THE POST-CLIMAX of Norman Mailer's An American Dream (1965) features Stephen Rojack (some might say the author's virtual alter ego) in the desert, outside Vegas, in a surreal phone booth, ideal for a celestial call to his dead lover, Cherry, now with Marilyn Monroe. But Rojack, uncharacteristically, remains speechless, hangs up the phone, and makes no phone call the next morning because this Mailer protagonist was "something like sane again." Moreover, he is headed due south to the jungles of Guatemala and Yucatan. The starting point for such a seminal exit from America is the Vegas desert, just a casino chip's throw from America's real nadir point, Death Valley.
There was nothing Arctic about Mailer's 1965 novel, or was there?
This Maileresque literary fallout was conceived before Mailer's flash, five-day visit to Alaska in April 1965. Imagine a literary mind experiencing such a one-man, in-house American culture shock from hot sandy Nevada to the 49th state the size of Texas, California and Montana combined, including three million lakes. And a coastline double the size of all the Lower 48 states. Alaska also boasts of its one glacier--the size of Holland--and its outdoor adventures with animals far outnumbering humans, a mere 300,000 plus, the population of a single mid-sized Lower 48 city. Alaska, indeed, is a huge hunk of wild Americana.
Mailer, Brooklyn bred, literary celebrity, seasoned traveler, and existential doer, was interviewed in London about his Alaska Odyssey two weeks after his Arctic visit. Mailer said: "There are one or two places a man can visit in his lifetime that affect him as an existential experience. Alaska was one of those places for me."
I had yet to ask Mailer, "Where's the other place?" I had my opportunities. I might have been the first to ask because I witnessed Mailer's Day Two in Anchorage, and his three-dayfinale in Fairbanks. There, at the State University of Alaska, I was an assistant professor in the English Department, teaching while turning a Mailer dissertation into a Mailer book. I was there, live. I was also one of the few who were "hip" to the Alaskan academic magic that prompted (virtually tricked) a reluctant Mailer to visit Alaska.
Edmund Skellings (later to become a Messiah of high tech art, a.k.a. the "Electric Poet") was my best friend and fellow PhD candidate at the State University of Iowa. There, Ed and I first met the Norman Mailer.
Esquire (the home magazine of Mailer's eight-part serialization [Jan-Aug 1964] of An American Dream) had sponsored a college road show, "Symposium for Writers," a panel that included Mailer, Mark Harris, Dwight Macdonald, and others. During its Iowa City stopover, and after the panel presentation, Ed and I pressed the flesh with Mailer--who responded with warm wit and a promise to keep this mellow threesome mood going that night at the party at Donald Justice's home.
I arrived a bit late at the poet's house. Don Justice told me that Mailer and Mark Harris had shouted and wrestled and that Mailer, in a huff, had exited the party with Ed Skellings--seemingly gone for good.
The next morning Ed had news. He and Mailer had hit it off. After verbal sparring and some marijuana, Mailer was exposed to what he later, smilingly, called: "Skellings formidable breeziness," and at its inception, instant friendship. Skellings added that Mailer was not his but "our" friend.
Ed graduated from Iowa and stationed himself in a lively English Department at Fairbanks, about 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle. I had remained in Iowa City to finish up my last year in the doctorate program when, suddenly, I received this message: "Come north, Good Buddy, and share in my high professorial adventures." Ed really tempted me when he flew to New York and fell flush into one of those famous Norman Mailer Brooklyn Heights parties. At one of them, this conversation took place:
"Norman," Skellings said, "you're going to Alaska. …