New York -- The hipster is a geezer now.
Remember all those pictures of Norman Mailer in the 1950s and '60s? He was the archetypal hep cat -- drink and cigarette in
hand at endless New York literary parties, or boxing with former lightweight champion Jose Torres, or throwing himself into the hurly-burly of New York mayoral politics and anti-war demonstrations. He was expressing the "psychopath in oneself," the memorable phrase from his essay "The White Negro," which urged one and all to live the existential and rebellious life of the "hipster."
Now his hair is thinning and thoroughly white, and there are deep lines on his face. Other changes are apparent. In a question-and-answer session last week with journalists to discuss his latest novel, the highly hyped and much anticipated "Harlot's Ghost," Mr. Mailer was nattily dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer -- looking like your congenial Uncle Norm out for a little weekend spin in his cabin cruiser.
Maybe after all these years Norman Mailer still could fling a drink in your face, but being around him suggests the edges have been softening -- that maybe some of his legendary rebelliousness has been calmed. And though he's no hipster anymore, Norman Mailer does look pretty good for a guy of 68. His barrel-chested frame still gives a sense of power, and he walks with a sure step. He continues to talk authoritatively and exhaustingly about anything -- boxing, literature, sex, the metaphysical -- in that distinctive Mailer style, the words tumbling out in a voice that seems not from Brooklyn, where he has lived much of his life, but from the street nonetheless; hard consonants, swallowed syllables and words, an abundance of colloquialisms.
On this rainy day in New York, he was affable, tolerant of stupid questions, and willing to take on the most difficult inquiries. "Harlot's Ghost," his 1,310-page book about the CIA, was to be released in a few weeks and Mr. Mailer was there to discuss what Random House is calling with understatement his "great American novel."
The questions rolled.
"What to date has been your finest hour?"
"I wouldn't know how to answer that," he said genially. A well-timed pause. "I may not have had my finest hour yet."
Could he have been in the CIA?
He pondered the thought, playing to the moment. "Well, I'm sly," he began slowly, "and not above being deceitful. But I guess really I have all the necessary vices and none of the virtues."
Is "Harlot's Ghost" too long? Who would want to read a 1,310-page novel?
"It's long if you're a book reviewer and have 24 hours to read it," Mr. Mailer responded knowingly as he looked around the room at his interviewers' faces. "But I think it's as long as it's needed to be. I know someone who read it in three days. Other people read it in parts over a few weeks. No matter how long a book is, if it's done right, it ends up becoming your friend."
(Later, he did concede, deadpan: "This book does come in at the very outer edge of portability.")
And, uh, Norman, what about those negative early reviews of "Harlot's Ghost"? Newsweek and Time blasted it for its long-windedness and pomposity. In a review in the New York Times Book Review running today, critic John Simon did a nasty slice-and-dice, calling it "an arbitrary, lopsided novel that outstays its welcome. And keeps on outstaying it."
Well, not to worry. This old "club fighter," as Mr. Mailer facetiously referred to himself at the beginning of the interview session, can absorb a few pokes to the head and below the belt.
"Actually," Mr. Mailer said with a straight face, "I think he [Mr. Simon] liked it more than he wanted to."
Perhaps it was no surprise that Mr. Mailer seemed so even-handed, so gracious. Certainly this is not the first time that a bull's-eye has been painted on Norman Mailer's chest. True to the example of one of his early heroes, Ernest Hemingway, he's led a big life, with big successes and big failures.
His literary career has included a stunning, hugely successful first novel in "The Naked and the Dead," which came out in 1948 when Mr. Mailer was but 25, and remains one of the finest works of fiction to come out about World War II. He won Pulitzer Prizes for "The Armies of the Night" (in journalism) and "The Executioner's Song" (fiction), in the latter blending fiction and nonfiction in a remarkably effective way.
Along with Tom Wolfe, he must be considered an essential early voice of the New Journalism, which brought novelistic techniques and the first-person approach to nonfiction.
But there have been many duds and downs. Most of his novels have been harshly criticized; few writers would want to have "Ancient Evenings," his turgid 1982 novel set in ancient Egypt, on their resumes. There also have been six wives, one of whom he stabbed in a celebrated incident, and innumerable public posturings and embarrassments.
Above all, he was everywhere. Before there was a Madonna, there was Norman Mailer, thrusting himself into the often reluctant American consciousness and pontificating to beat the band. He would have public debates with William Buckley and Germaine Greer. He ran for mayor of New York in 1969. He would annoy and enrage people on any number of topics -- feminists especially loathed him. He championed Jack Abbott, a murderer-turned-writer who, unfortunately, went on to stab a waiter in New York. He seemed to exemplify for many an obnoxious view of a writer's life: hairy-chested (pity if you were a woman), boozing and brawling.
