Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Heroic Narrative Resolution in the Armies of the Night

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Heroic Narrative Resolution in the Armies of the Night

Article excerpt

Norman Mailer long aspired to great accomplishments, especially to writing that would "change the consciousness of the times" or "take the temper of the times and turn it." Very likely, he also aspired to extra-literary acts of his own to rival the "heroism" he saw in the Mohammed Ali of "King of the Hill" and The Fight and behind enthusiasm for JFK in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," for he boxed, ran for office, addressed public affairs and both wrote and starred in The Armies of the Night, which provides an exemplary illustration of heroic narrative resolution.

"The Armies of the Night is structured like the Iliad!'
Barry Leeds, 1969, p. 256

NORMAN MAILER LONG ASPIRED TO GREAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS, especially to writing that would "change the consciousness of the times" (1) or "take the temper of the times and turn it." (2) Very likely, he also aspired to extra-literary acts of his own to rival the "heroism" he saw in the Mohammed Ali of "King of the Hill" and The Fight and behind enthusiasm for JFK in "Superman Comes to the Supermarket" for he boxed, ran for office, address public affairs and both wrote and starred in The Armies of the Night.

In his longer narratives, Mailer's protagonists frequently fall short of their aspirations. In The Naked and the Dead, anti-authoritarian Lt. Hearn is offed by the thuggish Sgt. Croft and Croft's attempt at a heroic crossing of the pass over Mt. Anaka ends in failure. In Barbary Shore, principal protagonist Mickey Lovett ends the novel gaining no more than the intellectual legacy of the book's other notable protagonist, McLeod, a legacy of Trotskyist ideological formulations that Lovett himself, on reception, terms "poor hope." In The Deer Park and An American Dream, O'Shaughnessy and Rojack's quests for meaning end up with each on the road in search of a fresh start. In Why are We in Vietnam?. DJ's embrace of a less hypocritical mode of masculinity than his father Big DJ's bluff machismo offer scant satisfaction. In The Executioner's Song, Gilmore's narrative end with Gilmore's death, albeit this is a death partially transcended because preceded by some attainment of love and met with dignity and courage. In Ancient Evenings, Menenhetet and grandson Little Menie, about to sail across new "dominions"on the "Boat of Ra" (704), sit together in "the pits of a new misery" where Menie reflects that "the weight of the failure of my father in his four lives falls heavily upon the son" (706).

Executioner's Song, Tough Guys Don't Dance, Harlot's Ghost, Oswald's Tale, The Gospel According to the Son and The Castle in the Forest have more complex relations to the self-realizations of their protagonists, and related resolutions of their narratives. Gary Gilmore and Jesus Christ, protagonists of Executioner's Song and The Gospel According to the Son, finesse the issue of protagonist success by wanting their own executions; as Oswald's Tale transitions into a commentary on, rather than telling of, the Oswald story after it first, Minsk-set book; and as Harlot's Ghost and The Castle in the Forest were to have been continued in further volumes. Finally, Tough Guys Don't Dance, albeit aided by adherence to the conventions of the formulaic tough guy investigative genre, arguably achieves narrative resolution as well as Armies. Specifically, amateur investigator Tim Madden identifies the criminal perpetrators of confronting him; and he largely, but not entirely, settles the challenges that have accompanied them,--"not entirely" because he ends the tale spooked. (3)

If Mailer's protagonists frequently fell short of their aspirations, Mailer's novels have been broadly seen by critics as sympathetic as Poirier, Bloom and Merrill to often have failed to achieve artistic resolution. Perhaps literary irresolution has been tied to failures of protagonist successes in overcoming struggles to realize their quests for meaning. Consideration of hero stories may be illuminating here, for in hero stories protagonists typically do realize their quests: Prometheus obtains fire, Odysseus returns home and regains family, George Washington fathers a nation and Shane lifts the burden of lawless cattlemen off the backs of homesteaders. …

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