June 18, 2013
Why I Miss Norman Mailer
Posted on Feb 18, 2011
By Mr. Fish
I thought that I’d done everything I was supposed to do. This was back in the springtime of 2007, about seven months before Norman Mailer died. I’d sent an e-mail to the address in the newspaper and made a reservation to see him talk about what would be his last novel, “The Castle in the Forest,” at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, but I never got a confirmation e-mail back. I couldn’t even get anybody on the telephone. For four days I tried. It pissed me off.
“Writers Guild,” I grumbled to myself, listening to the telephone ring off the hook at the theater at 1:30 in the afternoon, six hours from when the event was scheduled to start. “What is a writers guild doing in Hollywood, anyway?” I asked myself. “What is a writer in Hollywood?” I knew what a writer was on the East Coast: He is a smoker, works on a typewriter and is an enormous failure; he is a sandwich maker who cries easily and can quote Nabokov and Algren and Eliot. The West Coast version of a writer is a 50-year-old fat guy in white sneakers who wrote a couple “X-Files” episodes 13 years ago and knows the name Faulkner only as a screen credit on some old Bogart movies.
As the phone continued to ring, I imagined the 50-year-old fat guy asleep beneath a torn “Dark Side of the Moon” poster somewhere in Westwood, his bed loaded with cats, nothing but dirty cereal bowls in the sink, his comic book collection archived in a stack of dusty boxes in the closet and ready to be sold if things get really bad, like if he all of a sudden got a girlfriend. I slammed down the receiver and called Book Soup, the retailer that was sponsoring the event. They told me to take a hike, that they were connected to what was happening at the Writers Guild only as booksellers, not as seat warmers.
Seat warmers. I wanted to kill somebody.
I got in the car and zigzagged my way from Pasadena for an hour and a half through rush-hour traffic until I got to Beverly Hills, the whole time trying to listen to a public library CD of Mailer reading, with his wife, his book about the Kennedy assassination, “Oswald’s Tale.” Parking, I was happy to turn the car off, the trading off of passages between Norman and the Mrs. having never amounted to much more than the dullest Sonny and Cher routine ever recorded.
The theater had the beginnings of a sizable crowd swirling around the lobby when I got there. Luckily, nobody was under 70 and practically everybody was a woman, so the swirling was dainty, like dandelion spores, not the least bit treacherous. Seeing the only other dude in the room, a youngster of about 65, sitting all by himself at a brown cafeteria table with a list of names and a cash box, I steeled myself against what I assumed was about to happen by sweating out my ass.
“Name?” said the man, cheerfully, as I approached.
“Booth,” I said, clenching my jaw.
“Booth,” he said, moving his pen down the row of names on his clipboard. “Ah, here we are, Booth,” he said, stopping at the name Booth, Melissa, his insatiable need to be both cheerful and accommodating blinding him to the specific purpose of his task. He made a check mark and said, “Twenty dollars.” With perspiration running down my legs to meet my socks, I handed him a pair of wet 10-dollar bills and found my seat, paranoid that it was only a matter of time before Melissa Booth found the back of my head with her cane. I made myself as small as I could in my chair, not an easy feat with so much osteoporosis in the room.
At last, after 45 minutes of waiting, from the rear of the auditorium came Norman Mailer. He walked slowly using two canes, his knees as brittle as cookies, his body matronly and small, his brow furrowed, his tremendous ears both containing hearing aids, his eyes as fierce as little knives. The applause followed him the full length of the room and all the way up to the stage before it stopped abruptly, as if the noise might disrupt his concentration just enough on the stairs to send him toppling. Squeaky thuds from the rubber tips of his canes hoisted him uneasily into the glare of the C-SPAN television lights, his frailty bringing some measure of sorrow to the moment. He collapsed into his chair just as David Ulin, book critic for the L.A. Times, sat down opposite him and readied his notes. An introduction was read clumsily from a podium while a glass of red wine was delivered surreptitiously to Mailer and hidden behind a short vase of flowers on the small table separating him from his host. The author was then handed an immense microphone that he held in his lap like a dead flashlight, and he waited for the interview to begin. I felt gloomy about what the next hour might bring.
Then Mailer spoke. Then the night was glorious.
There’s a story about Mark Twain going to visit James McNeill Whistler in his art studio and approaching one of the painter’s canvases resting on an easel. Leaning in to examine the detail of the work, Twain reaches out a finger to touch the face of the painting before being stopped by Whistler who shouts, “Wait! The paint is still wet!”
“That’s OK,” Twain says reassuringly, “I’m wearing gloves.”
It is one of the earliest examples of artistic celebrity trumping art, something that Mailer would, some 60 years later, master better than anybody else in his generation—elevating, in fact, the notion that the ego of a writer, when inflated with massive amounts of hot air, may be capable of carrying him to heights so great that he is required to look down to observe the culture of his time. And while such a perspective might, at first, seem an unforgivably arrogant position from which to comment on a society made tiny by such a lofty point of view and panoramic range of vision, it was the humanity of Mailer’s brain and the fallibility of his all too human eyes and the contradictions in his heart that made the artistry of his observations divinely lacking in condescension. In fact, he maximized the reach of his sympathies by offering their emollience to saints and sinners alike, something that no God wishing to subjugate those beneath him with the jurisprudence of a codification of their souls would ever do.
“He may have been a fool,” Mailer once suggested as a suitable epitaph for himself, “but he certainly did his best and that can’t be said of all fools.”
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