The one time I saw Norman Mailer in the flesh, he was drunk, and getting drunker and cantankerous, fueled by Marty Peretz’s no doubt more than adequate quality bourbon. It was a gathering in the fall of 1972 of undergraduates in the common room of a Prestigious East Coast College. Norman was clearly convinced that he was surrounded by anything but real men (I cannot even project what he might have been feeling about the college women).
Before he became totally combative, he held forth for a while about a theory that as I recall wasn’t uniquely his: that the Watergate break-in was actually an attempt to bug the Federal Reserve Bank offices on the floor above the DNC headquarters where the actual entry occurred. He was impressed by the fact that, according to the experts he had consulted, you didn’t actually need to put bugs right where you wanted to hear something. In the case of the Fed at Watergate, you would put them into the DNC’s ceiling, concealed and still able to eavesdrop on the floor above.
After that, and some razzing of Marty as a college professor and therefore, by definition, wimp, Norman tried to stir up a bit of race war by baiting one of my black classmates, imitating his southern black accent and pretty much carrying on like any drunken guttersnipe looking for a fight. By that point, he was clearly too loaded for anyone to take him on with honor.
It’s hard to really mourn the passing of, among other less-than-admirable qualities, such an inveterate misogynist. But it is telling that even as an 80+ year old artist, his loss will be felt. Whatever the literati might have been saying at any point, his writing in all its forms has always seemed to me utterly committed and fearlessly itself, supremely unconcerned with anything beyond manifesting his concerns and sense of his art. I imagine him as someone who loved the act of writing so much that he had no time amidst its effort to worry about the critics. (For sure he didn’t mind going round-for-round with them afterward.)
More than that, he pursued a craft that I think is key to our survival, if that is still possible in any form we would welcome. There is a real world behind the one we see in the news, in the halls of Congress and on the campaign trail. It is the place where our lives and fortunes are actually disposed of. This is not a paranoid delusion. It is simply a recognition of the fact that the Roman Circus of the media and of our visible governance process is a critical feature of a dictatorship that seeks to preserve the illusion of participatory democracy.
I think Mailer believed that, while he couldn’t sit in the smoky rooms and record the disposition of true power, he could imaginatively reconstruct the parts of it that interested him, without conceding that the result was “only” fiction. He never stopped and never flagged in this—most recently re-imagining the family and youth of Adolf Hitler no less. This superb assurance that he could pierce the veil of misdirection in this way, by right and by the strength of his own hand, is what we have lost in his inevitable passing. If we don’t tell each other these kinds of stories, we have no hope of understanding how our world is being destroyed, much less striking back at the true villains to save ourselves and our descendants. That is a kind of pugnacity, in the defense of individual human creation, without which we will not survive.