Chasing the Ghost of Norman Mailer

Raising a Son in the Shadow of Literary Fame

Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.
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Tough Guys Don’t Smile: Norman Mailer, seen here in 2007, is the subject of a new biography by J. Michael Lennon.

By Joshua Furst

Published January 28, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
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● Norman Mailer, A Double Life
By J. Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster, 960 pages, $40

While reading the first chapter of “Norman Mailer, A Double Life,” the exhaustive (and exhausting) new biography of the great man by J. Michael Lennon, I discovered that during his formative years, from the age of nine through his admittance to Harvard at 16, Mailer lived in an apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, seven blocks from where I reside now.

I couldn’t resist taking a look, so one rainy Saturday morning a few weeks ago, my very pregnant wife and I strolled over to the address on Crown Street and stared at the four-story brick apartment building where Mailer built his model airplanes, watched his mother run the oil service and delivery company that his father, an unrepentant gambler, couldn’t manage, and studied his Torah portion in preparation for the bar mitzvah at which he’d praise not only Moses and Maimonides, but also Baruch Spinoza and Karl Marx.

We took a few photos. The building looked remarkably similar to my own and I thrilled, briefly, at the thought that the footprints of Mailer and his generation of bold, scrappy, intellectually fearless Jews might linger in the sidewalks, their accents and attitudes cracking on the wind, unseen influences from the past that, by virtue of geography, might seep out of the streets and into my unborn son.

But the psychic distance from the Brooklyn (and by extension, the Judaism) of Mailer’s childhood to the Brooklyn of today is infinitely wider than Eastern Parkway. The building on Crown Street is now full of Lubavitchers, and after a while, their children began staring out of the windows at us, wondering who these strange people taking photos of their front courtyard were. Feeling like intruders, we left.

I am a creature of the messy, pluralistic postmodern America in which cultural affiliation is more fetishistic choice than identity and obligation. Neither the Lubavitcher children nor my own will have to face the questions of assimilation, or be burdened by the pressure and cultural confusion and need to prove themselves that the children of recent immigrants like Mailer did. None of them will see in themselves the now mildewed cliché of the New York Jew, one version of which Mailer, with his whip-crack voice and feisty, take-no-guff way of attacking existence, embodied. In that 1936 bar mitzvah speech, Mailer made a proclamation that in its precociousness and grandiosity, might be seen as a mission statement:

“Yes, my friends! From now on I become a Jew, but not a MAYOFIS JEW, with a bent back to receive innocently the inhuman Nazis. I become a Jew to uphold the ideals and strengths of Judaism, and the rights of my country.”

He abandoned the faith by the time he graduated from college, claiming in a letter to his mother that “neither Barbara [his first wife] nor I feel very strongly about being Jews — I am neither proud nor ashamed.” But looking at what he accomplished in his life and the sometimes incisive, sometimes foolhardy, always brave way he attacked the ideas of his day, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t defending his own ideal vision of America.

Not only did his back not bend to receive the Nazis, it didn’t bend to any authority other than his own ferocious intelligence and personal mythomania. He rushed headlong into the great issues of his time and wrote about them fiercely, often recklessly, with more intelligence than anyone of his era.

His first novel, “The Naked and the Dead,” written at 24 after a stint in the Army in the South Pacific, was the first novel published about World War II. In the decades that followed, he published 12 novels and 20 nonfiction books (or 11 and 21, depending on how you categorize “Executioner’s Song”). He won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, one for lifetime achievement. He wrote and directed three films. He forged a form of personally engaged journalism that would change the medium forever. He was arguably the most famous and successful writer of his generation.

But these accomplishments weren’t enough for Mailer. For every accolade, there was a controversy that was as often as not self-created. He had a habit of rushing in before he’d fully assessed the price he’d pay for having done so. In 1957, he published an essay called “The White Negro” that argued, perversely, that black culture in America was at root psychopathic and that white people should aspire to this same state. He developed a theory of violence out of this notion that would lead him eventually to stab his second wife at a party with a penknife. He publicly advocated for the release of the convicted killer Jack Henry Abbot based on the evidence of his writing talent and when, after he succeeded in getting Abbot released, the man immediately killed again, he belligerently refused to abandon him. He courted and married six women without letting any of these marriages slow down his incessant womanizing.

