's reputation has reached a plateau. He is the heavyweight champion of literature in a culture where books don't seem to matter. He keeps putting them out, sparring with big themes, but his efforts are grudgingly received and the value of his early work is open to revision.
His career seems to have been a long preparation for the Great American Novel, although none of his books has yet been accepted as that. But still he keeps jabbing away.
Mailer's contribution to the process of re-evaluation, the 1998 greatest hits album The Time of Our Time, was grandiose and brilliant, confusing and frustrating. It mixed Mailer's journalism with his fiction, splicing old material with new. In the end, it was hard to know what was true and what wasn't, which may have been the point. If the muscularity of Mailer's prose is put on one side, it becomes clear that his fiction has been grounded in truth, and his reporting flecked with invention.
It's a small claim, and one he may not care to make, but Mailer's subjectivity makes him the father of New Journalism. In his essay Superman Comes to the Supermarket, he employed a Rolodex of adjectives to conjure up the muddy fug of American politics. In The Naked and the Dead, he conjured the word "fug" to denote an expletive that would otherwise have been deleted. It is a mark of how far we have travelled that the f-word might be deemed too shocking to print (in a book, at least), but in other ar eas,the culture seems to have rolled back from the world of "hip" which Mailer chronicled. Mind-expansion has given way to the war on drugs, Muhammad Ali has been replaced by Mike Tyson, Marilyn Monroe by Madonna, John F Kennedy by Bill Clinton.
Mailer, an evangelist for marijuana, says this about drugs: "America's always spoken of as a puritanical country, but if it were really a puritanical country, everything would be much more clear-cut. You'd be on one side or you'd be on the other. The trouble is, this is a half-puritanical country. Even the people who are puritanical are only half-puritanical. And so, because of that, there's a terrible anxiety to be puritanical about certain things. It's almost as if they divide the pie. You've got to be puritanical about this, and not about that.
"Most of the people who are against drugs have a terrible fear that if they took them they'd become deranged and go out and kill their spouses.
And the other half of the fear is that the blacks are, in their minds, associated with drugs. And that there is" - he adopts a gruff, patrician voice - "this problem that we good Americans have. That's the way they think. So there's nothing they can do about drugs. They'd have to face in to the fact that there are whole groups of people in this country whose lives are so essentially without promise that the only excitement in their lives is the deep promise they feel on drugs. Anyone who has ever taken drugs knows that you realise how extraordinary you are. For a little while. And this feeling of being extraordinary is why people go to drugs. That's why it's so hard to eradicate it, because if you eradicate it, what have you got?"
Mailer's advocacy of drugs is unfashionable and almost quaint, but it is founded on good intentions. It was, he says, part of an effort to get closer to the nature of God in a world where the Holocaust and the gulags and the threat of nuclear destructionmade the possibility of a beneficent all-powerful force hard to believe in. "And when you take drugs you begin to feel closer to huge, numinous forces that you can't quite name, but you feel as if you are in the presence of something much larger than yourself."
Mailer's great subject is fame. He has pondered the curves of Marilyn, taken the temperature of Madonna and looked at Jack Kennedy from both ends of the rifle. In the Executioner's Song, he saw fame refracted through the death wish of a bad man, the killer Gary Gilmore.
I suggest to Mailer that the triumph of fame in our culture is related to a collapse of faith in God.
"Well," he says, "fame: there are black tribes in Africa that believe that if you're successful it's because God either believes in you, or has rewarded you, or likes you. So successful people are immensely admired, And I think that's true here now. There's a feeling of 'Donald Trump is closer to God than I am'. Perhaps Donald feels that."
Norman Mailer's fame began suddenly. It wasn't something he expected, and by the time he got used to it, the light was beginning to dim.
"It started with The Naked and the Dead. I was 25. On the one hand I'd written the book, but on the other I had absolutely no idea what it was like to be a success. I always thought I would be working away. Maybe I could make a success of writing, maybe I couldn't. I hoped I could. And this was a huge success. It was Number 1 on the bestseller list for a long time and I was a celebrity. It was absolutely unthinkable. I made the remark that I felt as if I was secretary to someone named Norman Mailer, andto meet him they had to meet me first.
