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A Pugilist at the Riots: Mailer’s Sixties

Review by Richard Wirick

Four Books of the Sixties
Norman Mailer
Library of America
879 Pages

Mailer was a better journalist than fiction writer. Between The Naked and the Dead (1946) and his brilliant The Executioner’s Song (1979), few of his novels matched his long essays on contemporary culture, social affairs, film, and other writers. This new volume from the LOA shows Mailer as really one of the inventors—along with Tom Wolfe, John Sack, Gay Talese and a few others—of what came to be called the New Journalism. It was a genre in which the old self-effacement of the journalist was largely scuttled, and the narrator’s personality entered with a vengeance and vigor that made him a character as worthy (usually) of our concern as any of his subjects. With two books, the case can be made that the Sixties really wouldn’t have been the Sixties, as we know it, without Mailer’s reportage.

The first book was The Armies of the Night, his account of the 1967 anti-war march on the Pentagon, which he attended along with fellow literary figures like Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg. Sub-titled ‘History as a Novel; the Novel as History,’ Mailer himself appears as the narrator Aquarius, fitting the age and painting street scenes with an unforgiving, dazzling pen. He follows the marchers until he, along with Lowell, Ginsberg, Dave Dellinger and others, are forced by organizers to essentially lead the charge, linking arms in the style of the civil rights marches.

Mailer’s descriptive powers are unmatchable when applied to the canvas of real life, in a way he was never able to equal in the largely voice-driven novels. Mailer was arrested at the Pentagon event, consistent with his long fascination with incarceration as a subject and metaphor. Scenes of blocked bridges, tear gas clouds wafting over the Potomac and into monuments, and his sketches of oddball officials like Sen. Fulbright and the D.C. police chief all contain Chekhovian touches of the slightest minutae—the way hair and fingernails were trimmed, the tone of sloganning voices and echoing police orders, the sleeping tent-armies of demonstrators lining the river like the pre-dawn Shakespeare’s Agincourt Battle in Henry V. Willie Morris set aside an entire issue of Harpers to contain all 50,000 words, and it was an overnight, justified literary sensation that garnered him the 1969 National Book Award.

The Democratic National Convention in August 1968 was hot on the heels of the Pentagon book, and Morris again signed up Mailer to cover what would become Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Esquire’s Harold Hayes had commissioned Mailer to cover both the 1960 and 1964 Democratic Conventions, and with Mailer’s dance card taken, Hayes assigned Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs to cover the Chicago juggernaut. These three musketeers—a shy, drunk pornographer, a convict, and a junkie—all had prodigious, hallucinatory perspectives on the coming event, but they weren’t the most reliable of narrators. (Hayes thus sent a young editor, John Berendt [the later author of Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil] to herd these cats and translate Genet’s French.) Burroughs provided appropriately dystopic coverage, and probably the best writer among them—Genet—had such a sadomasochistic twist to his homosexuality that he began professing desire for many of the Chicago police who famously bludgeoned demonstrators. (“Their blue helmets make me think they are angels descended from heaven”).

Much of Mailer’s Siege of Chicago, for my money one of the greatest pieces of post-War 20th century journalism, is nothing more than a domestic version of his war reportage. There were ghastly casualties in Chicago, but no one was killed. Mailer observes, from a penthouse in the Conrad Hilton on Grant Park, the CPD’s truly savage charges against the marchers. Helmeted officers pushed scores of demonstrators through the first floor’s plate glass window, prompting outcries from McCarthy and Senator Abe Ribicoff on the convention floor. Mailer frets about going down to the street, fearing that another jail stint would keep him from wiring his copy to Morris at Harper’s. As an alternative, he headed back toward the hall and tried to organize two hundred delegates to march alongside the demonstrators. This was not successful, and soon delegates were nursing broken noses and head gashes. Sneaking away, Mailer meets the Post’s Pete Hamill for drinks, getting so plastered that the two of them, goading national guardsmen in a razor-wired jeep, almost get arrested after all. Mailer is still Aquarius, the peace-loving autodidact who also aches for the mano a mano—this time with law enforcement—that landed him in the D.C. tank for a night.

Mailer weaves in the powerful and contemporary televised debates that enveloped these demonstrations, fueling their descent into violence. The most famously visible was Mayor Daley answering Ribicoff’s criticisms of the cops, calling the senator a “Jew bastard” and inviting him to have carnal relations with himself. On ABC, two of Mailer’s sparring partners, William Buckley and Gore Vidal, insulted one another to the point of fisticuffs, which Mailer the boxer would have welcomed. But there were Yippies to interview, armored jeeps to chase down, tear gas to wash out of his hair.

Mailer’s most powerful portraits are of the candidates themselves, Nixon and the Minneapolis “drugstore liberal” Humphrey, champion of Daley and the older unions and ward bosses, but carrying the inherited Vietnam War on his back like a poor, plodding plough horse. In this passage from the Nixon/Miami segment, how deftly the author vivisects the psyches of the candidate’s “great, Silent Majority of Americans,” without condescension or stereotyping:

There was no line like the wealthy Republicans at the Gala, this was more a pilgrimage of minor delegates, sometimes not even known in their own small city, a parade of wives and children and men who owned hardware stores or were druggists . . . a widow on a tidy income, her minister and fellow-delegate, minor executives from minor corporations . . . editor of a small town newspaper, professors from Baptist teachers’ colleges, a high school librarian, a young political aspirant and young salesman—the stable and the established, the middle-aged and the old, a sprinkling of the young, the small towns and the quiet respectable cities of the Midwest and the far West and the border states were out to pay homage to . . . the representative of their conservative orderly heart, and it was obvious they admired him in a way too deep for applause . . . moving forward in circumscribed steps.

And there is poetry and rhapsody is Mailer’s descriptions, linking the countries’ metropolises like bangles on a long-worn, grubby bracelet that he shakes, bauble by bauble, metaphor by metaphor, until he comes down to the anthemic embrace of the City that Works:

Chicago is the great American city. New York is one of the capitals of the world and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic, San Francisco is a lady, Boston has become Urban Renewal. Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town and Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle. St Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.

Mailer took the “tough, spare, particularly American” form of writing Hemingway had handed him, applying that palette to an incredibly divided, uncharacteristically politicized population (sound familiar?). His jabs and left hooks fly like lightning as he punches every other working reporter out of the ring.

Richard Wirick practices law in Los Angeles.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24