Monday, August 18, 2014

Let’s Stop Asking Ourselves to be Fine

Last week, I called my friend Eric to talk about Robin Williams’s death. For fifteen years, now, Eric and I have talked about movies. He always has something interesting to say about the movies I like, and he makes good recommendations of the ones I haven’t seen. This all started as Peace Corps trainees, when we used to walk across Mymensingh together, running down the catalog of great movies we’d both seen and loved. I can still picture the route in my mind pretty well, most of the way, though photos don’t really do the route justice. As we talked, it turned out that Eric and I had both listened to Marc Maron’s reposted 2010 interview with Robin Williams. Eric had watched the 1998 Hollywood Squares episode that Whoopi Goldberg posted in memoriam. I paraphrased some of Chris Connelly’s eloquent remembrance. I was happy to hear Eric’s voice, and to think we both had something interesting to say about someone neither of us knew. I’ve spent more time than I would have expected sorting through the noise around Robin William’s death, listening (to paraphrase the Chicago doc) for some kind of signal, frustrated by the bland consensus (he was a flawed genius who died before his time; he was a sick man who loved to entertain people) and my own very small sense of touchstone (in middle school, I wore out my parents’ VHS copy of Good Morning, Vietnam trying to memorize the disc jockey parts; World’s Greatest Dad [see below] is surprisingly good).

What is the essence of that noise that gathers so quickly around an unexpected public death? I think it has something to do with candor. We do not want the people around us to die. We certainly hope they will not die unexpectedly. But more than that, we want to know that the people we know and love, and even, the people we admire, are well and will be well, more or less, in the long-term. That they might not be well becomes a kind of uncertainty that does not follow entirely from good wishes and warm feelings. The un-well are not always polite. They seem, sometimes, unpredictable. And what would it mean for a chronic illness to persist, what with all the various pills of all shapes, sizes, and colors; a clinically-trialed forgetting pill; those colorful and elaborate scans on late-night PBS of cranial electrochemistry; the seeming advances in therapeutic treatment? No matter than a century or so ago the shape and size of the cranium clearly indicated character and mental ability, whose ills cocaine alleviated. We want treatments to fix, fully and well. The persistent natures of chronic and complicated feelings—despair, neglect, vulnerability, self-destructiveness—and situations—grief, disease, neglect—remind us too much of our own humanity, which, by its very nature, is provisional and vulnerable.

One of the louder moments of consensus following Robin Williams’s death has been the well-meaning suggestion that friends and family members suffering from clinical depression should ask for help. Jimmy Kimmel said it like this: if you’re sad, please tell someone. As though someone in the middle (or, worse, at the end) of a profound depression, to the point of being suicidal, might pause their illness long enough to recognize and understand it, poke their head out of the shell, and then speak of their illness to a neighbor, a sibling, someone sitting across from them on the northbound El. Never mind, for a moment, the remarkable similarity to those post-9/11 NYC subway ads about terrorists. What responsibility exactly are we undertaking with such recognition? What should the informed person exactly do: call a friend, their doctor, a hotline, the police? How is the recognition of real helplessness a symptom of sanity? I’m thinking of the beginning of Catch-22:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Robin Williams acted well and often, and seeing him from the distance of a career, he behaved publicly with a grace and kindness—a sanity—that made his public appearances, however zany, feel like great performances. Recognizably manic: human. And yet, like most ticket buyers, I stopped expecting very much from his acting. Then, I stopped buying tickets to his movies. I agreed he was very good in the beginning, and that something then sort of fizzled out once I recognized his tricks. Like most of America, apparently, Cait and I re-watched Dead Poet’s Society last week, a movie that I swore at some point I’d never watch again. It had settled in my mind as Hollywood bunk about creativity; a movie that, as a teenager, seemed liberating, and then fizzled out into something not so good. After his death, the movie came instantly to mind to remember him, suddenly iconic and signature. The movie itself is still uneven. But something in that movie is good, and it comes forward with more clarity the few times Williams is on-screen.