"It took a long time to realise that fame and celebrity, which I had shunned and disliked in the beginning, got to be an acquired appetite.
As the Marquis De Sade said once, there's no pleasure greater than that obtained from a conquered repugnance. So celebrity and fame became a conquered repugnance, and then I began to want more and more of it.
"Well, about the time I wanted more and more of it, my star was beginning to go over the horizon because my second book was a big failure. I was, say, eight years out from The Naked and the Dead. and people said: 'Oh poor guy, he's a has-been, he's through, he had one book in him', all that.
"About that time I began to realise that celebrity and fame did have their values and their virtue. And one of them was that being a celebrity was great for one-night stands. But it took me, oh, maybe ten years before I really began to feel that when people meet me they are meeting somebody called Norman Mailer. As well. Rather than that the two were separate."
Does that mean he had to live up to the image of himself?
"You have to adopt yourself. And then of course, further down the road, you can begin to realise that you are cut off from normal life now, because people won't look at you the same way. On the other hand, what it had given me was a sense of how ... not tenuous, not fragile... how delicate, perhaps, is identity. And that I now had another identity. And so my experience was now of interest, and I could use it, because I could now write about the identity of people who had a certain amount of power.
"Very slowly over the years you begin to acquire some of the sophistication you need to be a celebrity. It's a very odd position.
Most actors get the bends. I was shot out of a cannon."
Pursuit of fame wasn't his end?
"No. Probably at one point I got much more interested in maintaining my fame. Fame maintenance." He laughs. Ack Ack. "Now there's a new concept.
Fame maintenance. Because although the fame has its disagreeable
aspects: I once said that fame is a microphone in your mouth, that's all it is in most daily situations. It isn't that agreeable having the fame, but it sure is disagreeable losing it."
But fame maintenance is PR.
"But I don't like PR. I've never had public relations. Things were bad enough without having public relations put into the equation. Actually, the worst stories ever told about me were put out by other people's public relations people. People come up to me and say: 'Hey, is that true, what Tallulah Bankhead said to you'? She was reputed to have met me and said: 'Oh, you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell 'f***'.' So, for years people would come up to me, and I would say:
'I've never met Tallulah Bankhead'. I'd say it with gritted teeth."
So we talk about Madonna. Mailer's interview with Madonna is one of the stranger interludes in his career. It happened after Madonna appeared on the David Letterman show and was castigated for swearing several times.
Mailer admired her spunk and was dispatched to meet her. The resulting story is dominated by Mailer's personality. He is bigger and brighter than the star he is supposed to be charting. But he does not accept my suggestion that Madonna is a rough-edged facsimile of Marilyn Monroe.
"They're very different. Madonna's much more of a warrior, much more.
Marilyn lived in a different period and women had to be much more circumspect, but she had a quiet sense of how to promote herself.
Madonna is just angry about a lot of elements, she has ideas, she wants those ideas to prevail and so she pushes them forward. She's much more of an ideological activist than Marilyn was."
But he did compare Madonna to Princess Diana.
"Yeah. That was more a matter of looks. I saw an odd similarity in the looks. You can't see it in all photographs."
We talk about politics. Mailer tells me a story about meeting John McCain, the Arizona senator who ran a populist campaign for the Republican nomination against George W Bush. Mailer was impressed by McCain, so much so that he approached him at a book party, something he rarely does. As he waited to speak to McCain, he noticed he was flexing his neck, bobbing from side to side. Finally, he came face to face with the senator. "After a moment or two," Mailer recalls, "I said to him:
'Senator, did you everdo any boxing?' He said: 'Yes, I did some in the navy.' And then he looked at me and he grinned, and he said: 'I was a mediocre boxer'." Mailer laughs. "And I grinned, and I said: 'So was I'.
"Well, that was the first time in my life that I ever described myself as a mediocre boxer. 'Cause it's not something you do. If you box, you don't speak of yourself as mediocre. It's like, can you imagine a guy saying 'I'm a mediocre lover'? I was struck with the candour. And I was relieved when I said, yes, so was I. Because that put something in place for me forever. Yes, that's what I was. I was a mediocre boxer. That puts a little bit of the ego to rest. The ego needs more sleep than any other part of us."
