Norman Mailer: Four Books of the 1960s: An American Dream / Why Are We in Vietnam? / The Armies of the Night / Miami and the Siege of Chicago (Library of America Norman Mailer Edition)
Mailer has flashes of brilliance. Historically interesting.
Norman Mailer: Four Books of the 1960s is volume 1 of a 2-volume boxed set from the Library of America. A review of the second volume, Norman Mailer: Collected Essays of the 1960s will be made available on NYJB soon.
The four books, in total, comprising over 900 pages, are:
An American Dream, first published in 1965.
Why Are We in Vietnam?, first published in 1967.
The Armies of the Night, first published in 1968, and
Miami and the Siege of Chicago, first published in 1968.
This reviewer up to now had been familiar with only one of Mailer’s novels, The Naked and The Dead, a fictionalization of the Philippines campaign in WWII. From The Naked and The Dead, this reviewer expected Norman Mailer: Four Books of the 1960s to follow in a similar style.
This reviewer could not have been more wrong.
The first two novels An American Dream and Why Are We in Vietnam? were confusing and exhausting to complete. For these two, Mailer was experimenting in style and form. Sometimes experiments fail. However, the second two were more straightforward and easier to read—but the second two were not novels. The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago are first-hand reports of important events in American history, and won literature awards for writing them.
Back to the first two in the set. The dust jacket calls An American Dream a “fever dream.” For this book, Mailer attempts to deconstruct and remake the novel in his own image. The period is set in the 1960s, and the hero is an anti-hero. Stephen Rojack in a first-person stream of consciousness sets the stage of his life, serving in the army in WWII and describing the beauty and joy of killing Germans. Rojack is wounded and made a war hero, then elected to Congress at the age of 26. He then leaves public life at 28 to become a professor of existential psychology and author on differing methods of criminal executions in different countries. Rojack also marries and divorces an heiress. All this in the first 12 pages.
Next, Rojack goes into great detail on his soured marriage, and a foul, misogynistic miasma rises from Rojack’s character. The dialog between Rojack and ex-wife is particularly full of hatred and contempt, and at its conclusion, Rojack strangles his wife. So ends the first chapter.
The second chapter provides the backstory of Rojack’s deceased ex-wife. She is described as a spoiled rich girl (who deserves what she got). Rojack is obsessed with her and unable to leave the dead alone. He expresses his desire to “kill her again, kill her good this time, kill her right.” He imagines cannibalism. He imagines putting her bones in the kitchen disposal. Imagines throwing the long bones out the window. He reconsiders—it is too far to throw long bones out the window, and instead imagines taking a taxi to throw her bones into the marshes of Canarsie. No, he reconsiders again. He then imagines putting her long bones into Plaster of Paris and dropping them at sea. Oh but how is he going to rent a boat in March? No, that wouldn’t work. He then makes his decision. . . .
Rojack throws his dead ex-wife’s body out the window of her apartment. She lands in the street, blocking traffic.
Rojack has sex with his deceased ex-wife’s maid and enlists her help in providing an alibi that his wife committed suicide by jumping out of the window. Mailer’s depiction of Rojack having sex is misogynistic trying to be funny (Think Andrew Dice Clay, only way more gross).
Rojack phones the police with his alibi. (Before 911, you had to dial 0 to reach the operator to call the police.) Rojack then goes down to the street to make a show of crying over his dead wife. In the street waiting for the police he flirts with a blonde whose taxi has been blocked by his deceased ex-wife’s body.
Cherry, the blonde Rojack flirts with, is a nightclub singer. The police arrive. Rojack engages in clever banter (with violent subtext) with the detective. The detective points out that preliminary medical evidence indicates Rojack’s wife was strangled and dead before hitting the street. With the dialog Mailer provides imagery that honors all five senses, sight, sound, touch, and smell (which Is so obvious, one might think he used a checklist: Sight—check, Sound—check, Touch—check, Smell—check).
Rojack is now brought to the police station for processing. He notes, “Nobody ever tells the truth here. It’s impossible. Even the molecules in the air are full of lies.” He is in luck as the police also haul in a aging mob boss (who was coincidentally in the taxi with Cherry). It just so happens that Rojack is only a small fish and processing the mobster will have to take precedence. Rojack is let go, to be called back when the coroner’s report comes in.
