Friday, December 12, 2008
THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT by Norman Mailer
Mailer's Armies of the Night stands up to a second reading, although it does not demand one. There's a lot of good stuff in the book, all of it dominated by Mailer's greatest creation: his colossally insecure, obsessively self-regarding Self. Mailer (or should I say "Mailer"?) comes across like a pugilistic Woody Allen, a nebbish who has read too much Hemingway. He's willing to laugh at himself, but not too boisterously. His reveries about technology, totalitarianism and American life are often insightful, sometimes original and (unfortunately) still relevant. But the book's greatest value for me on this reading lies in Mailer's voice: that reckless, intelligent, prodigal, American voice, that voice that frequently tiptoes to the farthest border of authorial control and occasionally slips over. This voice is the book's greatest contribution, and when it goes away, replaced at page 240 by Mailer's intentionally dry 'Historian' voice, my interest dwindles. This late change of tone and persona is the book's biggest flaw; it's boring and unnecessary because Mailer has already 'shown' us the kind of history/journalism he is writing against--he has shown it to us by writing its diametrical opposite. There's no need for him now to become what he has just demolished. So pages 240-275 are the book's most skim-worthy...But Norman redeems himself at the end. His analysis of the official violence that ended the final phase of the demonstration is some of the best and most disturbing work of his career.