Pacific Rim Review of Books

About Us
Current Issue
Issue Archives
Upcoming Reviews

Contact Us
Pacifica Poetry Prize

[Back to Issue Features]

The Duke of Self Regard

review by Richard Wirick

Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
edited by J. Michael Lennon
Random House

Those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s were exposed not so much to the writer as to his public personae. We saw the head butts with Gore Vidal on Dick Cavett and otter talk shows, coupled incongruously with Mailer’s amazing erudition on almost any subject thrown his way. We saw the parody (and nearly self-parody) of the New York mayor’s race with his ticket-mate Jimmy Breslin. We endured Maidstone and other film forays. We more than endured the feminism debates with Germaine Greer at Town Hall during the release of The Prisoner of Sex.

Though Mailer never got to the point—as he said of Truman Capote—of replacing his writing with a social life that became his “real work,” it was damn close for a while. He had the non-fiction masterpieces of The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago behind him, but would have to wait a decade until his fiction would crest, through a long-awaited self-effacement of the narrator, in The Executioner’s Song, the Gary Gilmore novel told in a majestic duet of “Eastern” and “Western” voices. It was the home run of a novel he had not enjoyed since The Naked and the Dead.

Now we have the letters, and, as Hemingway said, ‘It is fun to write letters because it is fun to get letters back.’ Many of the missives herein were one-offs to other celebrities (often non-literary) that he hardly knew; many are long essay-disquisitions to pet-project recipients of the time, especially the prison bird Jack Abbott, whose writing Mailer justly praised but who failed to respond to Mailer’s half-baked program of rehabilitation.

There are some letters that illuminate his (and many working novelists’) mundane and tormenting labours. To Gordon Lish, as Executioner’s Song was germinating, he wrote “The Gilmore book has me working like a lawyer preparing briefs; I think I have two thousand pages of notes already, and not a line of manuscript.” Mailer had not yet broken through and abandoned the ‘Aquarius’ personae that animated Armies and other successful novel-as-history experiments, so his flailing left him with little but compliments for other writers, which are generous, encouraging, and abundant. This to Abbott: “You have one talent that very few writers have, even good professional writers, and that is a personal tone . . . . .[There’s a psychology to convicts and murderers which has never been touched by anyone, except for that author sitting next to God himself, Old Dostoevsky.]” Tone and style, especially when coming with the effortless virtuosity with which they visited Mailer, would be the key out of his own true prison of self-doubt, a place never inhabited by certain “naturals” (Bellow, Malamud) he did not count himself among. The many letters to Lillian Hellman show his admiration for the “natural voice” of her then husband Dashiell Hammett: “I had considerable respect for Dash, and not because he would refuse to face into knotty problems, but would . . . dismiss them by an exercise of his personal style.”

What one marvels at here, of course, is the range of Mailer’s interests. He jots off praises to the old Beat buddy Michael McClure for his Meat Science Essays; hobknobs with Bellow and the Kennedys (“Jack didn’t look like a president, too pretty; he looked like your ski instructor”) in gathering notes for The Presidential Papers, and tells Graham Greene he will simply have to wait his turn for a more substantive letter. Bad manners though it traditionally is, he actually answers his critics. My favourite was a letter to William Buckley castigating him for letting (the great critic) Hugh Kenner, then a National Review staffer, to trash Mailer’s Deaths for the Ladies: “Bill, one wonders whether you are not managing a farm team for the Book Review at Time.”

For every wonderfully funny, juvenile fight over sports statistics with Red Smith or Sonny Liston, there are earlier, searingly astute snippets on the big (besides his own) books of the day: Heller’s Catch-22; Updike’s Rabbit, Run (“its great, bending arcs of despair”); Baldwin’s Another Country, and Roth’s Letting Go. He could see the genius behind Sartre’s novels, but deftly warned away readers from the great man’s “ultimates and principles.” He gave unlikely praise to Isherwood’s Weimar stories as the inspiration for Barbary Shore, and displayed increasing obsession with (to quote Vidal) the National Security State, and his ambitions of writing its ultimate history in his CIA opuses Harlot’s Ghost and (the much better) Oswald’s Tale.

Of all possible things, theology surfaces in late letters as a constant preoccupation. He fashions his own doctrinology and then bobs and dances around it like one of his beloved prizefighters. His fluency is staggering but beguiling. He explains to some recipients his notion that God puts at work certain forces of good and evil in the world, and lets them war with one another. Accordingly, “[H]e is not all-powerful; he exists as a warring element in a divided universe, and we [humankind] are part of—perhaps the most important part of—His great expression, His enormous destiny.” He also believed that certain evils of the human heart could “invariably be saved by art.”

This certainly was not the case with the aforementioned Abbott. As soon as Abbott—with Mailer’s help, just as Sartre had helped free Genet—was released from prison, he stabbed to death a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant in some dispute over use of the restroom. As J. Robert Lennon says in his admirable preface, Mailer finally recognized the “folly that sinners and criminals could invariably be saved by art.”

The best letters here have Mailer writing admirably about the process of composition, and of course, with characteristic pugnacity, lighting into his critics. Especially after he learned to box, his desire for physical confrontation became puerile. He describes vanquishment “eating at my heart like a cancer.” But the same correspondent could brim with charm and almost unqualified offers of assistance and encouragement. He was enormously generous with money, scowling at critics of the first mega-advances he got from Little, Brown with the exclamation “I have nine children.” He was a beacon to grieving friends, writers on a bad publishing streak or suffering from block, and spent his “public” time finally in a prolonged presidency of PEN [during the critical Rushdie fatwa], steering clear of the former mayoral politics and rescue of felons. Though his writer’s crow’s nest in Brooklyn Heights was off limits to everyone, his home in Provincetown was virtually a commune. It drove crazy all of his wives save for the last and longest, the very public Norris Church of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Lennon’s selection of a thousand letters, from fifty times that number, is nicely balanced between the peaceful and the provocative. He displays, as the critic John Aldridge once described of his work, “the various ways a man may sin in order to be saved.” Sticking one’s finger into any section of this book yields rich, plentiful passages. A few float on the waters of the drowned. But most fly up, over every dark thing, to join the company of the saved. I last saw him a year before his death, squired along a Beverly Hills street with two canes and his powerful son John Buffalo [full disclosure—John Buffalo was my editor at High Times], and he looked happy—writing-happy, fighting-happy. Not ready to give up anything.

Richard Wirick is the author of the novels One Hundred Siberian Postcards (Telegraph Books) and The Devil’s Water (Ekstasis). He practices law in Los Angeles.