Wednesday, March 13, 2013


My senior year in college, I read Norman Mailer's selected prose collection, Time of Our Time. I was a young writer and a history major, who admired Mailer's precocity, then iconoclasm. If I could avoid any of the vulnerability, risk, and failure that marked that course's middle space, so much the better. I admired and skimmed, re-read and skipped my way through more than 1,000 pages: excerpts, half-stories, partial interviews, long chapters. Even the page count was aggressive and self-aggrandizing. It suggested Mailer had written so much so well that he could not help but select some of all of it. Mailer edited the book himself and signed every edition in the first printing, an effort he explained later required ice and towels to complete. To the end, Mailer made his everyday actions dramatic and heroic.

I bought Time of Our Time after listening to Mailer’s interview that summer on Weekend Edition. Driving students from the summer camp in rural North Carolina where I taught literature classes to the regional airport a little more than an hour away, I would catch NPR crossing the valley. The students sat glumly in their seats, uneager to go home. It always left me a little sad to start them on their way. Leaving the airport, I would roll down the windows, coasting the long downhills, then gunning it across the dip to get up speed for the climb. Scott Simon and Norman Mailer’s chat was vintage public radio: leisurely, measured, conversational. The anecdotes of Mailer's life—bankrupted mayoral candidate, apologetic wife stabber, witness of Lowell at the peace march, enemy of Vidal on television, inheritor of Capote in the jail cell—seemed peacefully at odds with the fair and rational man narrating the launch of Apollo 11 from Merritt lsland, Florida. His "gargantuan idea" was that human beings might not yet destroy themselves if they shot themselves further and further into space. Then Mailer refuted, as though by rote, the familiar criticisms. His voice was elegant and rich, just patrician; marbled a little with fat. I imagined his was the voice of high letters, at the end of a writing life: washed in acid, smooth, certain.

The mark of the mediocre mind is to seek precedent. Mailer said it to give a context for what he felt were unfair criticisms of his talent, but I took it as indictment: to mimic anyone's creative process would only diminish my own talent, however modest, and its eventual achievement. Still, that fall, I devoted myself to reading selectively a narrow, avuncular Mailer. In essays, interviews, and books, I skipped the parts--sexist this, drunken that--that made me uncomfortable. It was an amateur mistake. I admired the author, so I audited the work. I expected Mailer to be as implacable and generous as the ego that compelled him to write. I hoped such ambition and talent might mean that, like all hard work, prosperity and reward inevitably followed. How else to account for process?

The Fight is Mailer's account of "The Rumble in the Jungle," the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that took place in Zaire, 1974, and its surrounding circumstances. While it is not Mailer's best book--its excesses are at times decidedly ignorant by today's standards--it is still one of my favorites by him. A lesser moment in the book--Mailer's careful qualification of his mile split when considering a 3am training job with Ali--fascinates me:

            “There was no question of keeping up with Muhammad. His conscience, however (now on the good side of journalism), was telling him that the better his own condition, the more he would be able to discern about Ali’s. What a pity he had not been jogging since the summer. Up in Maine he had done two miles every other day, but jogging was one discipline he could not maintain. At five feet eight inches and one hundred and seventy pounds, Norman was simply too heavy to enjoy running. He could jog at a reasonable gait—fifteen minutes for two miles was good time for him—and if he pushed, he could jog three miles, conceivably four, but he hated it. Jogging disturbed the character of one’s day. He did not feel refreshed afterward but overstimulated and irritable. The truth of jogging was it only felt good when he stopped. And he would remind himself that with the exception of Erich Segal and George Dilder, he had never heard of a writer who liked to run—who wanted the brilliance of the mind discharged through the ankles?” (The Fight, Vintage 1975)

The passage is vintage Mailer--excessive, charming, vulnerable, and yet somehow, entirely serious--as is the seeming aside of his very fast jogging mile. It makes the training with Ali a contest, and by proxy to other writers, a contrast. In a remarkable review following its publication, Michael Wood admired The Fight for what he called “the carelessness of Mailer’s eloquence, the sense that it just came along as a means of saying what he had to say.” Indeed, Mailer's "good time" situates him as a natural athlete; it suggests Mailer might easily best Ali on their job, were his heart really in it. Throughout his career, Mailer spoke in pugilistic metaphors, boxed semi-professionally, and until middle age, challenged enemies to step into the ring with him. Wood calls it “walking parapets.” The threat is as literary as Mailer’s poor conditioning—in a world of non-fighters (writers), the amateur throws a vicious right hook—and more than a little self-conscious. Mailer cannot keep a training regimen, but of course, what serious writer really runs? From which might follow, what serious writer doesn’t box?

Nowhere in The Fight does Mailer make Ali so exceptional outside of the ring as he does in his fantastic interviews for the 1996 documentary, When We Were Kings. In Kings, Mailer’s compliments are deferential and reticent, paying due without simplifying the tribute. It’s a neat trick:

Of course, the documentary was made when Mailer was looking back decades, at a moment whose history he had helped write. For Mailer, after the movie, Ali, Foreman, Zaire, Mobutu, even Plimpton have ceased to move and no longer (if they ever) fight back. When he wrote and published it, The Fight was high literary journalism. Now, The Fight is the testament of a reverent interloper who seems lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Mailer’s luck is to articulate in every register his own wonder and suspicion, until both terminate in the description of Ali’s shocking underdog victory over Foreman. I love that word: interloper. To admit, from the outset, that we make no substantial claim to write, allows us the time and space we need to synchronize witness with understanding. Mailer’s skill at and knowledge of boxing is amateur, just enough to inform the writing. His affection for, and writing about, it is entirely his own. 

By most accounts, Mailer mellowed with age. He continued to make a practice of correcting all critiques, defending to the end his least well-received books and ideas. Which is to say, he knew himself and his work well enough to take on all comers. Perhaps the arguments repeated themselves in narrow and obvious combinations; he saw them coming. Or maybe, in the end, they weren't thrown with all that much effort. I have good copies of his books that I admire--The Executioner's Song, The Naked and the Dead, The Fight, Of A Fire on the Moon--but I wouldn't know many of the rest. My own "selected" project is shallower and narrower than I might have once liked it to be, though for different reasons than I first expected. I enjoy Mailer's late-period interviews about boxing, literature, and himself. I genuinely admire those books I admire. And where it suits my interest to do so, which is much of the rest of the time, I forgive, and even forget, their author.

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