Sunday, 8 May 2011

Norman Mailer's An American Dream

Controversial, sexist, vicious, brutal, melancholic. Forty-six years old, it still punches hard.

Mailer was a vital author - a former veteran, whose 1948 novel The Naked and The Dead, about his experiences in the second world war, shot him to fame, and he formed, along with Saul Bellow, John Updike, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hunter S Thompson, one of the most vibrant authorial voices of  male American fiction after the war. He was also deeply controversial. Part of the generation of masculine, aggressively male writers, he married six times, fathering nine children, and conducted numerous affairs.

His second wife, Adele Morales, bore the brunt of his brutality: according to her autobiography, The Last Party, he punched her in the stomach when she was six months pregnant; coerced her into group sex with his friends, and, finally, in 1960, he stabbed her in the breast with a penknife, and again in the back. The first blow narrowly missed her heart.

According to Morales, as she lay bleeding, Mailer told a man who lent down to help her: "Get away from her. Let the bitch die." Unsurprisingly, they divorced in 1962; more surprisingly, she did not press charges, and Mailer was given a suspended sentence for assault, after he spent two and a half weeks in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

An American Dream feels raw: it feels like Mailer is exploring his thoughts surrounding his stabbing of his wife, and his attempts to work out what might have happened to him had he actually killed her. In some ways, it feels like he is processing why he managed to get away with it. Written in the first person, it is a novel firmly from the killer's point of view.

Stephen Rojack is a minor television personality, ex-Congressman, and war hero. Married to the louche Deborah, from whom he has been separated for some time, he visits her and, terrified of losing this woman who is very alive, taunted by her cutting comments, and depressed by the malaise that has swept his life, he lets go of his turbulent emotions and strangles her to death. (Any similarity to any authors, who, at this point, were widely successful and mildly famous, is, I am sure, purely coincidental).

Much like Jim Thompson's 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me, the violence here has a definite sexual undertone: Rojack's eyes gaze over his wife's body as she lies dead, and in the euphoric daze that follows the killing he visits the German maid downstairs, and discovering her touching herself to a porno magazine, he takes her, roughly, in both holes. Thence he returns upstairs, throws the body over the balcony and calls the police, telling them that his wife has jumped from the window.

At the police station, through the cell bars, he sees Cherry, a nightclub singer, and finds himself entranced. On bail that evening, he visits a bar in a seedy part of town to find her. She transfixes him: represting a different life, a radiant beauty upon which he can focus his attention, taking it away from the suspicion mounting over him, and the loss of friends and his television show. He transposes those feelings onto her, and while she is not everything he believes her to be, he gets close to her, and to the gangsters of her acquaintance, including her ex-boyfriend.

This is an occasionally violent book, in two places in particular, and while not all of it happens to women, virtually all of the violence that takes place (or has taken place) that is directly seen (or committed) by Stephen is towards women. The sexual politics of the book are therefore highly questionable, and the overtness of the attitudes shown by the men in the book are most definitely of their time. Several of the men in it are most definitely sexist: Stephen in particular views the women very much through the prism of saviour/whore, in which they are both the path to his salvation and the necessary sap to his sexual desires, for which violent urges are sent there way.

However, there is a sensitivity at work here too. Deborah's life is gone into in great detail in reminice, both by Stephen and other characters, and Stephen discovers much of her life of which he was unaware. For all her cutting callousness prior to Stephen's murder of her, she emerges as a wholly sympathetic character, and the most well-rounded, albiet filtered through the eyes of others.

The violence too is not all within Rojack's control: this is not the tale of one man's dominance over his own destiny, rather, it suggests that violence bubbles under the surface of people and society, and that it may strike at any time - whether through one, or to people one knows, that is almost out of anybody's control. The violence too is not all sexualised, although it would be inaccurate to say that none of it is. Rojack's killing of his wife, and his taking of the maid, link sex and violence quite clearly, in quite unpleasant ways, but the very existence of the vicious awakenings in vampire myths and fairytales demonstrates that violence and sex have been often linked throughout the centuries. While Mailer definitely takes this to an extreme view is it perhaps one worth expressing - purely because, by putting into words this brutally aggressive, selfish, approach to violence and sexuality in these explicit terms, he invites both challenge and investigation.

An American Dream does have its moments of wrenching sympathy, for Deborah and Cherry in particular, with the same deft touch for characterisation that would lead Mailer to win the Pulitzer in 1980 for The Executioner's Song, about the true-life execution of the murderer Gary Gilmore. It is a vicious novel, but it is not one without an appreciation that people are three-dimensional, whether they are the killer, or the killed.

Mailer, you feel, set out to explore the darkness within himself, to revel in it, to wrap it around himself until it became stifling, to detail those emotions that were flowing through him through the most controversial episode of his life, but never to lose sight of the humanity of the people involved, and to wonder what might have been. Mailer's world is dark, not all of it his own making, and it is arbitrary, for both good and bad. That both Rojack and this reader finished the book feeling deeply unsatisfied, melancholic, and perplexed argues more for this being how Mailer perceived the human condition, than for any great failing of this flawed, brutal, yet always intriguing novel.

1 comment:

  1. I actually dropped in to say I hope you don't mind my using your image of An American Dream for my own review of the book ( but this is a fantastic piece, thoroughly enjoyed it.
    I will link to your page as soon as I figure out how. Cheers.