Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Half-Baked and the Dead

Gore Vidal once remarked to an interviewer that he was once a famous novelist. When assured he still was, Vidal argued that the term had lost meaning. The adjective doesn’t fit the noun. He himself might well be famous simply as a celebrity, but not as a novelist, for novels no longer occupy a central place in the culture. They are not “discussed in the agora” as they once were. Books have been replaced there by movies and other media. Speak of books in public, and the conversation will be one-sided, or, at best, limited to a small splinter set. Speak of the movies and ears perk up all around while opinions fly. As a screenwriter as well as a novelist, Gore was complaining less than observing.

His eyesight was keen enough. Yet, novels retain value, even when discussed in the alleyway instead of the marketplace.

Vidal’s occasional nemesis Norman Mailer is another formerly famous novelist. He has a better excuse for the “formerly” than Gore. He died two years ago. However, even when alive, he underscored Vidal’s point by being more known than read despite repeated appearances on the New York Times best seller list. Outside of schools and colleges, where students are forced to read, readers of novels (Harry Potter and Twilight notwithstanding) are a minority of the population. Readers of (dreaded word) “serious” fiction are a minority within a minority. Accordingly, a typical “bestseller” is read only by a tiny fraction of the public. The more literary the novel, the tinier the fraction will be. Yet, pretty much everyone has heard of Norman Mailer.

Mailer’s celebrity is unsurprising. He was a tabloid writer’s dream: public feuds, outrageous comments, six marriages, a knife assault on one of the wives, and that disastrous business with Jack Abbott, author of In the Belly of the Beast, who committed murder a month after a parole which Mailer championed.

Put all that aside for a moment. Mailer’s work alone is worth a few words. I won’t even mention the (apparently apocryphal) Tallulah Bankhead story.

Students of 20th century American literature cannot afford to ignore Norman Mailer. Starting with the war novel The Naked and the Dead, his books were too much too significant a part of the times he lived. He is not one of my favorites of the period, though. His novels mix brilliance with carelessness in a way that is downright annoying. His prose is off-putting and captivating on the same page -- sometimes in the same sentence. A good example is Ancient Evenings, a historical novel set in Egypt. The research is solid, the descriptions are superb, and the battle scenes are breathtakingly presented (these are hard to write – try it). The wooden characters and hack dialogue are all the more jarring on this account. “Norman,” I recall thinking while reading the book 25 years ago, “you don’t have the right to write tripe. You can do better.” That thought (from someone who has earned fame neither as novelist nor a celebrity) was exceedingly ungenerous, but read the book for yourself and see if you don’t think the same thing.

Mailer’s non-fiction is excellent, but, being largely journalistic, it suffers the fate of all old news. Historians may delight, but other readers may no longer be interested except, perhaps, in the quirky stuff, such as his infatuated prose about Marilyn Monroe.

With a nod to the contemporary agora, I recommend the movie Tough Guys Don’t Dance, written and directed by Mailer. Based on his 1984 novel of the same name, it is a tale of intrigue and murder on Cape Cod. It shows everything that is right and wrong about the man and his works. The script shows flashes of brilliance and the dark humor is enormously funny, but the movie is mindlessly hung-up sexually – bizarrely homophobic – and much of the dialogue sounds like a bad soap opera. The characters are drawn with mixed success. The nouveau-riche trash Patty Lareine is on target (I’ve met her first cousin), yet the Southern WASP patrician Wardley Meeks III is a wild miss. The movie is worth seeing, yet it could have – should have – been better.

All the same, an intermittent brilliance is to be preferred to a constant dim light, so I miss Norman. I would have liked the chance to be annoyed one more time.

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