Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 3. 1969.
Norman Mailer: Armies Of The Night: History as a novel; The novel as History. Miami And The Seige of Chicago. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 36s. and 30s. (U.K. price).
The Literary graph of Norman Mailer's career rocketed from to the heights of fame when his first novel, The Naked And The Dead, was published in the early 1950s Like many new -boys on the writing scene prediction for the future limited themselves to an enthusiastic "promising" notice. Pundits would then watch, axes sharpened, to cut yet another novelist down when his second appeared. Mailer's war novel was popular, as was James Jones's From Here To Eterinity because the demand and taste of the time was for realism about war, expressing a general disillusionment with the patriotic overtones and emotional scars left in the wake of social upheaval.
Mailer's second novel, however, con-founded the critics and public alike. Barbary Shore was an outstanding if sometimes obscure political novel in which Mailer sought to examine the American thiries generation in terms of a "plague of your houses" stance toward the Cold War. A Trotskyist figured largely in the novel and much of it consisted of highly wrought, closely meshed discussion on the role of revolution in the post-war period. Mailer was on the outer of the literary scene, almost forgotten as the tarnished golden boy who had made good but failed. One suspects political (or apolitical) motives overrode literary—a reluctance to judge political and literary content as one.
The same reaction faced Mailer when he turned to journalism as a founder of the Village Voice. During his long stint he also wrote a Hollywood novel, The Deer Park, again all but ignored and spurned. Mailer's subjectivism had by then totally subsumed his novelistic tendencies.
Advertisements For Myself was just that: anecdotes, sustained pieces, self-criticism, self-adulation and hard knocks for other Writers ("Talent in the room"). Mailer's combined pugilistic and literistic skills enabled him to keep fighting when everyone else had counted him out.
In the sixties Mailer followed up Advertisements with a growing fascination with political activism. Assigned as a journalist he covered all major political conventions and presidential elections in this decade. The Presidential Papers aligned Mailer with the New Frontier of President Kennedy; the new hope for the future. Mailer soon recognised the limitations of these hopes, Instead he formulated an"existential" attitude to politics: the polities of experience, of activism, of the doing not, the being. Political man must act to prove his existance is not unnecessary, buried beneath the morass of the jungle power struggle. He exemplied his example by standing for the mayoralty of New York, losing handsomely.
Almost settled as a journalist Mailer then produced an angry novel a part of which was dashed off every month for Esquire, resurrecting the immediacy of writing and publication that Dickens excelled at. An American Dream is a pathological paranoid, and disturbing novel in which the hero commits murder and, legally, gets away with it His retribution comes, however, in a different form. The hero (an inadequate but operative term). Stephen Rojack, is yet another impersonation of Mailer. The dream is of violence, of self-justification, of coming to grips with reality. As a novel it was a moderate bestseller, and again divided critics into straight out haters and lovers. Mailer had found his niche; he had either burned himself, if out, as some thought, or he-had demonstrated his genius once again.
Since then Mailer has produced four more books, none of which are yet available in paperback, though all his others are in one or more editions. One, Why Are We In Vietnam?, a novel, has been banned in Australia and has yet o make its appearance here (or in England) though it was published in America two year ago.
His two most recent books, Armies of the Night and Miami And The Siege of Chicago, are both sustained pieces of journalism-cum-literature. The first tells of the famous March on Washington in 1967 in which Mailer himself was arrested outside the White House.
The book is divided into two parts: Mailer's own account as seen by Mailer, and a straight version of the March, the events and its background. His attitudes, ideas and feelings are compounded in the second book on the 1968 presidential election. At Miami Mailer attended (surrepticiously) the Republican Convention where Nixon had no challenger and lesser hope. Mailer was not impressed: his picture of Nixon makes sober eading in light of the eventual outcome of the elections. Miami was all business, no mucking around, no violence The Gentlemans Agreement dominated the proceedings in a party which had tasted defeat for long, had lost its Goldwater messianism and had settled for the machine, which Nixon had had tied up for two or three years.
Chicago was a different matter. Mailer arrived shortly after hearing of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Up till then Mailer was backing Kennedy—deeply suspicious of McCarthy's ability and attitudes he later warmed to him when the Kennedy aura disappeared. For Mailer Chicago was a traumatic time. Mayor Daly's city was under seige. Mailer saw no point in the convention he saw the polities really happening outside, in the streets. This became Mailer's haunt. Suspicious though he was of the young revolutionaries, he couldn't act other than the way in which they did. Theirs was the way of the huture: he himself was idolised by them.
In these two journalistic treatises Mailer hasp roven himself to be in the forecourt of American literature as it has been accepted: activist committed, subjectivist and topical. God knows when he finds time to write but write he does in a way the more studious and less able envy, His unerasing energy has lately been turned to films, one hopes that as we are unlikely to see them here we will not be deprived of more of the written word