Norman Mailer

November 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Norman Mailer died on Saturday. Sociologist/criminologist Chris Uggen posted briefly about Mailer’s criminal-justice-related writings – Chris is less impressed by Mailer’s fiction – so here’s my Mailer story. Not much, not sociology, not even lit crit, just one degree of separation.

In the summer of 1963, still in my teens, I was traveling across the country to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. We’d stop every few hours in larger or smaller towns. You’d get off to use the bathroom or get a snack, and when you got back on, the demographics of the bus would have shifted. Different accents, different bodies.

We scaled the Rockies at night, crossed Utah as the sun was rising, and made it into Reno at mid-morning. The layover was an hour or so, and when I got back on the bus, my new seatmate was a gaunt, sallow, man in his thirties, much different from the plump and pasty folks I’d gotten used to over the previous thousand miles.

He’d stayed awake for thirty-six hours straight playing chuk-a-luck in a casino, winning a lot, losing it all back, and eventually developing a severe eye infection. He’d just gotten out of the hospital, and he was going to California to try to write for the movies and TV.

It was at about this point in our conversation that he pulled out a plastic bag with some odd food in it. It was thick crusty black bread covered with strange seeds and perhaps mold. “It’s Zen macrobiotic bread,” he said, and offered me a piece. I hadn’t heard of macrobiotics then, though I did know that Zen was cool. Still, I politely declined the offer.

He’d come from New York, where he’d taught English in grade school. But he also was an aspiring writer and hung out with the literary crowd in Greenwich Village. He’d been at parties with Norman Mailer.

He must have sensed my heightened interest at the mention of the name. Mailer was famous. He’d written a Big Novel, he’d published advertisements for himself, he’d invented the White Negro, he’d stabbed his wife.

“You know what another writer once told me at one of these parties?” he said. “‘Norman Mailer is a little Jewish kid from Brooklyn who still thinks it’s a big deal to get laid.’”

I remembered this pithy ad hominem when, a couple of years later, I read An American Dream. From that viewpoint, it seemed less a novel of political and social significance than a string of adolescent fantasies of sex and power. Like Chris Uggen, I never could never see the greatness of Mailer’s novels (at least the ones I read). But I remember being impressed immensely by Armies of the Night, even reading passages of it out loud to my roommates.

1 comment:

Brad Wright said...

What a great story... thanks for posting it.