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Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer - The Ghost in the Whiskey Bottle Passes On

In reality Norman Mailer died many decades ago but his body kept on running long after the mind that powered it had long ago sputtered and quit. Mailer was the remnant and legacy of a writing culture that encouraged writers to write with the whiskey bottle rather than the pen and viewed a whorehouse as a better setting for a writer's education than a salon or a course in English literature. As a writer with one successful book, Norman Mailer might have gone the Henry Roth route and settled down, raised a family and then reemerge only when he had something to say. Instead Norman Mailer became a one man circus embodying the worst of two decades and entertaining baby boomers before they had to actually grow up and take real jobs. Early on Norman Mailer stopped being a writer and became a performer, his performance was to portray Norman Mailer, like many celebrities Mailer became the object of his own fame. It's a long dark road that fame leads men and women along and boiled down past the cliches and the self-serving rhetoric, Norman Mailer was not substantially different than Britney Spears or any other celebrity primarily famous for once being famous only to become famous for being shocking and a broken down wreck.

Norman Mailer had raw talent but the country and the world are filled with writers who have raw talent. Mailer turned his writing talent into fuel for his fame. Angry and violent, out of control and often out of his mind, Mailer ricocheted through the celebrity section of America's literary culture becoming famous less for his books and more for drunken outrages. Tom Wolfe called Norman Mailer a pile of bones, but in reality he was more like a shambling skeleton held together by whiskey and public interest. He never produced a truly worthwhile novel after The Naked and The Dead because his raw talent functioned purely in the service of his ego and was never tamed by the discipline of structure. Like modern painters, Mailer never learned to draw, only to scrawl, literature for him was an explosive effort rather than a disciplined undertaking.

In the end Mailer became little more than an extension of his ego and in the final curse of angry young men, he became nothing more than a cranky old man repeating himself over and over again, throwing out ideas that were once radical but now tame, a caged animal in a zoo staring in bafflement at the bars of a new century. The whiskey would always be there, but the relevance and the significance were long since missing. The man who had turned his life into a memorial for his tantrums, passed on leaving behind a literary legacy consisting of his own public behavior and little else. If Henry Roth went out with a literary bang coming out of retirement and crafting volume after volume of his own biography in his late eighties, Norman Mailer went out with a whimper, a ghost in a whiskey bottle passing on trailed by a handful of fitful interviews with a dying legend.

3 comments:

Keli Ata said...

Sad, isn't it? MOst people have the image of a famous writer as a writer sitting alone in a small cabin in the woods smoking a cigar, earing a suit jacket with patches on the sleeves and of course--the alcohol.

And of course moodiness going from extreme highs to the lowest of lows with a foul temper.

Too many writers are so caught up with the stereotype that they actually become it.

Either that or they become freakish and hold on the glory of their younger successful days as in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

yobeeone said...

Keli, or they become Johnny Depp in The Secret Window.

Anonymous said...

Very well said.

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