Monday, November 12, 2007

Going to school on Norman

Jesse Kornbluth on Norman Mailer

It was the Spring of 1967, a Saturday night in Harvard Square, and Norman Mailer was exceedingly happy. And as Mailer drove his ancient Citroen station wagon to a party at one of Cambridge's Brattle Street mansions, so was this writer, the 21-year-old in the back seat.

Norman Mailer photographed by Carl Van Vechten
I was telling Mailer about my girlfriend's family, especially her long-ago ancestor, Simon Cameron --- the notoriously corrupt Secretary of War for Abraham Lincoln and the originator of the ever-timely truth, "An honest politician is one who, when bought, stays bought.”

“Kornbluth, you are a jeweler,” Mailer said, “and a jeweler always gives me his jewel.”?

Actually, I was the managing editor of The Harvard Advocate, the college's venerable (and perpetually broke) literary magazine. For weeks, I had papered Cambridge with posters announcing a reading by the novelist --- he had not yet marched on the Pentagon and written any non-fiction books --- and the attendance turned out to be over-the-moon spectacular. Even after paying Mailer, the magazine would clean up.

Then Mailer had a jewel for me: The magazine could keep his fee.

Happiness was now exponential. The writer who was “between” books had attracted his largest-ever audience of young readers. And the young English major who idolized Mailer sensed he'd have more than one night to go to school on him in the hope of becoming Norman the Second.

And, for a year, Mailer and I had a smallish relationship. Until Graduation Day. There was a party afterward, and Mailer showed up. We hugged. And then my mother rushed over.

“Norman Mailer!” She grabbed him and kissed him. “I can't tell you what your friendship has meant to Jesse.”

“If I burned down a supermarket,” Mailer once wrote, “my mother would have said, 'They must have done something to annoy Norman.'” I had read just about every word Mailer wrote, but not those. So I didn't realize that Mailer's mother was as effusive as mine --- and even more protective of her son than my doting mother. I just thought: Please, God, make me invisible.

My misplaced sense of shame kept me from seeing Mailer for the next 15 years. Today, I bless my mother. Mailer was a lush oak; you could plant your seed under his branches, but nothing grew to maturity there. Young writers who didn't grasp that imitated him and wrote themselves into a corner; out in my personal Gulag, with no mentor to influence me, I blackened enough pages in my own fumbling style to eventually have a style.

In the interim, Mailer became a brand. Genuine anger had turned into philosophical shtick and pseudo-hipster doubletalk; the lust for literary immortality seemed to have morphed into a father's concern for supporting nine children. He was a chameleon, and, whatever the task, he did it with seeming ease --- including his transformation from Brooklyn swinger to Park Avenue pussycat. When next we met, it was at a black tie dinner in the early '80s. “On nights like this,” Mailer told the woman who would be my first wife, “Jesse and I will always be the two poorest guys in the room.”

Odd what you remember. With some friends, it's places, conversational topics, shared intimacy. With Noman Mailer, it's sentences. But then, it's not a small ability to speak in aphorisms, with the punctuation neatly in place and no “uhs” or pauses. He had the same quality in his writing. I haven't read Advertisements for Myself in more than half a century, but I know I'm quoting him exactly: “The shits are killing us, even as they kill themselves.” And how many times have I consoled myself with this: “To humiliate a good writer is to give him an ax.” Or this: "You don't really know a woman until you meet her in court."

Gore Vidal said that you should never pass up an opportunity to have sex or be on TV. Norman Mailer didn't. That's why I have a feeling he'll be remembered as the first writer since Hemingway in America and Dickens in England to be a mass-market celebrity --- a brawler ready to take on all comers. I recently sat with an indisputably great writer of Mailer's generation and listened, rapt, as he considered which of his contemporaries might be read after his death. The list was short. Mailer was not on it.

He was probably right. Few are going to wade through the 700 pages of The Naked and the Dead, the World War II novel that made Mailer famous at 25. Nobody's going to discover the flashes of brilliance in The Deer Park, his Hollywood novel. Increasingly, readers will come to embrace what is, soon after his death, the clichéd assessment of his career: The guy who set out to be a great novelist will be remembered for his addictively readable non-fiction chronicle, The Executioner's Song, and his anti-war adventure, The Armies of the Night.

I'm not looking to bronze Norman Mailer. He wrote some second-rate books. He had some ridiculous ideas. He helped a killer get out of jail, only to see him, just six weeks later, kill again. He participated in a cocaine-smuggling enterprise that almost surely involved him more than he testified under oath. And for a writer obsessed with women, he was no particular friend to them.?

But he had guts. He kicked the bad guys when they were on top, a kind of courage that Important Writers seem to have lost. He could write a killer sentence and, on a dime, spin an outrageous yarn. He had big dreams. He took wild chances. And he was kind --- so very kind --- to lost boys.

-- Jesse Kornbluth, for