Sunday, November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer Wrote Books, Too

By Lars Trodson

I went upstairs to get my copy of “Ancient Evenings”, and I suppose that is the great thing about living with books. I knew right where it was, I also knew that I had taken the dust jacket off some time ago – probably now lost – and I opened the book to a random page and started to read, and remembered that the book was dense, and not nearly as mysterious as I thought it would be; no one, I don’t think, would list “Ancient Evenings” as one of Norman Mailer's best books.

When I first heard of the novel, more than 25 years ago, the title, that lovely, evocative title, made me think of quiet nights with small buildings huddled underneath a warm, starry, purple desert night sky. A breathless quiet place of hushed voices, but the book seemed to have none of that. It seemed to me quite literal, with a vast cast of characters. The book didn’t have any of the energy that I remembered from “The Executioner’s Song” or “Armies of the Night.” Or even some passages of “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”, which I remember mostly from a description of a bar by the ocean where a couple of characters were having a drink at night. I remember thinking I wanted to have a drink at that bar. There is something particularly appealing about drinking at night near the ocean.

It occurred to me that Norman Mailer, white haired and corpulent, was in the movie “Ragtime”, which I went to see when it came out primarily because it had James Cagney in it, and I thought maybe it would be the only time I would get to see James Cagney in a movie released in my lifetime. But there was a scene in it with Mailer, as the architect Stanford White, bowing his head in a courtly manner just moments before he was shot by that jealous husband. And for some reason I remember an anecdote about Mailer and Marilyn Monroe. Maybe he wanted to sleep with her and she didn’t, or maybe it was the other way around, but it seems to be an anecdote from a messier time.

Which reminded me I had seen Mailer on the – what was it – the David Susskind show? Was it Dick Cavett? He was telling the story about how he had stabbed his wife, and he was talking about marijuana, and he was having a feud with Gore Vidal, and then I read “Armies of the Night” and I could not believe how precise and beautiful the language was and I thought about it for a long time. How does one write like that? And I suppose one is born writing like that.

I first heard the news of Mailer’s death on the Saturday morning edition of “Good Morning America.” I was reading The New York Times and the news, once again, seemed to be almost all bad, no worse or better than usual, just all bad, as though the earth was crumbling away just a little bit more, and then the young woman co-hosting the show mentioned, in passing, that Mailer had died. I was struck how she seemed to really have no idea who she seemed to be talking about: “…controversial author….two Pulitzer prizes….married six times…” This was celebrity reporting, of course, it had nothing to do with books, or what it meant to be known as a novelist in post-war America. To be known as an American novelist, well, that is a thing that may have now come and gone. This young news woman was much happier and more informed when she was hosting a fashion segment later on – it was all about “layering” – rather than having to read about some old goat that never made the cut on TMZ.

Mailer would not have appreciated, I don’t think, the punctuation in his obit that appeared on the crawl at the bottom of the screen on the New England Cable News network. It read, just like this: “Author, Norman Mailer, has died ….” I had to laugh. Maybe they could have thrown in a few more commas.

I suppose one day when I read the obit of a writer I won’t have to go upstairs and get my copy of a book. I’ll just log on and find the text. But it won’t be my book, of course. It won’t be the one I went out and bought because the author meant something to me. It won’t be my copy of “Armies of the Night” I bought at the used bookstore, or the new edition of “The Executioner’s Song” that I bought at the Brown Bookstore on Thayer Street in Providence. It won’t be anything to hold in your hand, or put back on your shelf. It won’t have that realness to it. I used to roam the corridors of the Brown Bookstore as a very young man – sometimes I took the bus into Providence before I could drive – and I looked at the rows and rows of books. I would pick one up and look through it, and put it back, and I’d always be amazed about the work, and slightly jealous of all those who had been published. I’d think of someone like Mailer as a giant, not just as a provocateur, of course, or just as a spinner of anecdotes, or someone who was fascinated by film but seemed to have no real feel for it, but rather as someone who made me think about all the ways in which one could be a writer.

Sometime soon, maybe tonight, maybe in a month, I’ll put “Ancient Evenings” back on the shelf where I got it. In a month or a year I’ll come across the dust jacket. I’ll keep the book as long as I can, and I realize this may be the last home the book will ever have. What’s a copy of “Ancient Evenings” worth to anyone, anyway? So I realize that no one will keep a guy like Mailer alive for me; I’ll have to do it myself. I’ll have to keep reading the books; I’ll have to buy them. And if I feel as though even a guy like Norman Mailer can be diminished by the world because the lady on “Good Morning America” had no idea who he was, I’ll go up to my shelf, and take down to the book, hold it in my hand, see the imprint of the printing on the pulpy page, and believe there is some permanence to the work, after all.