Through all of this, there was an edgy mixture of chutzpah and belligerence in his public performances of self. Whether it be the serializing in Esquire of a novel (“An American Dream”) about a man much like himself whose violent murder of his wife allows him access to the secret society of American power; or putting his own money into the Village Voice to give himself a platform to bait and antagonize the residents of Greenwich Village; or running for mayor of New York in a bid that was dead serious to him but a bizarre publicity stunt to most other people; there always seemed to be some deeply personal pathology at stake.

His attitudes and methods of attack were indelibly accented with the sensibilities of a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who needed to prove to himself and the world that he was the equal of any and all comers. His attitudes toward America, particularly — from his love/hate relationship with the mechanisms of power, to his fascination with the country’s rough and tumble mix of hucksterism and ruthless individualism, to the over-intellectualized Marxism that gradually hardened in the Reagan years into a fascination with the authoritarian attitudes he’d once despised — tell a story about a certain kind of American Jewish sensibility that, I fear, is disappearing into the past. Who but a Jew of Mailer’s generation would feel the need to prove, again and again, that he was the smartest person in the room, as though he wasn’t sure himself if it was true? Who but a Jew of Mailer’s generation would see all criticism as attack, and holding a grudge, attack back — attack first! — at great obstinate length? Who but a Jew of Mailer’s generation would have the temerity to take unpopular, sometimes indefensible stances for the fun and gamesmanship of doing so, for the love of the argument as a mode of warfare. Mailer looked at the totality of the American story and demanded not only that there be a place for him in it but also that this be a prominent and antagonistic place. (He famously said, when accepting his nomination as president of PEN, “I always wanted to be president of something.”)

Even the “double life” Lennon presents as Mailer’s central dichotomy has its roots in his Jewish childhood. On the one hand there’s Mailer the nice Jewish boy, doting on his mother, providing for his six wives and nine children, living for the holidays at the family compound in Provincetown. On the other, there’s Mailer the Bad Jew, his unrepentant gambler father’s son. This is the bull-headed Mailer of legend, the guy who was out brawling in the night, compulsively philandering, embarrassing the family again and again with his drunken appearances on television, his refusal to believe that there was any problem in the world, self-created or not, that he couldn’t talk himself out of.

He was of that generation of American Jews who didn’t have to fetishize their Jewishness or separate themselves from the greater society to know who they were. They just were Jewish, whether they liked it or not. They wore their Jewishness like hair shirts — even when they took them off, the scars were still visible in the way they walked, the way they laughed, the way they argued. It inflected everything about them, not least of which being their adamant desire to influence the broader culture, to be legitimized not as Jews, but as players on the larger stage of the wide-open plains of America.

That’s all over now. Secular Jews of my generation, the hipsters and young families currently moving into Crown Heights, must consciously struggle to hold onto their ties to the culture of our ancestors while grappling with the post-post-ness of the present moment, when it sometimes seems as though all the great debates have been settled and capital and empire have won every single one. The Hasidim filter out what doesn’t directly pertain to their religious concerns.

In either case, pointed, serious-minded interrogation of the present political and cultural moment and the transgression this sometimes demands has all but disappeared. We might complain about our current situation, but we don’t dare throw ourselves on the fire to try to change it.

We desperately need people like Mailer, that shrimpy brainiac from Crown Heights who interpreted the age-old Jewish anxiety around being strangers in a strange land as a call to bravery, to thinking hard and deeply about American society and its inherent failures without fearing the consequences, whatever they may be. The immigrant society out of which Mailer rose may be receding into the past, but as I prepare to raise a child in the shadow of his youthful stomping grounds, I wonder if there’s a way to instill some of that generation’s spirit into my boy.

A good start might be to give him this bio to read. Authorized by Mailer before he died, it presents him as he saw himself. A better start may be to go to the source and slip him copies of the books Mailer wrote. “Advertisements for Myself,” “Armies of the Night,” “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” “Of a Fire on the Moon,” “The Executioner’s Song” — Ernest, my boy, let them be your guides through the long, dark American night.

Joshua Furst is the author of “The Sabotage Café,” published by Knopf in 2007. He is a contributing editor of the Forward.


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