Had he never said that before?
"Never said it before. And I'd never heard anyone say it before."
The trouble with politics, Mailer says, was that the morals were all eaten out by the termites of political correctness.
"There's a saying on Broadway that if there's anything more obscene than a failure on Broadway, it's a success. And that's also true in politics.
You have to succeed because there's absolutely no second life if you fail. So they do everything they can towin, in such a way that they degrade the political process. In the old days, the political process was corrupt. You had old political bosses who would determine a lot of what would happen. But at least what they had, corrupt as they were, was they ha d acertain kind of practical life wisdom. Whereas now, people are just bending to every new current that's out there. For example, the Democratic Party has been gutted out entirely by women's liberation.
"[Al] Gore, I must say, reminds me prodigiously of Richard Nixon. This is nothing to do with his politics. Gore has the same fatal thing that Nixon had that made people dislike Nixon and distrust him. Which is, Nixon never could say anything spontaneously. The thought 'go f*** yourself' would occur to him, and he'd censor it, and he'd say 'next question'. But you always felt that pause, where he censored it. And Gore's the same way."
I tell Mailer I saw Gore give a speech at the HQ of Timberland, in New Hampshire. He was a vision in oatmeal.
"You're making fun of the food I eat each morning for breakfast."
But he was dressed in Timberland clothes. No politician in Britain would wear the company's clothes.
"Well look at the kids here; they wear logos on their T-shirts to advertise the company they bought it from. I remember when my youngest son was about 13. He was wearin', oh, I forget, one of the people who sell T-shirts. I said to him: 'John, would you wear a T-shirt that said 'Norman Mailer' on it? He said: 'Hey Dad, cut it out'. I said: 'Well, you're wearing this company's name. You not only buy their shirt, but now you advertise them'. He said: 'Dad, you just don't get it'.
"Now he's through college and ... he was marching on Washington with the other people who were opposed to global capitalism. But it's a sign of the brainwashing that's going on with the corporations. So that most people think you're ahead of the game if you're lined up with the corporation. I mean, they talk about how the Russians used to brainwash people. It's nothing compared to how we've brainwashed our young people."
I suggest that it is a voluntary process.
"No, no," he says, meaning "yes, yes". "People really want to join the corporation. They applaud at graduations if they hear you're going to work for some big Wall Street firm. This has truly became a wholly capitalist, market-driven corporate country."
He says this with a smile, and a shrug of resignation. Is the sense of moral disgust which illuminates his work beginning to wane? No, he says, he feels it more strongly the older he gets.
"But people get so weary of hearing you complain. Moral disgust has very little to offer in a period of economic prosperity. Most people never begin to have enough money, so when they finally start beginning to have enough money the last thing they want is for somebody to come along and
say: 'Well, this isn't going to work either.' So in that sense my moral disgust is intense.
"A lot of people," he says, meaning himself, "when they're young think that their ideas are going to have an enormous effect - the shape of what is to come. And then they discover as they get older that, indeed, you have very little effect. You don't getany wiser as you get older.
It's horrendous. The fact is that everything I've hated has triumphed and succeeded.
"Think of it. I hate plastic. It's everywhere now. I hate those high-rise buildings that have about as much architectural distinction as a box of Kleenex. I hate superhighways. I hate the plastic interior of aeroplanes. I hate the whole notion of living your life in the market.
"Everything has won that I contested. So ... I once wrote a line in The Naked and the Dead. 'He felt the kind of merriment that men know when events have ended, in disaster.' I have that kind of merriment. That line is true. One of the pleasures of writing is that you discover that something you wrote, at the moment you wrote it you didn't even know why you were writing it, turns out to be true, 20, 30, 50 years later.
That's not bad. So I'm sort of merry these days."
He straightens up in his cane chair and looks out at the sea.
"Aw, to hell with it, piss on it."
(Published in The Scotsman Weekend, 22 July, 2000)