Really, the later-period Robin Williams gem is World’s Greatest Dad. Williams is terrific in it, largely because his performance in the movie seems distinctly un-Robin Williams. With none of the usual tricks, he inhabits that most inarticulate quality of grief—ambivalence—without doing much of anything I recognize as acting. Reading about Williams’s life, I kept thinking of that paragraph toward the end of Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his father’s alcoholism, Under the Influence, in which Sanders passes through an intervening eighteen years of sobriety, to the back-end of the time during which his father drank himself to death. During his interview with Marc Maron, Williams talked about his twenty years of sobriety, and then the moment of a hotel mini-bar, and the following years of struggle, which seem, in the accounts of his death, some part of a stalled and ultimately failing effort, the gun in the first act, the broken promise.

What did Robin Williams ever promise me that I felt entitled to hold him personally to account? I didn’t know the man. Like so much feeling, my reaction falls along an incriminating and messy spectrum of contradiction and irresolution, the ebb and flow of meaning and fact. To quote the fantastic opening of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection…In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.

It’s an awful thing to feel loveless, to despair, to neglect what we know better than to take for granted. But when we rush to comfort people who truly suffer with bland sentiments of “it gets better,” and “ask for help,” etc., I think we patronize them a bit. In such moments, we’re really speaking to ourselves. We are assuring ourselves that there is an end to suffering, and a clear path to that ending. And yet, we know that suffering follows no clear path to its end, if it ends at all. In place of sympathy, perhaps, we might try honesty, and barring that, simple consideration:

At the time [Emily Post] undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keep or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat. (The Year of Magical Thinking)

Public figures are easy to imagine. We don’t know them at all. We’re happy marking them to a place and time in our life, a performance in a movie, a haircut, a grace of the body, that asks them forever to, always, please, just stand in place. As movies, as in life. We look for one thing until we’re sure we see it, after which, we miss all the rest. Most of the explanations we make after a death are about ourselves: what we fear still, the mistakes we do not mean to make again in our lives, the cautions we relive or wish someone had made to us, how we suffered our own cataclysmic loss. Which is how I think it should be. The initial reaction is the public part. The private part is all the rest. At first, we’re lucky to think we can make any sense at all, with spouses, family members, strangers, even good friends, at that moment when the beautiful life, however flawed, is suddenly gone, and our memory of that life fills with clues, which are useless now for how they make sense.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend, the author and editor Michael Nye, tagged me in a blog tour author Q&A. If you haven't already read his thoughtful entry, you can find it here. My part here is to answer the four questions that Michael sent me, and then "tag" another author, link you in her direction, and the thread continues.  

1. What am I working on?
I am making very slow and careful edits on a draft of a new memoir, Forgetting, which measures grief against transformation in a continuing life. I am also writing new poems, several about professional wrestlers. What interests me about wrestlers is how their bodies define, sustain, and, sometimes, fail them, often suddenly, against their best intentions, and with terrible consequences. In this way, I think the poems make a natural analog to Forgetting, as well as my first two books, Young Widower: A Memoir and The Consolations: Poems.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I take to heart what a teacher once said about writing, that the subject matter may change but the subjects do not. Formally, my memoirs don’t have arcs, consolations, analogous discourses, or literary truths distinct from literal ones. I try to follow Louise Gluck’s advice about poetry: the music follows when the writing is good. I tend to write poems for the people I love.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I write to close the gap between consensus and experience.

