Tuesday, October 27, 2020

THE DEER PARK by Norman Mailer

Coming to Mailer's Deer Park after Play It As It Lays throws into relief the weaknesses of the former novel: a prose too-often clumsy and cliche-ridden, only rarely rising above mediocrity and sometimes suffering pratfalls in the attempt (and in many spots descending to near-Dreiserian dullness); characters that either strain credulity or seem the merest ciphers from Central Casting; a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Hitlerian posterboy of a narrator who seems an obvious (and slightly sicko) authorial compensatory fantasy; sex scenes sadistically bound by mid-1950s censorship (for which we certainly can't blame the author, but still... Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch around this time.) All of this detracts from the novel's major plus, an exploration of sexuality (including, by more than implication, the homoerotic element in male friendship) that at least equals Lawrence.

Another negative: early in the novel, Mailer's choice of an impotent (anti-)hero narrator signals an intertextual relationship to The Sun Also Rises. Always boxing Papa, Norman here follows up his Farewell to the Bell Tolls (The Naked and the Dead) with a post-WWII California Sun. But, as in all of his many rounds of Ernest-fighting, Mailer's merely shadowboxing in the ring of his mind; Hemingway has already won the bout. Having established his hero's impotence, Mailer wastes no time curing it, an artistic and imaginative failure of the first order that figurative transfers the stigma of impotence from character to author. Norman's the one who can't get artistically hard (and keep his hero soft), while Hemingway stands there rigid, pharaonically displaying a novelistic dong impressive enough to keep Jake Barnes soft for the duration of Sun.

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