Mailer now thankfully adds comic digressions, including a phone conversation with the “hip” dean at the college where Rojack teaches, and another phone conversation with a scatter-brained woman-friend of his dead wife.
Rojack visits Cherry at her nightclub, the imagery Mailer offers is stream-of-conscious of a noir New York City of pimps, prostitutes, boxers, and cold-water walk-up flats with a bathroom down the hall. Here this reviewer realizes that plot really doesn’t matter. An American Dream does have a few lucid moments, but Rojack never overcomes being more “anti” than “hero.” Readers should simply try to enjoy the ride, as ugly as Mailer tries to make it.
In preparation for a review of An American Dream, this reviewer checked Wikipedia to find that An American Dream was turned into a movie in 1966 (god help the director). Its failure at the box office is attributed to the absence of likeable characters.
Why Are We in Vietnam? appears to be the second of Mailer’s experiments in deconstructing the novel. This book is unreadable, comprised of stream-of-conscious southern dialect interspersed with obscenities. This reviewer, again was confused and started skimming after the first ten pages with the hope that at some point Mailer would transition to lucidity. Mailer stuck to his stylistic guns to the end.
The Armies of the Night is not a novel but a straight-forward report on the anti-Vietnam protest march that occurred at the Pentagon in October 1967. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, and the National Book Award in Arts and Letters.
Mailer puts himself into his reporting in a manner not unlike Hunter S. Thompson. Mailer is more restrained than Thompson and does not achieve the extreme level of “gonzo” that Thompson was famous for. However, Mailer insists on putting himself front and center—making the story as much about himself as on what he reports.
Mailer served in WWII and was 44 years old at the time of writing The Armies of the Night. He is clear eyed about war in general, and the Vietnam War and anti-war protests in specific. Mailer‘s life spans two generations: those who served in WWII and their children who were the hippies of the 60s. However that knowledge was not without moments of miscommunication. In the two-finger “V” hippie peace sign, Mailer saw Churchill’s “V for victory.”
Mailer puts himself into his reporting by writing about his feuds with lesser and greater authors, journalists, and poets, and in reveling in his reputation for bad manners. He points out that by 1967 he had been married four times and divorced three. Mailer also self-promotes, writing of himself, “Mailer is a figure of monumental disproportions and so serves will-nilly as the bridge—many will say as the pons asinorum into the crazy house of that period of time.”
Mailer describes how he ended up going to and reporting on the protest. He initially demurred but then he could not refuse as other authors he admired were attending and protesting. Mailer describes the different American cultures that came together to make the protest possible: the hippies, the new left (which is now probably the old left), and “Black Power.” Mailer also refers to the counter-anti-war protesters as “American Nazis.”
Mailer on Mailer on the protest, “He had come to decide that the center of America might be insane.”
At the protest, Mailer estimates the size of the crowd to be 50,000 or so strong, and from having knowledge of the planning, he points out that protest was centrally unplanned and leaderless but in execution apparently very well organized. And of the expected police response, Mailer noted, “No one had any idea of how many arrests would be made, nor of how much violence there would be, neither the side of the police, nor the demonstrators.”
The Pentagon was guarded by DC police, U.S. Marshals, and the National Guard. (Note: The Pentagon protest in 1967 was three years before four American students were murdered at Kent State by the National Guard.)
One planned part of the demonstration was for protesters to encircle the Pentagon and perform an exorcism of evil spirits. Though permits were given by the DC authorities to protest none were given to enter the Pentagon grounds, i.e. the permitting process allowed the exorcism but not the encirclement.
In response, the protests were in organized in stages: those who were willing to get arrested, and those who would protest but not cross onto the Pentagon grounds. Mailer informs the reader that his goal is to get arrested as soon as possible so as to get bailed out quickly and get home in time for a dinner party. He considers success to be arrested without getting clubbed by a U.S. Marshal.
Norman Mailer does not get home in time for dinner.