4. How does my writing process work?

I start with a question that interests me. Then, I write like hell to finish a first draft of a book—poetry or memoir—that answers the question in every way I can think to do so. Over the next few years, I go back and edit, research, shape, gut, add whole new sections or pieces, etc. The first writing is manic, intensive, optimistic, abstruse, and full of many, many placeholders for things I know I’ll say better when I revise. The slow editing that follows feels very high-stakes and immensely satisfying. I’ll take chapters out and paste them into separate files, which I’ll then revise across 60 or 70 successive drafts, each one time-stamped and saved separately, just in case I lose something I love or need to retrace my steps back to a wrong turn. I keep open books I admire around me when I’m writing. They put a chip on my shoulder, in the best of ways. In the writing phase, I’ll plug into my headphones and listen to a single album over and over. I edit in silence. I do my best writing late at night, after everyone is asleep. The last two books I wrote, when they were finished, I ended up needing a stronger eyeglass prescription. It’s hard on the eyes to write on a computer at night.

I've tagged the poet Chloe Honum to go next. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Often, I think, I'll be happier if I wake up in the morning and see I've written a blog post the previous night. Whatever I say, however I'm aware of it, the writing will mean I've continued something that has held considerable meaning for me these last seven and a half years, and at times, has conveyed the center of that meaning, and its making. I'm hopeful also to revive a distinct habit of sense-making. The last year or so, I've been hard at work on a new memoir, to which I've devoted the majority of my free time, and all of my writing time. Like this post, I don't know that the book will amount to anything beyond my conviction to write it, and a certainty, bordering equally at times on arrogance and stubbornness, that having finished the writing will matter to the world and to me, and make a worthwhile account of the thing that interests me. Overreach, at least, is full of feeling.

The Tree of Life is a beautiful movie. It keeps coming to mind. Last week, saying goodbye after dinner with friends, our younger son disappeared from sight. It turns out he had gone on a walkabout, though of course, we had no idea. We ran from room to room, out to the garden, shouting his name, and when that didn't work, Cait went in one direction down the street while I went in the other. It was terrifying: near dusk, our semi-busy road, and our toddling twenty-one month old, wordless but extremely agile, somewhere close by and nowhere in sight. A car stopped and the driver asked me who I was missing, and I said my son, and I asked her to drive slowly if she was going toward our house, but she was turning into an apartment complex. And what if I'd missed him already; if, in my haste, I'd passed him down some alley or behind some bushes, a few turns in this direction or that. And how beautiful, my friend's voice, calling out my name to relay the news. Cait had found him a hundred yards or so down the road, giggling, toddling, running toward the bridge that crossed the ditch to the major intersection near his favorite park. He knew the way. Cait brought him home. In the living room, I squeezed him wildly. Cait did it, too. His older brother climbed into my arms, and smiled nervously. What was going on? He didn't get it. He wanted in. Then, it was bath time. We used food coloring to dye the bath blue. We added bubbles. The moment was passed and we had caught a break. What else was there to say about it?

No doubt, as our older friends all insist, this is a magical parenting time, for which one day in the not-too-distant future we will pine. I can't believe it. I'm sure it's the case. And yet, something in this intensely personal experience is familiar, family to family. There is a pattern, and within that pattern, direction, a series of recognizable and articulated constants and shapes. The Chicago doc recommended recently Andrew Solomon's terrific nonfiction account/history of depression, The Noonday Demon. Solomon is a beautiful writer, one of the best I've read in recent memory. His vine metaphor for depression, in the first chapter alone, is worth the price of admission. But what I admire, especially, is the range of research and the distillation of case histories, statistics, theories, evolving schools of thought, neuroscience, and lyric attention into a thoughtful ethnography.   The book is subtitled, An Atlas of Depression. I like that idea of charting out a shared space, alternately authoritative and practical, a reference and a useful tool. There was a time when I wrote this blog that every thought seemed worthy of disclosure, and without consequence; that the best ideas required no distinction from the least clear. Then, writing was a clear act of cultivation, gathering as quickly as I might reap. The trick now, I think, is to distinguish the borders and not spend too much time in the middle, well-charted spaces. I'd hate to repeat myself, or worse, make a habit of doing so.

