A moment from The Armies of the Night (1968) that came to mind on the occasion of Norman Mailer’s death this weekend:
Mailer, mug of whisky in hand, is about to M.C. an anti-war meeting at the “sleazy” Ambassador Theatre in Washington (“sleazy” because “neighborhood movie houses built on the dream of the owner that some day Garbo or Harlow or Lombard would give a look in aged immediately [when] they were not used for movies anymore”). But first, our hero needs to relieve himself in an upstairs toilet:
No chance to find the light switch for he had no matches, he did not smoke. It was therefore a matter of locating what’s what with the probing of his toes. He found something finally which seemed appropriate, and pleased with the precision of these generally unused senses in his feet, took aim between them at a point twelve inches ahead, and heard in the darkness the sound of his water striking the floor. Some damn mistake had been made, an assault from the side doubtless instead of the front, the bowl was relocated now, and Master of Ceremonies breathed deep of the great reveries of this utterly non-Sisyphian release – at last!! – and thoroughly enjoyed the next forty-five seconds, being left on the aftermath not a note depressed by the condition of the premises. No, he was off on the Romantic’s great military dream, which is: seize defeat, convert it to triumph. Of course, pissing on the floor was bad; very bad; the attendant would probably gossip to the police (if the Time man did not sniff it out first) and The Uniformed in turn would report it to The Press who were sure to write about the scandolous condition in which this meeting had left the toilets. And all of this contretemps merely because the management, bitter with their lost dream of Garbo and Harlow and Lombard, were now so pocked and stingy they doused the lights. (Out of such stuff is a novelist’s brain.)
Well, he could convert this deficiency to an asset. From gap to gain is very American. He would confess straight out to all aloud that he was the one who wet the floor in the men’s room, he alone! While the audience was recovering from the existential anxiety of encountering an orator who confessed to such a crime, he would be able – their attention now rivetted – to bring them up to a contemplation of deeper problems, of, indeed, the deepest problems, the most chilling alternatives, and would from there seek to bring them back to a restorative view of man. Man might be a fool who peed in the wrong pot, man was also a scrupulous servant of the self-damaging admission; man was therefore a philosopher who possessed the magic stone; he could turn loss to philosophical gain, and so illumine the deeps, find the poles, and eventually learn to cultivate his most special fool’s garden: satori, incandesence, and the hard gem-like flame of bourbon burning in the furnaces of metabolism. [Weidenfeld and Nicolson edition, 1968: 31-32]
Ah, Norman, we’ll miss you and that brilliant, silly, funny, bravura style.
An American literary generation is essentially gone: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, Grace Paley and now Mailer dead within the last few years. Who remains of the World War II generation? Only Gore Vidal and the silent J. D. Salinger.
Mailer had been ailing for some years, even as he kept writing and publishing. Philip Roth provided a late fictionalized glimpse of Mailer in his recent novel Exit Ghost; a eulogy at George Plimpton’s memorial service as witnessed by the character Kliman:
“Guy’s eighty now, both knees shot, walks with two canes, can’t take a stride of more than six inches alone, but he refuses help going up to the pulpit, won’t even use one of the canes. Climbs this tall pulpit all by himself. Everybody pulling for him step by step. The conquistador is here and the high drama begins. The Twilight of the Gods. He surveys the assemblage. Looks down the length of the nave and out to Amsterdam Avenue and across the U.S. to the Pacific. Reminds me of Father Mapple in Moby-Dick. I expected him to begin “Shipmates!” and preach upon the lesson Jonah teaches.” (p. 255)
Mailer’s non-fictional account of meeting Roth at the same memorial service is poignant albeit, once again, concerned with urination:
“At George Plimpton’s memorial service in Saint John the Divine, I suddenly had to go and I knew I wouldn’t make it down the aisle. So I went into a corridor at the side and there I met Philip Roth. Sometimes I have to go into a telephone kiosk to pee, Phil, I said. You just can’t wait at my age. I know, said Roth—it’s the same with me. Well, I said, you always were precocious.”
That comment is from the recent Paris Review interview of Summer 2007, now online in PDF.
[ADDENDUM (14/11/07): Subsequent to publishing this post, I noticed that the Los Angeles Times also excerpted the very same passage from The Armies of the Night in the wake of Mailer's passing.]
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