Wednesday, April 7, 2010

AN AMERICAN DREAM by Norman Mailer

An American Dream is The Notorious NKM's most notorious novel, and both notorieties are richly deserved. Even those who haven't read it know that this is the book in which Mailer's alter ego murders his wife, sodomizes her maid (a scene that contains the novel's best/worst unintentionally comic line: "...there was canny, hard-packed evil in that butt..."), severely beats a jazz musician , slugs a titan of industry, and walks away unpunished and pretty much unscathed. Madness beckons, but Riker's Island does not--as it surely would for anyone who committed only the last of these offences. (I'm reminded of Morgan Freeman's best line in Unforgiven: after Eastwood tells him that he's traveling north to kill a couple cowboys, Freeman asks, "What'd they do, spit on a rich fella?") So American Dream is a fantasy novel, an American Fantasy of sex, violence, crime, wealth, power and fame--all turned rancid and rotten at the core. This is America become Cancer Gulch. And the book is written in a prose so highly ornamented and syntactically archaic that I'm tempted to call it Baroque or even Rococo. Mailer lets his talent for metaphor run wild in this novel, and the effect--as usual when Norman lets himself go--is uneven overall. Some passages and phrases are strikingly apt and beautiful, while other paragraphs and pages are overwritten in a way that brings to mind not Faulkner, but Robert Penn Warren at his most florid. The narrative also has its problems, especially in the book's second half, leading me to suspect that Mailer didn't quite know how to wrap things up, so he killed off two characters in offstage bloodbaths and sent Rojack west. The ending is weak and the epilogue self-pitying, but there's just enough good writing here to make the book worth reading--once.

Maybe the most interesting thing about American Dream is that this is the novel in which Mailer makes brutally explicit his lifelong struggle to both embody and overcome the spirit of Ernest Hemingway. The novel might almost be titled The Long, Unhappy Vengeance of Stephen Rojack. Mailer's antihero quickly succeeds where Hemingway's most interesting men fail: he kills the Great Bitch, murdering her in a scene that's explicitly compared to a bullfight. All this leads to a question that every reader must answer for him- or herself: Is Mailer diagnosing a Hemingwayish psychosis at the heart of American life, or is he merely indulging his penchant for super-Hemingwayish excess? He's clearly attempting both, but I think the balance finally falls on the side of self-indulgence. The duality of the book, however unbalanced, reflects Mailer's Oedipal love-hate relationship with the writer sycophants called 'Papa,' a writer whose 1962 suicide, unmentioned in the novel, might be the ultimate 'dog that doesn't bark' in Mailer's fiction.

Readers might also ask to what extent this Hemingwayan interpretation is a self-protective swerve (on the interpreter's part) away from what's most genuinely frightening about this novel: the spectacle of Mailer, just a few years after stabbing his wife, writing a novel in which he makes deep contact with the wife-murderer inside him.

I would also like to take this opportunity to warn readers away from the botched late-1960s movie adaptation of this novel. It's a real piece of crap. Enough said.

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