I have read about Norman Mailer’s exploits for years in magazines and books. He is remembered as the womanizer, the misogynist, the disturber of the peace, the brilliant man. He was hated and loved simultaneously. He stabbed one of his six wives. He ran for mayor of New York City. These details made me think his writing would be all macho pomposity, not something that would interest me. I was very wrong.
I have just finished reading An American Dream, which came out in 1965 and was originally written as eight installments published in Esquire magazine in 1964. It is a lurid story, but one only has to read a few pages to realize that this is a work of genius. It bounces from world-wise dialogue to magnificent prose that just drips off the tongue. I found myself reading paragraphs over and over. Mailer is somewhat akin to Henry Miller in his obsessions, yet more combustible and bourgeois (Mailer actually wrote a book about Miller). And within the protagonist of Stephen, lies so obviously, all of Mailer’s insecurities, paranoia, fear, weakness.
“I had loved her with the fury of my ego… but I loved her the way a drum majorette loved the power of the band for the swell it gave to each little strut (Mailer, 22).”
At the start of the book Stephen murders his wife. Like in Miller’s work, Mailer’s character is ultimately drawn to the woman he can celebrate as a goddess – a representation of the ultimate feminine ideal. He feels he is nothing without her; that he would crumble. His mortality is wrapped up in her – even in the way she treats him like dirt. He is completely emasculated by her presence.
In the aftermath of the murder and ensuing cover-up, Stephen is driven to wipe out the void by sleeping with whatever woman comes across his path. Sex is his only solace in the aftermath of death. But every person he meets is somehow connected back to his dead wife. They all manage to bring up his fears – fear of loss, fear of power, fear of women, even fear of the black man, which culminates in an attack against his rival, jazz musician Shago Martin, for a nightclub singer named Cherry.
“Some hard-lodged boulder of fear I had always felt with Negroes was in the bumping, elbow-busting and crash of sound as he went barreling down, my terror going with him in the long deliberate equivalent of the event which takes place in an automobile just before a collision… (Mailer, 172).”
Every character is a vessel for Stephen’s fear. And as he charges the bull in all forms, he becomes electric with magic. He stands on the edge, testing his own mortality simply so that he can accept it. On the opposite end of his fear lies loss.
At the time that this book was written in 1964, so much progress was being made so fast that the balance was thrown off kilter. The old hierarchy that served the white man was breaking down, and as Mailer illustrates, there was a great amount of fear towards all that the white man had oppressed. But on the reverse side, the character of Stephen initially reacts from his abusive heiress wife. He knows the anger of the oppressed for himself. He understands both sides, which contributes to his paranoia. Mirrored in Stephen clenching his fist in his wife’s palatial living room, there is tension on every page that won’t let go.
Like the character of Stephen, when I was single I often sought men who I could worship and fear. It was the fear that drew me to them in the first place. I wanted to conquer their overpowering charisma and become as strong as they were. Just standing next to them, in one minute you could feel like an adored celebrity, and in the next they could say something that made you feel like nothing. They thought of themselves as Greek gods with a personal sense of mythology that must be spread to the masses via the mouth and the penis. They desired to leave their territorial marks through mind games, disease, and numbers. But that is a brutal simplification of the story, and I still love all of them.
I depended on their magic to create my art. Back then the air was filled with electricity when they entered a room. Now the thought of being in the same room fills me with something more akin to dread. But these world-wise, intelligent, creative genius’s all taught me how to live my life with freedom. Looking back, I admire the intensity of my hate and my love for them. As the main characters in the novels I write, they are held in time, when reality finds their game so tiresome.
There is an enormous sense of relief as the character of Stephen confesses to all his failings. In each of his outbursts, I think back and wish I had stood up to fear, not in a murderous or violent fashion, but in the wish that I could have grown into strength and vitality a little sooner in life. I didn’t stand up to these men in my past as much as I should have because I was afraid of losing them. I just wanted the magic to last. But there is magic, even, in the death of a relationship.