Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Norman Mailer's "An American Dream": Review

I remember Ancient Evenings for its erotic charge, its graphic battlescenes, and the smells and sights of Egypt that it conjured up. I also remember it for tedium, excessive languor, and pages and pages of dreamlike half-sense as characters floated in and out of each other's consciousness. The roots of this later fiction, as well as the philosopher-villain (as Pierre Klossowski analyzed Sade) of The Executioner's Song, can be traced to this post-JFK novel. Dated inevitably by the hipster slang, and the stylized verbal sparring between Rojack and the cop Roberts, the jive-talking Shago, the overheated moll Cherry, and the languid lockjaw of Kelly, still, Mailer does capture a fantasy of the mid-Sixties, as Freedom Riders prepared for the coming a few years later of the Armies of the Night.

Curious about the novel after Kate Millett's evisceration of Rojack's sexual assault- turned- arousal with the German maid Ruta, I read the entire book to find that Millett exaggerates one early episode, and seems not to situate Ruta within the context of the later revelations that confront Rojack in Kelly's lair. Shades of Chuck Barris playing a CIA operative on the side while he entertains the masses on a TV show! Rojack's public persona, similarly, is caricatured, and you fail to believe he was a Harvard grad, let alone a professor and noted pundit.

Still, whenever he is grilled by the police, threatened by Shago, or taunted by Kelly, the novel does flicker into life for pages at a time. However, the slow passage of time manages to live up to the title of the work, for stretches of this defy verisimilitude unless one was strung out on speed rather than java. The Mob element surprisingly hovers rather than enters the scene, although this shadowy presence is intentional from the storyline. Nearly all the novel takes place in but a couple of days with apparently very little sleep for the protagonist, the anti-hero that Mailer clearly relishes as his alter ego-- one who keeps wondering if he can get away with murder, between the sex, the taxis, the dancing, the clubbing, and the fear of being clubbed to death or pushed off a penthouse parapet that Rojack fears.

Incest often throws off an otherwise respectable plot, and it's used here by Mailer in my judgement as an easy out to get Rojack off the hot seat. The theme causes the climactic scene of the novel to feel hackneyed. The coda anticipates if in more measured prose Hunter S. Thompson's road trip crossed with Tom Wolfe's account of Kesey's Magic Bus; Mailer's half in tune with the counterculture zeitgeist, half catching up to the New Journalism, celebrating the White Negro, and predicting Radical Chic.

Parts of this book I found winning, notably in the character of unfairly maligned Ruta. The lustful intensity of this episode comprised the finest writing in the book, following a harrowing encounter with the four Germans Rojack killed during the war. These two parts cannot be extricated from each other. You cannot get outraged about the sex with Ruta taken only on its own, when previously the novel opens with the moonlit night two decades earlier that foreshadows the werewolf-like frenzy that Rojack enters into once again, with dramatic results. Lunacy rises fearfully.

Often, the novel failed to move me, as with Rojack's unaccountable lust for Cherry, who lacked an iota of sex appeal as sketched on the page. Shago's long sparring match with Rojack, physically and verbally, veered near self-parody for Mailer, which is saying a lot. But, as with the assault on and then with (a crucial qualifier Millett cannot understand) Ruta and the Nazi attack earlier, other sections succeed. While paragraphs drift off into showmanship, sentences shine coldly, in the uneven near-monologue Kelly delivers. Once in a while, then-- and probably more often than his peers as judged four decades later-- Mailer hits the target. He enters the zone of manic creativity that his fiction and journalism both have shown, before and after this experimental novel, him to be able to sustain, if in the short spurt rather than the long run, for most of his published oeuvre to date.

(I reviewed Mailer's Ancient Evenings & Pierre Klossowski's "Sade My Neighbor" as well as the above book on Amazon. The British Flamingo cover unaccountably gets cover girl status rather than the male backside Vintage reprint, and the former captures the tone much better.)

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