John Aldridge, a literary critic in the 1940s and '50s, remarked that Mr. Mailer seemed to believe in "a private paranoid revision of Descarte: 'I offend, therefore I am.' " Critic Robert Brustein complained, "Mailer personifies most dramatically the kind of havoc that the news theatre can visit on a creative personality. . . . Mailer seems to me almost preternaturally preoccupied with his cultural image, as if his overarching impulse were to dominate the Celebrity Register, to superimpose the star system on literature."
But this day Mr. Mailer was talking not about fights and booze, but needing to channel his attention on writing. After all, he is not a young man any more.
"When I'm writing, I suspect there's a quiet groan that goes through the family, because all of this energy has to go to the writing, day after day," he said. "It's almost monastic -- I do nothing but write, and do that for a month at a time. I can do very little at the end of the day after I write.
"But that's what it's all about at my age. You take reasonable care of your brain, and don't drink too much, etc., and you'll keep your energy level up."
What about those who argue that he's wasted some of his prodigious talent on extracurricular affairs?
Mr. Mailer turned to his questioner and gazed for a moment. "I think I would have been an altogether different kind of novelist if I had lived the quiet life or a sequestered life," he said without rancor. "I might have been a better novelist, but I'll never know and I don't think that much about it anymore. Obviously, I passed that point of no return a long time ago."
He doesn't enjoy being a target, he allowed, but "it's a small price to pay for some of the other pleasures." But he does anticipate criticism for his surprisingly even-handed view of the CIA in "Harlot's Ghost," considering his long history of involvement in the American Left.
"I really couldn't have written this book 20 years ago," Mr. Mailer acknowledged, referring to a time when he was deeply immersed in leftist politics. "But I think the CIA is necessary -- even though the Cold War is over, we need intelligence today more than ever. And anyway, much of the Left wrote me off a long time ago." Today, he considers himself part of the "conservative Left."
"Harlot's Ghost" took six years to write. Mr. Mailer said he often felt "that I was going through a cave, following a thread, and I wasn't certain who put the thread there. In other words, your unconsciousness put the thread there. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it is going to be a good thread. But you keep following it, because it's all you've got.
"I never got into a panic on this book as such, when I thought, 'I can't go on.' I did have the obvious concern that it may be awfully long."
The book was meticulously researched -- Mr. Mailer read hundreds of books on the CIA and even includes a bibliography at the end of the novel. But, amazingly, we can expect some form of "The Son of Harlot." For, you see, Norman Mailer has written, on the very last page, the chilling words "To be continued."
"I thought this volume would say all I needed to say, but there's still more to write," he said as a few writers affected mock groans. "But don't worry -- this one will probably be only eight or nine hundred pages."
First, though, he will undertake a critical study of an old interest of his, the artist Pablo Picasso; the working title is "Rotation of Crops." "Those two books should keep me busy for some time," he said.
He read an excerpt of an interview he gave in 1963, in which he talked about what ruins a first-rate writer. There are many things, he told the interviewer, but "the worst probably is cowardice -- as one gets older, one becomes aware of one's cowardice, the desire to be bold which once was a joy gets heavy with caution and duty." Did Mr. Mailer, with old age upon him, still feel that way?
He shook his head quickly. "I think it's easier now," he said. "When you get old, you think, 'I got nothing to worry about anymore.' I think it frees you. I don't know if you get bolder, but a touch of bravery gets a lot easier.
"I mean, when I was 30 and tackled a book like this, I would have been certain that they would have sent over some hit man [general laughter among the group]. Now I know that the CIA's budget wouldn't allow it. No hit men for novelists."
THE MAILER FILE
Born: Jan. 31, 1923; Long Branch, N.J.
Education: Harvard, graduated with B.S. in engineering sciences 1943.
Current home: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Family: Married to Norris Church, his sixth wife, since 1980. Nine children.
On his reputation: "I think it hits my wife more than it hits me."
Reading spy fiction: "What's satisfying about spy novels generally is that they have a clear outline. It's a little bit like reading the lyrics to a song that's a favorite of yours. What I'm trying to do in a sense here, maybe a bit grandiloquently, is maybe trying to do a few variations on the theme."
On a sequel to "Harlot's Ghost": "I felt that this book did not have the finish to be satisfactory. That was my gamble. It's a little bit like life. We have major themes in our life that continue, and some that don't. And I wanted this book to be more life-like than any other book I had written."
An excerpt from 'Harlot's Ghost'
. . . She looked no older on our first night than twenty-seven, but had been married already for eighteen and a half of her forty-one years. Hugh Tremont Montague was, she told me (and who could not believe her?), the only man she had ever known. Harlot was, also, seventeen years her senior, and very high echelon. Since one of his skills had been to work with the most special double agents, he had developed a finer sense of other people's lies than they could ever have of his. By now he trusted no one, and, of course, no one around him could ever be certain Harlot was telling the truth. Kittredge would complain to me in those bygone days that she couldn't say if he were a paragon of fidelity, a gorgon of infidelity, or a closet pederast. I think she began her affair with me (if we are to choose the bad motive rather than the good) because she wanted to learn whether she could run an operation under his nose and get away with it.