I'll close with a minor atlas of recent discoveries, who are at the center of my attention these days. Solomon's book, Chloe Honum's terrific poems, the country artist Jamey Johnson singing a George Jones medley, Andrew Stanbridge's photographs of 770The Tree of Life. I like The Tree of Life for how it addresses inheritance in that seeming contradiction of intense subjectivity and absolute desolation (right down to the infamous 17-minute Big Bang/dinosaur sequence) that is the loss of a loved one. The whole movie resonates with feeling, in all directions. I suppose it came to mind again in that hair-trigger space of calamity and benign neglect that was looking for our son on the block, but it has stayed with me since, and filled me with a great deal of sympathy for how much ranges well beyond control. And yet, it's useful to have an atlas. There is a great deal of agency in precedent. The trick, I suppose, is to not praise too broadly; to narrow and winnow admiration to the most deserving places. With that in mind, here's my last entry, from the English poet, U.A. Fanthorpe:


There is a kind of love called maintenance,

Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget

The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way

The money goes, which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,

And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate

Structures of living; which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,

Which knows what time and weather are doing

To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;

Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers

My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps

My suspect edifice upright in the air,

As Atlas did the sky.

--U.A. Fanthorpe (1929-2008)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sidney "Zait" Raffel

As part of a collaboration to remember my grandfather-in-law, Sidney “Zait" Raffel, I wrote the short piece below. Cait and I had the good fortune to live in Zait’s home during the first three years of our life as a family. Like many, I sure do miss him. The official obituary ran today in the Los Angeles Times.


Sidney “Zait” Raffel, MD, ScD, one of the best and last of a great generation, died on Friday, December 27. He was 102 years old.

A Baltimore native, he came west to California on a Roosevelt Foundation Fellowship in 1935, and never went back. He told everyone who asked that, on his first day in Los Angeles, he came outside to a cool summer evening and fell in love with the state. He froze on the ride north to San Francisco, but warmed to the place soon enough to settle in, marry his best friend’s girlfriend, raise their five daughters, and move in 1955 to the Stanford University campus. His beloved “770,” at the top of the hill, became the family home to four generations of Raffel daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. For half a century, with Yvonne, the great love of his life and first public health nurse to work at Stanford, they presided over a loving, warm, and raucous crowd of friends and family members. Sidney and Yvonne threw fantastic parties year-round, including the annual Thanksgiving celebration, and thirteen family weddings.

Zait was a gifted student, educator, and teacher, and he wasn’t shy to let you know it. He graduated from high school at the age of 15, Johns Hopkins University at 18 (B.A.) and 21 (Sc.D.), and Stanford University, where he joined the faculty at 23, studied medicine, and graduated, already a professor, at 31, with a M.D. During World War II, he trained doctors and nurses. He served as Chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology from 1951 until his retirement in 1976. From 1964-1965, he was acting Dean of the Medical School, during which he named Pasteur Drive and Welch Road, and oversaw the building of the (then) new medical complex. He wrote the comprehensive textbook in his field, Immunity, first published in 1953, with a second edition in 1961, the year he received a Fulbright Fellowship and took his family to Europe. He contributed extensive research to Stanford’s effort to discover the polio vaccine. His great professional regret was that Jonas Salk’s team beat his own to finding it.

Few matched Zait for his quick wit, fondness for a good joke (and, often, pun), love of dark beer (the warmer, the better), and his affection for Walker, Texas Ranger (the best show on television). Upon his retirement in 1976, Zait took up painting. Visitors to 770 marveled at his watercolors, oil paintings, and sketches, many of which lined the walls. Zait’s favorite subject was his beloved Yvonne (“Ami”), and his daughters, Linda, Gail, Polly, Cynthia, and Emily. He would paint them on large and small canvasses alike, working from photographs of their many international journeys. Zait and Ami trotted the globe together, from Salzburg to Egypt, Iran, Israel, the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and her native British Columbia. On the lazy Susan in the middle of his kitchen table, until the day he died, he kept a small oil painting of Ami standing in front of her family’s homestead. Every February, he painted her into a valentine and wrote her a short, funny poem. After she passed, in 2001, he recreated these cards and mailed them to his large, beloved family.

