Army of One
A Feisty and Enigmatic Sense of Self Drove Norman Mailer

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 12, 2007

Norman Mailer was celebrated in Washington last month and, true to form, he came out looking larger than life.

Mailer, who died Saturday of kidney failure at 84, was far too sick to make it down from New York for the occasion -- a conference at Georgetown University -- though he had wanted to.

But if you'd been in Gaston Hall for the screening of a 40-year-old documentary called "Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up?" you'd have caught a glimpse of this combative, innovative, ego-driven literary contender in his prime.

Key word: glimpse. The real Norman Mailer, an aggressively visible public figure for much of his six-decade writing career, wasn't easy to know.

The documentary was shot in 1967. It is built -- as was the Georgetown conference -- around Mailer's participation in that year's Oct. 21 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, a protest the writer was to immortalize in "The Armies of the Night."

Mailer had had doubts about marching. At 44, he was older than most of the protesters and he styled himself a "left conservative." He thought it proper to wear a three-piece, dark-blue pinstriped suit to the proceedings.

He had also come to understand, as he would write in "Armies," that there was a "wild man" within him who could appear without warning. Sometimes the creature showed up when Mailer was "frightened and furious at the fear," sometimes more randomly.

Now here that wild man was on-screen, swigging bourbon from a stolen coffee mug, ranting obscenely and incoherently to a pre-protest gathering at Washington's Ambassador Theater. Shot from below, looming squat and dark over his startled listeners, this Mailer looked more like Louisiana rabble-rouser Huey Long than a New York intellectual.

Before the film was over, a number of other Mailers would appear.

There was Mailer the litterateur, lining up with blue-blood poet Robert Lowell and highbrow critic Dwight Macdonald to help lead tens of thousands of demonstrators as they moved out from the Lincoln Memorial and across Memorial Bridge.

There was Mailer the unafraid, deciding it was time to get himself arrested and striding purposefully into the ranks of the military policemen and U.S. marshals defending the Pentagon.

There was Mailer the preacher, emerging from the resulting detention to sermonize -- slowing his cadence so reporters could catch every word -- that while he wasn't a Christian himself, he was married to one and in his view, we Americans were "burning the body and the blood of Christ in Vietnam."

A panel discussion followed the screening. Among the panelists was British documentarian Dick Fontaine, who'd made the film. At one point, a young woman rose to confess her puzzlement at Mailer the movie star.

"He seems a little crazy," she said.

Fontaine didn't bother to dispute this characterization. He just offered advice on tracking down Mailer the real.

"In order to see him at all clearly," Fontaine said, "you have to read this book."

* * *

Yes, you do. If you want to understand the prodigious, prodigal talent we've just lost, you have to read "The Armies of the Night."

Never mind that Mailer wrote more than two dozen other books, some lauded, others panned. Never mind that in the great American attention-grabbing game, his larger-than-lifeness came to rival his writing. This was a man, as Yale ubercritic Harold Bloom once observed, whose life and work couldn't possibly be separated.

"Truly he is his own supreme fiction," Bloom wrote. "He is the author of 'Norman Mailer,' a lengthy, discontinuous, and perhaps canonical fiction."

When Bloom wrote that, he was thinking of Mailer's 1959 collection "Advertisements for Myself." But "The Armies of the Night" comprises the most revealing portrait of Mailer that its author or anyone else has ever drawn.

Its power stems, as Mailer archivist and biographer J. Michael Lennon noted at Georgetown, from a crucial artistic choice.

"Armies" is written in the third person. Most of the action is observed and narrated, not by the conventional first-person "I," but by a central character known variously as "the Protagonist," "the Novelist," "the Historian," "Norman Mailer" or simply "Mailer" -- as in: "Mailer walked to the stage. He did not have any idea any longer of what he would say."

Mailer's employment of what might be called "the third person personal," Lennon said, allowed him "to both use and transcend himself." He could be, simultaneously, both observer and observed.

Today, the move seems entirely Maileresque. Mailer's penchant for thrusting himself to the forefront, both in public and in his writing, has dominated his image for so long that we forget that this "Norman Mailer" was a self-invention. But consider what he said in 1948 -- in an interview unearthed by Lennon -- shortly after "The Naked and the Dead" made the 25-year-old first-novelist a literary star.

"It's much better when people who read your books don't know anything about you," Mailer the modest asserted back then. "I have refused to let Life magazine photograph me."