The arrests made by the police were “mass arrest,” that is, protesters, including Mailer were arrested as a group and transferred by bus to holding cells at a central booking station. While waiting to be processed, Mailer studies his cohorts to get a feel for who they are and why they protested, one of whom is linguist and social critic, Noam Chomsky. Protesting but not among the arrestees was author and baby doctor, Dr. Benjamin Spock. The 64-year-old doctor could not get himself arrested though he tried. The police told him to go home.
Bail for protesters is set at $25. As some of the protesters did not have $25, other arrestees, including Mailer offered to pay for those who could not. Mailer was one of the last to be processed—and for a reason. The presiding judge wanted to set an example of Mailer. The judge explains to Mailer that since he is a responsible adult he should have known better than to protest, and motions to hold him over for trial.
Mailer’s lawyer, arriving after Mailer’s “one phone call” negotiates his release by raising the legal argument that if Mailer was responsible as the judge says, then he should be released on his own recognizance. The legal forms for release are not on hand but after vetting sample forms from a legal textbook, they are copied and filled out, and Mailer is free to go.
The Armies of the Night is presented in two parts. The first and main section is Mailer’s “you are there” reporting. The second and shorter section, is an epilogue providing context to the protest and aftermath. Of the mass arrests (1000 arrested in 32 hours), 600 protesters had charges pressed; none were felony charges. Two arrests went to trial and both were acquitted.
In the epilogue, Mailer details the organization and funding of the protest and march. Though most of the money came from middle class and middle-aged peace groups the protest was organized and conducted by the young, to the dismay of the funders.
Mailer next adds detail to the meetings held by the protesting organizations with the relevant authorities to be allowed a “rally and parade permit” in Washington, DC. Mailer sardonically notes, “even a revolution can be negotiated.” And, in terms of the final agreement achieved, “Each side was compromised, each side was, on the face of their professed attitude, absurd. Yet each party had the most pressing practical concerns to force them into collaboration.”
Mailer returns to his hotel after his release, and from his hotel room he can still hear the chanting of the protesters, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you slay today?” And though Mailer wasn’t beaten by police, he does get beaten by a salesman, who is more likely an undercover agitator. Mailer notes the “salesman” is pulled aside and treated favorably after both are taken in to the police station.
There are a few editing problems with The Armies of the Night, as the narrative often veers into bloviation and self-promotion. Despite its flaws, The Armies of the Night deserves a reappraisal in light of the lack of protest over the neverending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Nominated for a National Book Award for History and Biography, Miami and the Siege of Chicago Norman Mailer again provides the reader with a clear-eyed reporting of important political events. In this case, the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions in Miami and Chicago.
At the Republican convention, along with Richard Nixon who was the front-runner at the Republican convention, the contenders for nomination included Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father), and Ronald Reagan.
Mailer tells the reader that he is purposefully not interviewing any of the candidates and instead provides an indirect analysis of the candidates from his impression of their supporters, public relations, and staff. In this, Mailer cannot resist from mocking old, white, wealthy Americans, pointing out the madness of the WASP center of the Republican Party was its dream of “white purity.”
Mailer uses a folksy tone to report on the convention as gala and spectacle. He is fascinated with, and keeps coming back to, reporting on the 1200 lb. baby (Republican) elephant that was flown to Miami and presented to Nixon. After de-crating, the elephant is paraded for the crowd by the Nixonettes who strut to the music of Don Goldie and his Dixieland band.
Despite the increased security in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Mailer is able to sneak into Reagan’s gala by posing as security. He notes Reagan showed self-confidence and was at ease with reporters and press; however, Mailer does not stay long at Reagan’s party because he is afraid of being found out. Mailer is done reporting on Reagan and moves on to Nixon’s and Rockefeller’s campaign. Of the two, Nixon wooed the conservative center while “Rocky” appealed to the liberal center. Neither Nixon nor Rockefeller were fond of the press.
Mailer admits to the reader of never having liked Nixon but being fascinated by Nixon’s comeback after his failed run for California governor in 1962. Mailer frequently refers to “two Nixons,” the “old Nixon” and the “new Nixon.” For some perspective, Mailer was 57 years old in 1968, two years older than Nixon.
