ONE DAY IN 1984 when I was working for a moving company, I rushed to finish the job because that night Norman Mailer would speak in Providence, Rhode Island, at Brown University. I had to rush it, so I showed up in my boots and sans shower. "I am imprisoned with a perception," he wrote, "that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time." Since I was exactly the audience he was hoping for when he said this, I was quite sure, there was no worry about my failure to look like an Ivy League kid. There would be a movie, too, a documentary called Norman Mailer. The Sanction to Write.
My advisor John Abbott liked Mailer and had assigned Of a Fire on the Moon in his Introduction to Literature class. Mickey Stern from UConn, who would eventually grade my Honors Thesis and scold me for my solecisms, told wonderful stories about Norman's visits to UConn, about the American mythos. (Stern's stories were mainly about the American mythos with a nod toward head-butting.) Anyway, after reading Fire, I went into the attic of my father's house and looked through the pyramid of paperback books he'd built there after years of overstuffing the shelves. It was about three feet high at the pinnacle and was, I swear, pyramid shaped. From that pyramid I still have the following books in my library: Genius and Lust, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, An American Dream, Cannibals and Christians, and especially Existential Errands. Mailer's self-interviews about doing drugs and was it worth it to be high or drunk for a day if you were wiped out for two? Scatology, orgasm, and Henry Miller. I became a real reader, of a sort.
After Norman made some comments, he offered rules for the game. First we see the documentary, then he would answer any questions that could in some way be linked to the documentary. Mailer, we learned, hadn't gotten past the bananas when he attempted Gravity's Rainbow. Magic spell! First time I tried to read that book, I was blocked and confounded by the same bananas. Here's a snippet of the film that was collected in Pieces and Pontifications:
Michael Lennon: Are there any Latin American writers you are familiar with?
Norman Mailer: Well, I think Borges and Marquez are the two most important writers in the world today.
Lennon: Why Borges? In political terms he is a reactionary, is he not?
Mailer: Well, he is a conservative, but ... I detest having to think of a writer by his politics first. It's like thinking of people by way of their anus. Mailer walking through Berchtesgaden while talking with Mike Lennon, if I remember correctly, was a key point in the film. It seemed so to me then, and it seems so now, for other reasons that should be obvious.
I was writing an undergraduate Honors Thesis about the political significance of Mailer's use of first-person point of view, but I probably was not very clear at the time. Probably? I can be sure, actually, for when Q&A time came, I leapt to the microphone and asked a question that went something like this:
John Bridge: I'm wondering about the relationship between genre and politics in your work, since on the copyright page of Ancient Evenings the book, in the Library of Congress section, describes the book as, first, about Egypt, and then about "history" and then finally as fiction, which makes me think of how, in The Armies of the Night, you say that God is the best--
Norman Mailer: Are you putting me on?
This question was followed by Goo people laughing, but what impressed me most about the whole evening was the next part, when Norman said, quickly and firmly, "No, I'm not laughing at the young man--it was an honest question, I can see that. But we're at a great impasse, and it would take some time to get across it, and I'm not sure we'll get the chance tonight, so ... next question?"
I'm always impressed when a speaker can take the dumbest question of the evening and, somehow, get just a bit of charity out of that rind. …