The Martyrdom of Mailer

By O'Hagan, Andrew | The Mailer Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Martyrdom of Mailer


O'Hagan, Andrew, The Mailer Review


This profile/interview originally appeared in The Guardian in 1997. Permission to reprint has been granted by the author. Andrew O' Hagan also interviewed Norman Mailer in 2007 for The Paris Review.

Norman Mailer's eyes are old globes of trouble. He bends forward in his chair. "I may be the most successful example of a reformed criminal in American life," he says. He looks out at the water of Provincetown harbor and sighs. The light coming through the window makes a halo of his hair. "And do you feel superior to your younger self, Mr. Mailer?"

"I just look at him," he says, "and I think what a fool he is." Then his old eyes go smiling out past the window again.

There are places in the world that merely stew in their own native atmosphere, off-limits patches of pure attitude and fearful weather. Provincetown is such a place. The smell is something of fish, something of gas stations. Sea salt dries on the tongue. One of America's most easterly places, Provincetown sits on a crooked finger of land in New England, beckoning to the Old World. It was here that the Puritans first landed; they whispered their hard prayers among the sand dunes for a dozen weeks before moving on to Plymouth Rock. The Cape is something of a Gothic-movie landscape: a pallid luminescence over the water, wood-and-brick houses crowding to the shore, an end-of-earth vertigo hanging there. You could feel lonely in all that milky light; the vibe is preternaturally northern, pre-nuclear. Provincetown stands like many a place in the head: every visit is the first visit, and yet none of them is. A town called Deja vu.

Provincetown has been popular with artists since the Fifties, when it became the evil twin of Greenwich Village, and was well known as a place to find good marijuana. The painters Robert Motherwell and Franz Klein had houses there; Henry Geldzahler, the brilliant curator, came as a graduate student; Stan Getz and Zoot Sims would have all-night jam sessions; Kurt Vonnegut wandered around; and a lot of Beat poets came in and out with their bongo drums. It was once a favorite place with Hell's Angels.

There is a special category of American places, a group of territories, that might be seen to have provided the setting for the development of a bohemian consciousness, places that were adequate sites for the testing of hippy idealisms and freedoms, and that then became covens of paranoia and fear at the close of the Sixties. Altamont is one such place, Haight-Ashbury another. You get the feeling Provincetown has always known its own darkness. It still makes a play for outsiders, and it has, in more recent times, developed as a large gay resort. Painters and writers still walk the beach, but they are grey now, their jeans are wide at the wrong end, their wrinkles stand out like old arguments. And yet they all smile the big smile with their unfazed American teeth. Mailer has been coming to Provincetown since the Forties.

The rain had come on like a comedy on Commercial Street. Vast bulbs of water just smashed into the ground all evening. People flew out of their cars, sprinted across the lawn, and found happy sanctuary in the church of St. Mary's. They were all there to see Norman Mailer. You could say there was a comfortable air of civic pride among the pews. Mailer was reading in aid of a benefit to raise money for the Provincetown Library. Large ladies came to and fro with more than a hint of a knitting-bee. They made sure everyone was in their seats. Barbara Norris, the author's wife of 20 years, sat with the family in the front row. There was a hymnal in front of each celebrant, and beside this a book of black gospel songs. The previous day's incense came sharp on the air.

Mailer made his appearance one notch down from the pulpit; he appeared like the old soldier he is, like some 74-year-old prize-fighter, a tremendous shaman, a literary outlaw gone helpful and modest in his later years, but still with a ready spring to his step. …

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