At the end of his reporting, Mailer sums up his reporting by stating that he would have better covered the Republican convention at home watching TV.
In Chicago, Mailer’s reporting on the Democratic Convention held at the Amphitheatre starts with a paean to the city and its stockyards (Wikipedia says more meat was processed in Chicago in 1924 than in any other place in the world but due to changes in meat distribution, the stockyards closed in the 1970s).
Mailer next reports on the logistical complications of hosting the Democratic Convention in the city, not the least of which that Chicago was controlled by Mayor Daley, the boss of the local political machine. Mayor Daley and ideas of his own of who should be nominated and was encouraging Ted Kennedy to run. Robert (Bobby) Kennedy was Mailer’s favorite, but after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, his supporters went to Eugene McCarthy.
Of the candidates who were running, Mailer provides a nuanced and thoroughly depressing study of the two frontrunners, Eugene (Gene) McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey. And of the two, Mailer places most of his attention (and hopes) on McCarthy, the anti-war candidate. McCarthy was not the front runner.
Eugene McCarthy was a huge disappointment.
Hubert Humphrey was Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)’s Vice President. As LBJ chose not to run, Humphrey had the nomination more or less locked up by inheriting LBJ’s delegates. Mailer highlights Humphrey’s major flaws. One, Humphrey did not have political power of his own (Humphrey did not run in any primaries), and two, Humphrey’s policies were tied to LBJ’s, and LBJ’s policies were tied to the boat anchor that was the Vietnam War.
Mailer informs the reader the McCarthy Mailer saw at the convention was a shadow of the politician that McCarthy had been in past interviews, though Mailer does not offer insight as to why. Case in point, during the convention speeches McCarthy throws away his opportunity to steal support from Humphrey by refusing to attack Humphrey at his weakest point, Humphrey’s support of the Vietnam war. In contrast, George McGovern, the next candidate to speak, gives a rousing anti-war speech and, “picked up all the chips . . . [and] the crowd gave him a standing ovation.” At the end of the day, McCarthy secretly through an intermediary, offers his delegates to Ted Kennedy, if Ted chose to run.
Ted Kennedy does not choose to run.
Outside the Amphitheatre, there were anti-war protests. The protesters received a permit to assemble but not to march. They marched. Among the protesters were authors and poets including Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern. Daley responded to the protests by sending in the police. Mailer reports, “the event was a convention which took place during a continuing five-day battle in the streets and parks of Chicago . . . the greatest excitement in the Amphitheatre was often a reflection of the war without.”
Mailer states the protesters did not riot, it was the police that rioted. The police attacked not just protesters but bystanders, newsmen, and doctors attempting to assist the beaten. Mailer, reporting on the protesters, states, “It seemed as if the more they were beaten and tear-gassed, the more they rallied back.” When the Chicago police are overwhelmed they were bolstered by National Guard troops. Mailer gets caught in the middle, and when tear-gas was launched admits, “I felt sure I was going to die.”
After the delegates nominate Hubert Humphrey to be the next Democratic candidate for president, Mailer picks apart both Humphrey’s appearance and his acceptance speech. “Humphrey,” Mailer writes, “had a face which was as dependent upon cosmetics as the protagonist of a coffin. The results were about as dynamic.” Of the general election to come, Mailer feels that, “Everybody knows he would lose.”
In the general election, Humphrey does lose. But that is getting ahead of the story.
By the end of the convention the protests had mostly broken up. Mailer leaves the convention hall and drinks the night away with companion reporters. Walking through a park at 4:00 a.m., he mouths off to a National Guardsman. Despite being a journalist Mailer is arrested and turned over to the police at a station set up on the first floor of the Hilton Hotel. When the National Guardsman who arrested Mailer declines to press charges Mailer is released. On the street corner outside the hotel, Mailer engages in conversation with a man wearing a delegate’s badge and gets sucker-punched. Both Mailer and assailant are quickly brought back to the police station, whereupon Mailer notices his assailant is taken aside and treated favorably. Mailer again believes that the “delegate” was likely an agent provocateur.
Norman Mailer: Four Books of the 1960s has end notes and an index.