Until a few months ago, he rode his stationary bike at least a mile every day. He worked in his basement woodshop, building ingenious, if idiosyncratic, contraptions that quickly earned knowing eye-rolls from the family. Most famous was “The Barbecue Bullet,” a garden-to-porch pulley-and-bucket system for delivering meat to the grill that almost decapitated his son-in-law. Others included his compost-bin-on-bicycle-wheels, dual-back-scratcher-lotion-applicator, and jello-mold-light-fixtures. Zait never found a broken chair or appliance to which he could not affix an el-bracket, chunk of foam, or piece of Velcro. He had a particular talent for gorilla glue, and little talent, but great gusto, for homemade picture framing.

Zait took great pride in his daughters and their families; his grandchildren; and, his great-grandchildren. They all loved him back. One of my favorite memories was of watching him whirl Walt around the house on his walker, and later, Sam and he doing exercises together in his room. Zait maintained close friendships and mentorships with many of his former students, who visited regularly. This past Christmas, he was in great spirits, and much of his family was with him on the day he died. He will be sorely missed by the many whose lives he touched, always for the better.

(Sidney "Zait" Raffel, 102 years old, with Sam, 18 months, on Christmas Eve 2013.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

I've Been Waiting

I am working diligently to make the annual mix CD for my siblings. For the last decade, I've compiled it year-end, then sent it along. When I bought the computer before this one, I began tracking everything via playlists on iTunes. That makes a comprehensive list going back to 2008. I know there are, deep in the subconscious of this computer's hard drive, lists of the first few mixes from other hard drives, but to find them requires a spell of names and songs I can't quite summon. Better to visit my sister-in-law, Sheila, in Chicago, and look through her flip-case with each bulk-metal chic sphere under my hand-decorated sleeves. I know that one year I made a Wilco-and-Willie-Nelson CD, and the year before that included at least a few tracks from Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend. I used to walk around Belmont Street in Chicago in November, waiting to meet Katie for dinner, freezing, listening to "I've Been Waiting" and "Winona," over and over. They were my two favorite tracks on the album, and the black foam of the headphones was like wearing cheap earmuffs. Probably, now, I would say I like "I Wanted to Tell You" or "Evangeline" better. I don't know whether that's process-of-elimination--having listened to and loved the first few tracks best, I've moved on to love the rest--or a maturity of taste and aesthetic. "I Wanted To Tell You" almost made this year's cut, except going back to the album, and Matthew Sweet generally, feels like too much retread.

There is something beautiful about Chicago in November, especially when it is recalled from the temperate distance of November in Northern California. No hands jammed in gloves deep in heavy wool jackets, here. I posted a photo of Walt to Facebook the other day, and he was wearing my stocking cap and scarf. Meghan wrote to ask if those were indeed the ones I wore compulsively in Chicago, and then again in Romania, when she and Dave visited. I am a creature of habit. I like the few things I like a great deal. There was a brief time when I wore thin neoprene bands across my ears, the better to go running or layer with other thermo-sartorial adaptations, but the wool hat, which I grabbed from a goodwill box at my parent's house the year I left for the Peace Corps, is the one I've carried everywhere and kept. I do miss walking across the city, alone or with Katie or with a good friend, a couple of miles to some wonderful cafe, say the Kopi or the Heartland, and settling into a booth, and for those first few, precious moments, taking nothing off, letting instead the heat seep through the breathable fabrics to dry the sweat and circulate some feeling to the extremities. It's a purposeful form of suffering, entirely self-induced, but I'm not sure it's to be avoided.

