Saturday, January 20, 2007

Mailer still searches for the Big Book

At almost 84 years of age, Norman Mailer may be the US's most senior man of letters. His books, published over the past half century, have ranged from amazing to drivel. He's one author I've never been quite able to figure out.

The Naked and The Dead and The Executioner's Song would find their way onto my top-10 list, no doubt about it. Oswald's Tale, his book about Lee Harvey Oswald's life, was excellent.

Several others I've read - An American Dream, The Deer Park, Miami and The Siege of Chicago - were decent but nothing you would expect from a person of Mailer's capabilities.

And, then, he's also written Harlot's Ghost, the Gospel According to the Son and Ancient Evenings, all of which stunk. No, they worse than stunk. They were unreadable.

Mailer, who used to talk about the Big Book - apparently his terminology for the Next Great American Novel - with interviewers, now says he may never write it. I'd say he already did, when he set down The Executioner's Song, an 1,100 page (roughly) tome about Gary Gilmore, the first person executed after the US reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s.

Somehow, Mailer managed to take an unsympathetic character surrounded by his trailer trash relatives and acquaintances, drugs, alcoholism, rage, violence, and everything else dark and wrong and turned him into a character study unlike anything I've ever read before or since. Critics agreed; the book was deservedly a huge bestseller.

In his latest book, The Castle in the Forest, Mailer is tackling the early life of Adolf Hitler under the premise that Hitler was the devil's response to Jesus Christ. This is where Mailer, in my opinion, tends to get into trouble: when he begins to call in mystic forces to explain people. It's exactly why Ancient Evenings and The Gospel According to the Son were so damned awful.

Nevertheless, I must admit, I'm intrigued by the idea of a Jew offering a fictional account of Hitler's life presumably as some kind of explanation of the later actions. I'll probably pick it up and I probably won't like it.
Too bad because I'd love to read another Mailer book that captured the tone of Gilmore or the all too human stories and soldiers in The Naked and the Dead.

Writing this, I pulled out the Executioner's Song and note that on the back cover of the tattered copy I have (I've lent it and reclaimed it on several occasions) that the book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer at that time wrote, "Not since the Grapes of Wrath has there been an American book that so discovered the voices in our culture."

Mailer compared to, that's some heady company. Both, as the Inquirer noted, repeatedly tapped into the American landscape and psyche for inspiration and both turned out their greatest works when doing so. I'll probably get to Steinbeck another time because he's my favourite author of all time.

Anyone who's bored should definitely add the several Mailer books I mentioned, along with Steinbeck novels including Cannery Row, East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flat to their reading lists. I promise you, you will not find them wanting.

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