Lots of nice fuzzy obituraries about Norman Mailer in the press today.

the San Francisco Chronicle states: With Mailer’s death, the US loses a colorful literary character”.
Well, that’s one way to put it.

NPR merely says: Norman Mailer, Literary Giant.

Yet, quick, how many of his novels have you read, and if so, what do you remember about them?

Mailer made heroes of those who like to harm people. Enough said. He was “hip” in the days when “hip” was supposed to denote liberation, not the dull self satisfied narcissism that it actually is. And he was, of course, one of the better writers espousing the sexual promiscuity and destruction of what used to be called “common decency” in those bad old days of the pre yuppie/hippie revolutions.

Roger Kimbell has another take on his career, noting he was the courtjester and apologist for the in crowd, who of course ignored that some of his ideas were, literally, murderous for ordinary people.

His crusade to free a murderous writer, Jack Abbott, led to the death of a young waiter, a deed that Mailer dismissed

Mailer’s interest helped to expedite Abbott’s release from prison: “Culture,” Mailer declared at one point, “is worth a little risk.” Abbott had scarcely set foot in New York when he stabbed and killed Richard Adan, a twenty-two-year-old Cuban-American waiter. Mailer testified on Abbott’s behalf at the ensuing murder trial. Asked about Adan’s family at a press conference following his testimony, Mailer said: “I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent.” A reporter from The New York Post then asked “who he was willing to see sacrificed. Waiters? Cubans?” Questions to which Mailer had no response but bluster: “What are you all feeling so righteous about, may I ask?” Clearly, he did not know the answer to his own question.

Similarly, an episode where he stabbed and almost killed his wife was dismissed not only by the law, which back then would not allow prosecution of spousal abuse without the wife’s consent, but by a literary establishment that saw no problem with the action:

What is perhaps most alarming about Mailer’s violence against his wife was that it seems to have titillated more than it repelled his circle of friends. In any event it brought very little condemnation. “Among ‘uptown intellectuals,’” Irving Howe wrote “there was this feeling of shock and dismay, and I don’t remember anyone judging him. The feeling was that he’d been driven to this by compulsiveness, by madness. He was seen as a victim.” Readers who wonder how stabbing his wife could make Mailer a “victim”—and who ask themselves, further, what Mailer’s being a victim would then make Adele—clearly do not have what it takes to be an “uptown intellectual.”

Mel Gibson makes a bad joke, and he’s labled anti Semetic for life. Mailer beat his wives, neglected his kids, and almost stabbed one to death, and the NY literary establishment said: no problem, a fact that says something more about the NY literary establishment than it does about an America that has long ignored his novels.

The only book of his that I read was the “Armies of the Night”…and from that book, I remember only one paragraph.

Mailer was discussing his hatred of Nixon, and then wrote about how well behaved and well balanced his daughters were, and so maybe there was something good an decent about Nixon that they had overlooked (he commented that as a father he knew how hard it was to raise kids).
Ah, but that last part, about raising kids, is the whole point.

How many of his children did he actually raise? (as opposed to visiting once in awhile)? He was at the forefront of sexual liberation and sexual expression as a metaphor of war and an expression of power over the woman. Yet his history shows that many women were willing victims of his charm, and perhaps they and their children are the saddest victims of his life story. SFGATE story states:

After all his marriages, Mailer finally settled down with sixth wife, Norris Church. Coincidentally, Church’s early paintings often seem to replicate family snapshots, complete with the shadow of the photographer in the frame – much like Mailer’s New Journalism style.

His other wives were Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley and actress Carol Stevens. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.

Yet the NYTimesMagazine has the nerve to print an “interview” between Normal and his “son”, where Norman spends all his time recounting cliches about his “glory days” opposing the Viet Nam war instead of trying to discuss reality. (e.g. Cambodia? anyone? anyone?)
What shines through the interview is that, unlike the “progressives” of the 1930’s, the “progressives” of the “Me Generation”, including Mailer’s, despised the lives of the ordinary people who remain faithful to their wives, raised their children, worked hard, and thought stopping those who murdered ordinary villagers on a regular basis to build a utopia might be justified, given the rumors of gulags and laogai in countries that had had similar revolutions.

But the Anti war protests back then wasn’t about saving Asian lives, it was about feeling superior, and for Mailer, the attitude started long before the 1960’s:

Back with the Progressive Party in 1948, we used to laugh and laugh at how dumb the other side was. We’re still laughing, and we’re further behind now.

Ah, the Progressive party. Who backed Stalin…and opposed Truman (who like Bush was hated with a passion by the establishment), who integrated the Army, rebuilt a battered Europe, stopped Stalin’s minions from taking over Italy and Greece, and prevented South Korea from becoming a “worker’s paradise” of starving people and concentration camps.

And the interview discusses how they hate Bush (no details why in the article, the writer assumes you know why), without any discussion if Kerry would have done things differently, or any insight into why anthrpologists are busy digging up 300 mass graves filled by Hussein’s murderous regieme…

Nor, ironically, is there any discussion if Mailer’s son had any stories of his father, the sperm donor, as a small child.

Did  Norman get up at night to hold him when he had an earache? Change his diaper? Hold his hand when he started first grade? Greet him when he came home with  a report card? No, we don’t know, because the interview is all about the Iraq war protests…and actually about NORMAN MAILER HERO, since Mailer pater hogs the conversation instead of allowing his son talk about his documentary film.

And ironically, the name of the “interview”?

Father to son. What I’ve learned about rage.

What’s missing: What I learned about repentance and compassion.
Mailer may have learned a lot about expressing rage against the weak (his wife) and against the common hoi polloi (such as the waiter) who aren’t as important as BIG IMPORTANT WRITERS. What he hasn’t done is learn to emphasize with other, or forgive. It’s all about him, you know, and his rage, his own ego.
What he hasn’t done is grow up.

Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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