Cait and I have gotten in the habit of taking a date night here and there, leaving the boys with a babysitter for a three hour stretch of early evening--long enough that if we come back and Walt's still awake, the night is not entirely lost--and walking to downtown Mountain View for dinner at the Pakistani Restaurant with the amazing samosas. I've eaten Indian food across the Midwest and long stretches of Eastern Europe, but this is by far the best. It's such a treasure to wander through the neighborhoods, walking at a pace that never has to slow to match a three-year-old. It's how we used to walk across San Francisco, the whole city every few nights, but that's probably just how I remember it. And if it sounds wistful, or passively ambivalent about the unrelenting pace of raising babies, then I can only say I love our life all the more for these little sojourns away from it. Like Disneyland or outer space, or Chicago in November, spending time away there gets lonely too quickly to like it for too long.

One song I've listened to all year is "I'm So Happy" by The Salteens. The band recorded it for Yo Gabba Gabba, and as soon as Walt heard it, the song became a select favorite. To give a sense of what that kind of commitment means in our household, I had to eventually record the song onto a CD for Cait, so that whenever she did the daycare pick-ups, she could have it at the ready to play on repeat, along with the theme from "Fireman Sam."  Fourteen months on, Walt still wears the fireman get-up everyday. I love that he's so comfortable in his skin, and around us, to keep at it. A friend explained the other day that what happens is, one day, dinosaurs arrive to the Duplo fire stations. The next day, the fireman and dinosaurs play together, but really, the writing is on the wall. Fast forward a few weeks, and the station is now fully inhabited, the fireman stuck at the bottom of the toy bin, rescuing no one. For a while, it looked like police officers were coming to visit, but the pancake breakfast came and went. The stack of fire helmets in the closet lived to fight another day. I like that Walt has a passion. I don't know what he'll make of it next. I'm not too worried, though. The other day, I tried to explain that, if he wanted, he could take a nap. He just looked at me and shook his head. Fireman no take naps, he said. That night, like every night he doesn't nap, he went out like a light and slept right through to the morning.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mailer Redux

I’ve written in past posts that I would like to take the best parts of Norman Mailer's work and forget the rest. Certainly, Mailer himself made no such distinctions:

Most of my books over the years have had more bad reviews and good reviews. I’m the only major writer in America who has had more bad reviews than good reviews over the course of his writing life, so that gives me a certain pride, a feel that, you know, they keep taking their best shot and they can’t do a goddamn thing, they’re not gonna stop me. You get a little vain about it that way. But the bad thing about having a tough ego is you become less percipient. Ego is a shell, essentially, and so you start to close off experience from yourself. The ideal would be to have a light, flexible ego that’s there, that can concentrate into a given place to protect you when the going gets tough, but then it doesn’t cut off too much. At my worst, I often feel like a turtle. I just pull my head in and let it rattle off the shell. But of course, I’m not seeing a damn thing except my own darkness at that point. (Fresh Air interview, 1991)

The “rest” of what I don’t like about Mailer might be that rattling of the shell, or perhaps less flattering for its resilience, his vanity for fashion. I'm thinking, for example, of the cheap and personal shots in "Evaluations...,"  the hyperbolic launch sequence in Of A Fire on the Moon, and any of the ridiculous press conferences in which he broadly antagonized feminists. The worst of Mailer contains a style that defers first to reaction; however sharp the accusations, or reflexive the barbs, they justify himself rather than his arguments. But that worst is never free of self-consciousness. Mailer's going-by-wits always, eventually turns himself under the lens as mercilessly as his opponents (real and imagined), which leads to some of the best and most heartfelt literary apologies of the 20th century. Many can apologize so well as they err.

Rarely was the ego so unremarkably kempt between periods of brilliance as Mailer’s. When the confidence flagged, he simply went at all comers. Gore Vidal famously called it Mailer’s “metamorphosis,” and knew the best way to defeat its seriousness and indignation was to dismiss him:

I’ve been re-reading Advertisements, and between the public corrections, the literary overreaches, and the essential, self-pitying vanity, something resists that great myth of public modesty so close to my Midwestern heart. I think this is how I easily miss the best part of Mailer, what Hitchens called that willingness to risk embarrassment which made him forgivable to ex-wives and rivals, and allowed him to sit down to write or give an interview only to revise great portions of perspectives he held even a few weeks prior. Mailer was always correcting, and I think the essence of that mutability is Mailer’s willing partisanship. When politics failed him, or when he failed himself, he tacked in new directions. In this way, his subject, across so many projects, never changed. Mailer risked himself to write, look, and feel courageous—and we should all be so stubborn and ugly in our vulnerability—but cowardice was his project, the physical body’s reluctance to courage.

