Academic journal article The Mailer Review

A Ticket to the Circus

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

A Ticket to the Circus

Article excerpt


An English teacher at Tech named Francis Irby Gwaltney (who wrote the memoir Idols and Axle Grease that I had illustrated) was a soldier in World War II with Norman Mailer. While I never had Francis (or Fig, as Norman called him) as a teacher, I was friends with him and his wife, Ecey (E. C., short for Emma Carol), another English teacher at Tech. Along with B. C. Hall and his wife, Daphna, we all subscribed to The New Yorker magazine and considered ourselves to be intellectuals--Russellville-style, anyhow. After I started teaching at the high school, we'd all get together once in a while to have a glass of wine (Russellville was in a dry county, so drinking wine was totally avant-garde--we had to drive thirty miles to buy it) and discuss literature and The New Yorker articles. We were big Walker Percy and Eudora Welty fans.

Often, Francis mentioned Norman. They had kept in touch after the war, and every couple of years they managed to get together. Francis became a writer after Norman published The Naked and the Dead. He said that if Norman Mailer could write, by God, he could, too. According to Norman, Fig had been a much better soldier than he had been, and Norman looked up to him. Fig was the inspiration for Wilson, one of the characters in the book.

Sweet, innocent Norman, straight out of Harvard, had somehow been assigned to an experienced, battle-hardened Texas outfit, and he tried to play dumb and be as invisible as possible so as not to be perceived by the good ol' boys as the Eastern Jewish intellectual he was. They were as tough as old leather, those Texans, skin burned a deep sienna from sitting around in the hot sun on the troop ship, endlessly sharpening their bowie knives on pieces of flint and painting their sores with iodine. One of them once said something about that "goddam New York Jew," and Fig jumped to Norman's defense.

"Who're you calling a goddam Jew? I'm a goddam Jew, too!"

"You ain't no goddam Jew, Gwaltney. You're from Arkansas."

"I am too a goddam Jew," the big, blond blue-eyed Southerner said, his chin thrust out, his fists clenched. He stood ready to jump in and fight, but the bully just said, "You a crazy sumbitch, Gwaltney," and backed off.

Of course Fig wasn't Jewish, but he endeared himself to Norman that day, and they became best buddies. Norman tried his hardest to keep a low profile, but once in map-reading class, when he was daydreaming, the harried officer who had been getting nothing but "I don't know" from the men asked him a question, and by accident, before he could think, he blurted out the correct coordinates of a position. He was busted. (Life was a little harder after that, but the officer was thrilled that he finally had someone who could read a map.)

It has been said that there are no coincidences in life, and I might just believe that. It was April 1975, and I had been divorced for more than a year. Frankly, dating a lot of different guys had begun to lose its charm, but I had no interest in getting serious about anyone. I liked having my own house and doing as I pleased. No man to clutter up my closets, no man to clean up after (except my big boy, Matt, of course). No man to tell me what to do, how to spend my money, what to cook. I was close to my parents, who adored Matthew and were thrilled to babysit for me while I worked. My life was pretty great.

Then I got a call from my friend Van Tyson, another teacher at Tech, who was having a film animation artist come speak to his class. He wondered if I wanted to bring my senior class over to the college to sit in. I was always up for something new to do with the kids, so we went, and it was interesting. But the most interesting bit of information I got that day was that Norman Mailer was next door in Francis's class, and Francis and Ecey were giving him a cocktail party after school. To which I had not been invited.

Although I've always loved literature, books were a luxury I treated myself to sparingly, but I had been a member of the Book-of-the-Month Club for several years, getting things such as Joseph Heller's Catch-22, or James Jones's The Merry Month of May. …

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