Channeling Norman Mailer

In a group email thread about Clarice Lispector’s GW, a writer communicated his dead-of-night ecstatic epiphany about loving the book. It was a personal rave; funny, well written, insightful, but interlaced with thinly veiled insults directed to the feminist critics amongst the group. Reactions were immediate: anger, finger pointing, shaming, and grammatical corrections. Unapologetic, he said he was drunk and later that he was channeling Norman Mailer.

In 1968 or 9, back to New York from art school on the west coast, I worked for a time at Grove press. On a beautiful, clear summer day, I was sitting on the building steps smoking (Gauloise – really), wearing a tiny vaguely ethnic dress with espadrilles. Black lined eyes, white lips,  hanging hair – probably why I’d gotten the job as I had no literary creds – when a young man on a motorcycle pulled up. I recognized him as one of  Norman Mailer’s side kicks. I don’t remember if Grove was Mailer’s publisher at the time, but Mailer was buddies with the publisher, Barney Rosset and Grove was hip. Becket, Henry Miller, John Rechy, Pinter – everyone who mattered.  The motorcycle guy ran up the steps, brushing my shoulder as he passed, and again when, a moment later, he returned.  He stood at the curb, leaned on his bike and smiled up at me. He pointed to the back seat. Hop on, he mouthed.  “Maidstone, you’ll be famous”.  And I tossed my mane, laughed into a smoke ring and called out, “no way.”

Maidstone was the title of a film Mailer was making on Barney’s estate in the Hamptons. The word was;  porno. Mailer’s kind of porno, a pugilistic mixture of love, brilliance, evil, hucksterism serving his insatiable ego. He was the star, Kingsley (get it?) running for President, in danger of assassination, and somehow this required the presence of three ex wives, his children, black panthers, ghetto kids, boxing matches, naked actresses, a ridiculous but real fight with Rip Torn,  and everyone talking about paying for sex before fucking each other for free. I found it pathetic.

Buzz shrugged; regretfully, I thought, as I watched him drive away. I felt a bit wistful, the way one does on Prom night when you realize you have stomach flu.  Looking back, I wonder if I’d misinterpreted:  maybe his regret was not of missing out on me as a cool girl he’d like to know, but more likely of letting slip a potential prey for Norman.

In 2006, desperate to finish a novel on a deadline, I  locked myself up in a condo in Provincetown, Mass. No car, no wifi, no television. The espresso cafe at the corner shut down the day I arrived.  No distractions, no dog, no husband.  Every day, to clear my brain, I walked the length of Commercial Street, often stopping at the library because all the other millions of writers in the world were better writers than me, and I was desperate to learn how to create a sentence. Since P’town was Mailer’s town, I read everything I could find; books, reviews, interviews. I wanted to see the place through his crazed, pornographic, pugilistic, brilliant, drug addled eyes. What I found instead was a man in thrall with his town, who romped with his dog on the beach, tossed kids in the surf, parried over sandwiches with latest beautiful wife, got drunk on the wharf with the fishing fleet. The clan lived in a big brick house facing the beach.  One day I found it and I stood across the street for a long moment paying my conflicted respects. Rumor had it that he’d been the source for the phase “macho pig”, but still, he’d commanded the literary stage for all of my life and deserved my awe. I was about to head back when I heard his unmistakable voice calling out; “A beautiful day for a beautiful woman.” I was in my 60’s, swaddled in a puffer but no matter, Norman was Norman. He was well into his 80’s, a tiny person on his walker, steadied (of course) by a woman at his side. We stood for a moment nodding,  and then went on our separate ways. Six months later, he was dead. 

Love him or hate him, or worse, ignore him, Mailer’s one of the tiny flames in our American lives, a sometimes great writer, a sometimes bore and entertainer. Some of us were now and then hooked on his reality show, his – and ours – 15 minutes of fame.

But it’s really not a great idea for any guy to channel him right now (#metoo).