Mailer and critics alike never quite knew what to do with his incessant going after Hemingway—Bloom applied his anxiety of influence, Mailer suggested Hemingway hadn’t tried hard enough to change the world—by which he envied the prose and public style, while faulting the self-consciousness, or what Mailer describes less charitably as “cowardice,” that stunted his later work (From Advertisements, writing about The Old Man and The Sea: “A work of affirmation must contain its moments of despair—specifically, there must be a bad moment when the old man Santiago is tempted to cut the line and let the big fish go. Hemingway avoided the problem by never letting the old man be seriously tempted.”). I like what Clive James says about Fitzgerald’s advantage over Hemingway, that Fitzgerald could write weakness without losing his confidence: 

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway could imagine himself as an emasculated man, but he could never imagine himself as a weak one, and the idea of a strong man weakened by an emotional dependency was not within his imaginative compass. It might well have been within his life, but that would have been the very reason, for him, it was not something he cared to imagine.

Like Hemingway, Mailer is reflexively first himself, even the inventions and semi-inventions of Armies of the Night, The Fight, Executioner’s Song, etc. But like Fitzgerald, and unlike Hemingway, Mailer could suffer the lost confidence. Most often, he did so by putting down the pen, putting on a sportcoat, and wandering in front of the television monitors. He knew how to find himself there, and he was his public self until the private self got to writing again.

 Also like Fitzgerald, Mailer played himself carelessly, alternately parodying his best and worst incarnations of the politician, journalist, writer, and finally, literary lion. Mailer’s very willingness to play that range meant he commanded an audience while never quite sounding like himself (as opposed to, say, Bob Roberts-era Gore Vidal, whose best lines, whatever he said, were master classes in tone and rhetoric). He didn’t become mannered. His advertisements were for a self, and the self stood alone and in opposition. I hear in Mailer’s critique of his time a confidence against the tribe, that what is most oppressive to the creative mind is first a fidelity to those factions who mean to embarrass the heretic.

Of course, at the end of his life, Mailer tucked such turns neatly away. He argued that there were no ideas worth dying for, and like his later critiques of Hemingway, he turned his attention away from a world he no longer meant to change, to one he too easily critiqued in the margins. Consider how gamely and charmingly he meets early Oprah to talk about “winning at love” and his “notorious pass”:

Still, there were last fires. In his critique of Communism at the beginning of 1980, I hear something measured and ironic in how he repeats “Russians,” with a certain insistence to redress, in near-satire, the reflexive ideologies of faith, nationalism, and commerce he suggests they oppose:

It is my belief that the Russians—and I don’t like them at all—it is my belief that the Russians would never dare to take us over, because if they took us over, we would destroy them. Their mentality simply couldn’t sit on top of our mentality. It would be too volcanic for them. I think they would give us a wide berth. The safety of Communism, the health of Communism, is to have confrontation all of the time, is to be in a showdown with us. Their strength comes from the fact they have a huge enemy, us. And so they keep everyone in line over in Russia. If they didn’t have a huge enemy, what would they do? They would have to face their people and say, “Here are the dull products we make for you. Here are the oppressive measures we lay upon you. Here are the stupidities we try to put into your heads.” We save them by trying to be their opponent, their enemy.

Whether it followed his meaning or not, Mailer has no contempt for the listening crowd. He is talking past it. Later Mailer is used to being misunderstood, and comfortable with the caricature. He suspects, I think, the joke will eventually tell itself.