What happened to that Mailer?

Another panelist, English professor Morris Dickstein of City University of New York, explained.

The 1950s, Dickstein said, were "a period of personal problems and career reversals" for Mailer. His second and third novels "had largely failed," and fiction was "beginning to look like a dead end for him. He edged into journalism, but the results were uneven."

Then came "Advertisements for Myself," in which what Dickstein called "a strange and surprising alchemy" turned Mailer's collected journalism into a kind of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts self-portrait. He learned that "by filtering the world through his own ego" he could reinvent himself, "turning straw into gold." And he went on, in "Armies," to use his "grandiose yet mocking improvisations -- his lighthearted self-importance, buoyed by an authentic moral seriousness . . . to cut a very large swath through the entire spirit of the age."

Mailer would write many more books, including "The Executioner's Song," his epic retelling of the life and execution of Gary Gilmore. Joan Didion called that one "ambitious to the point of vertigo," and it is widely viewed as his masterpiece. But while it, too, was a fascinating mix of genres -- either novelistic nonfiction or fiction following closely on reality -- "The Executioner's Song" was otherwise an entirely different book, because its author kept himself far in the background.

He would never again reveal himself quite as he did in "The Armies of the Night," a book that might have been called "Norman Mailer Marches on the Pentagon and Examines His Soul."

* * *

"From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist," it begins. A reporter from Time has written up Mailer's Ambassador Theater debacle and his later arrest. The Novelist quotes the unflattering portrait in full, then launches his own version of the tale.

In it, of course, we meet Mailer the egotist -- but he's an egotist who can laugh at himself. "Not for nothing," he writes, "had an eminent critic once said that Mailer was as fond of his style as an Italian tenor is fond of his vocal cords." He's also an egotist who understands that his egotism sprang from an ambition to move beyond a hated childhood self: "a modest boy, a modest young man . . . the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."

We meet macho Mailer, the quick-to-anger pugilist always poised to duke it out with anyone (an overanxious protester, an American Nazi) who annoys or threatens him.

We meet insecure Mailer, who sees himself going mano a mano , figuratively speaking, with the patrician Lowell. The poet, oddly enough, seems not to find it quite as necessary to compete with Mailer as Mailer finds it to compete with him.

We meet that well-known character, sexist Mailer, though he makes only a passing reference to his worst sin against women: the time in 1960 when he stabbed his second wife at a drunken party and wound up committed to a prison hospital for a mere 17 days. (His wife declined to press charges.)

At the conference, feminist essayist Katha Pollitt didn't mention the stabbing. She didn't have to: Few have forgotten this dark side of Mailer's legend. But Pollitt did point out, among other things, the passage in "Armies" in which Mailer casually mentions that for years he never noticed that a nice woman he knew only as "Dinny," the wife of a writer friend, was in fact the well-known poet Denise Levertov.

But Pollitt also said that "what's so great about literature is that you don't have to fight the writer. You can take what's useful and what's inspiring." And what inspired her about "Armies" was "the freedom Norman Mailer gave himself."

"He gave himself the freedom to be ridiculous," she continued. "He gave himself the freedom to be egocentric, to put himself at the center of a story that he is only very peripheral at, and to make a joke out of that."

He also gave himself the freedom to be serious about the fate of America.

Mailer saw his country -- for which he sometimes felt "a sharp searing love" -- as threatened not just by the Vietnam War but by the broader dominion of what he called "corporation land," by "the subtle oppression which had come to America out of the very air" of the 20th century, with "its oppressive Faustian lusts, its technological excrement all over the conduits of nature, its entrapment of the innocence of the best . . . ."

This, in the end, is why he chose the technique he did. "Once History inhabits a crazy house," he informs readers who might be puzzled by the choice, "egotism may be the last tool left to History."

There's more. Much more.

But as Dick Fontaine said: To see Norman Mailer clearly, you have to read "Armies" for yourself.

One last Mailerism, then, to bid our Protagonist farewell.

Just after Mailer's Pentagon arrest, a reporter darted up to him in search of a quote. When such quote-hunting is artfully done, Mailer explained as he re-created the scene, the journalist makes his subject feel "sufficiently important to believe his immortal initials are being carved on a buttock of history."

There's no need for help from journalists here. With "The Armies of the Night," Norman Mailer carved a giant "N.M." on history's buttock all by himself -- and on literature's as well.

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