In the opening line of Norman Mailer's An American Dream there is a casual link between John F. Kennedy and F. Scott Fitzgerald.It's a great throwaway beginning which sets a tone, like "Call me Ishmael." That linkage of history and fiction shows up in the rest of the novel, and in Mailer's later journalism. He is obsessed with power and prestige and good and evil, and with making choices that matter morally—morality here having to do with specific rightness, being true to the moment, a working out of Mailer's unique version of "existentialism." His journalism is full of this concern: he sees himself doing things, cleverly and stupidly, sneaking cleverly (for example) into the Republican convention disguised as a guard, and stupidly approaching Sonny Liston with good advice on boxing. Mailer's journalism, and much of his fiction, was full of Mailer or Mailer substitutes.
It was good stuff, because Mailer simply does see things which nobody else notices. But about some things his most recent approach wouldn't work, the way he has taken on of describing his own reactions in third person form, with some fancy name like "Aquarius" standing in for Mailer: "Seabiscuit could sense his own failure here, charged with the tang of ammonia which follows sudden unexpected exertion, or the glue-factory smell of a losing race-horse led away ..."—people began to parody it. The third-person device was a means of keeping in shape for novels, maybe, and it made for some fine journalism. But it wouldn't work close to some subjects, and when I saw that Playboy was excerpting something from a book by Mailer on the execution of Gary Gilmore I____________________