A Fear of Dying: Norman Mailer's an American Dream

Article excerpt

Despite the prevailing negative vehemence with which Norman Mailer's An American Dream * has been greeted by reviewers, it is qualitatively the most substantial of his four novels, a salutary contribution to contemporary American literature, and a repudiation of the sociological truism that early success inevitably rots artistic talent.

How paradoxical then, if seriously conceived, is Mailer's alleged intention, reportedly embodied in a recent London Observer interview, to abandon the United States because of the novel's harsh reception! A man delighting as much in physical and literary battling as Mailer ought to welcome sparring partners without worrying about such matters as envy, pique, brutality, and misunderstanding. He surely knows that a forceful essayist and fictionist will garner retaliation; instead of fleeing, he should welcome all occasions for additional tests of his courage. This idea, at least, is a major motif in An American Dream, whose central character (Stephen Richards Rojack) transcends his disgust for American life, its persistent manhandling of him, by developing heightened sensuous and muscular powers. Yet, it is apparent in the novel's conclusion, which finds the transcendent Rojack heading for Guatemala and Yucatan as Sergius O'Shaugnessy in The Deer Park earlier sought sanctuary in Mexico, that Mailer does not foresee the possibility of reconciliation with American life as presently constituted.

The attitude toward society revealed in An American Dream cannot be viewed in simplistic fashion as irreconcilable alienation. Such an evaluation of Mailer was made in Marcus Klein's After Alienation, which appeared before An American Dream. Even without the testimony of this last novel, however, it should have been apparent from pieces in The Presidential Papers, as well as from sections of Advertisements for Myself, that Mailer was protesting aspects of American culture but not repudiating its future. For Mailer the promise of America reposes wholly in the individual, not at all in the society in which he is enmeshed. That society has tended to de-invidualize the individual, to reduce his sanctity and importance, while ensconcing him in ever-increasing material splendor. All of Mailer's fiction beginning with The Naked and the Dead has emphasized the dangers to man from this de-individuation. But whereas in The Naked and the Dead and Barbary Shore Mailer was still hopeful about social reform, in The Deer Park and An American Dream the only meaningful reform envisioned is the transformation of the individual.

No less than a radical metamorphosis is initiated in An American Dream. Mailer has confessed that he is "humorless"; he rarely displays an ironic bent. Yet the title of his new novel is an ironic comment on the tenuousness of the official American dream, that hyper-conglomerate of success, salesmanship, health, and wealth which produces row on row of mannequins. Scratch the glossy surface of a contented mannequin and it bleeds a different kind of American dream, "a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation." An outpouring of this passion provides the plot and texture of the novel and suggests the positive and negative dimensions of a new individualism.

Stephen Richards Rojack has reached the heights of the official dream at the book's opening. A man of action and intellect, physically brave, sexually attractive, photogenic, he is a professor of psychology at a New York City university, host of a television interview show, amateur boxer, husband of the wealthy, beautiful daughter of a financial tycoon, author of a popular book on the psychology and forms of execution. Nor is that all, for earlier he has been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for valor in World War II and elected a congressman at the age of twenty-six. Who could ask for anything more? …