I'm adventurous with my reading. I'm all over the genre map, and I have particular gusto for those whose life's work twine nonfiction and fiction. James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Fyodor Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace, Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy: for better and worse, they give me a model for the kind of hybridic literary life I want to live.
But I hadn't gotten around to reading one of the most notorious among the tribe for a simple reason: Norman Mailer is a first-rate asshole. Impressive literary reputation notwithstanding, I knew of Mailer as an alcoholic narcissist, given to deadening bouts of machismo, who stabbed one of his wives with a penknife. Twice. Of all the great books I might choose to pick up next, why choose Mailer? I just wasn't interested in spending extended time in the imaginative world of this guy.
Until I was. The New York Review of Books has an edition of Mailer's Miami and the Siege of Chicago, two novella-length works of journalism (or "an informal history," as the subtitle puts it), reported from the 1968 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions. I tell you: it burns.
Nobody does political writing like this. Equivocation does not equal nuance, and Mailer knows it; he risks taking a stance. Writing like this in the boiling months between the election of Richard Nixon and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy feels like a necessary thing. The prose, adapted from Mailer's magazine journalism for Harper's, gains altitude through its depth and its all-sided
attack. He is sometimes wrong and sometimes absurd, but he gives you something real to hold. This is not the cement-block of punditry or the airy nothingness of sentimentalism; rather, it is the tricky moving substance of a real thing, as tangible, elemental, flashing, and un-still as fire.
Mailer approaches the cities of Miami and Chicago not as vivid landscape, but as living animals. Of Miami, he speaks of its miles of white sidewalks, white hotels, white condominiums, an urban air-conditioned beach where women wear furs over their diamonds while "that uprooted jungle had to be screaming underneath." And Chicago, city of stockyards, "was a town where nobody could ever forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood… So something of the entrails and the secrets of the gut got into the faces of the native Chicagoans." These are not incidental images. Mailer, in this modest 223-page book, lets these cities take up space.
Likewise, he doesn't describe the characters; he bores into their souls. There are quotes, yes, from both the Nelson Rockefeller, Gene McCarthy, Richard Daley, and the rest, but Mailer isn't hooked on the as-said words. Neither the agenda of the political conventions — scripted things even then, when many nominees were still named and debated on the floor. Mailer paraphrases. He narrates. He follows every thread of his watchful thoughts, and he carries them into their fullest form, displaying a sometimes surprising and often provoking empathy.
Take, for example, how he writes about Richard Nixon in Miami, in what is part of a trademark block of prose that visually conveys the heated density of the time and place. Mailer is reflecting on how Nixon evolved from a man who went from being written off politically after losing both the presidential election and the California governorship in the early 1960s to becoming the evident Republican nominee in 1968:
Yes, the reporter would offer him this charity — the man had become sincere. All evidence spoke for that. How could there be, after all, a greater passion in a man like Nixon, so universally half-despised, than to show the center of history itself that he was not without greatness. What a dream for such a man! To cleanse the gangrenous wounds of a great power, to restore sanity to the psychopathic fevers of the day, to deny the excessive demand, and nourish the real need, to bring a balance to the war of claims, weed the garden of tradition, and show a fine nose for what was splendid in the new, serve as the great educator who might introduce each warring half of the nation to the other, and bring back the faith of other nations to a great nation in adventurous harmony with itself — yes, the dream could be magnificent enough for any world leader; if the reporter did not think that Nixon, poor Nixon, was very likely to flesh such a dream, still he did not know that the attempt should be denied. It was possible, even likely, even necessary, that the Wasp must enter the center of history again. They had been a damned minority for too long, a huge indigestible boulder in the voluminous ruminating government gut of every cow-like Democratic administration, an insane Republican minority with vast powers of negation and control, a minority who ran the economy, and half the finances of the world, and all too much of the internal affairs of four or five continents, and the Pentagon, and the technology of the land, and most of the secret police, and nearly every policeman in every small town, and yet finally they did not run the land, they did not comprehend it, the country was loose from them, ahead of them, the life style of the country kept denying their effort, the lives of the best Americans kept accelerating out of their reach. They were the most powerful force in America, and yet they were a psychic island. If they did not find a bridge, they could only grow more insane each year, like a rich nobleman in an empty castle chasing elves and ogres with his stick. They had every power but the one they needed — which was to attach their philosophy to history: the druggist and the president of the steel corporation must finally learn if they were pushing on the same wheel.
In classic New Journalism style, Mailer moves as a character through his
own prose: he is "the journalist" or "the reporter." What could feel
like an affect
— and does for the first chapter or so — reveals itself as a
sort of portal that Mailer used to give himself simultaneous distance
and nearness to the astonishing story that unfolded in the summer of
1968. The third-person tactic also gives himself room to seamlessly
account for what he did
not witness, and to expand and compress the narrative with a novelist's
for purpose and emphasis. "The journalist" is a grandiose strategy —
but it suits this story of grandiose politics. It works.
There are cringing moments where Mailer's weaknesses become, without self-awareness, head-smackingly evident, as when he leers at the "Nixonette" dancers and notes impatience with civil rights leaders in Chicago, who he comes close to calling uppity for starting their program late and making him wait. (He specifically writes, with only a modicum of embarrassment, that he's “getting tired of Negroes and their rights.") But Mailer does insightfully scour other weaknesses in ways that texture to the prose. In Chicago, this prideful World War II veteran watches the "hippies" and "yippies" become soldiers themselves: not just famed folks like Allen Ginsberg and Tom Hayden and Jean Genet, but regular grubby folks whose names he never learns, who are meditating and smoking pot and marching nonviolently onto streets where they will undoubtedly be harmed, without recourse.
Mailer is stricken by their slovenly nerve. He sits in Chicago's bars, drinking too much and telling himself the reason he isn't joining in is because his role in this great social upheaval is to write about it; he can't missing deadline by getting injured or detained. "Besides," he writes, "a variety of militant choices would now be present for years. One simply could not make the dangerous choice every time; he would never do any other work." He goes on:
And then with another fear, conservative was this fear, he looked into his reluctance to lose the America he had had, that insane warmongering technology land with its smog, its superhighways, its experts, and its profound dishonesty. Yet, it had allowed him to write — it had even not deprived him entirely of honors, certainly not of an income. He had lived well enough to have six children, a house on the water, a good apartment, good meals, good booze, he had even come to enjoy wine. A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke; he belonged in England, where one's radicalism might never be tested …
Later, Mailer is roused to drunkenly elbow his way before a crowd in the middle of the night and give an impromptu speech, promising to march alongside a couple hundred Democratic delegates that he will organize by the next evening. It doesn't happen; his little burst of revolutionary fervor is a total failure. And he names it as such. Mailer writes of his uncertainty about when and how to respond to the pointed questions presented to him in Chicago with real bravery: he presents his moral failures with honesty, while not overindulging in them, as if his personal soul-searching were the real story here. This is a difficult balance. There is temptation to hide behind blather, which Mailer gave into the night of his silly speech, but which he controls in his writing. In the end, it not only deepens Mailer's account of the bloody fight in Chicago, but it heightens the reader's trust in his reflections on the characters of others.
It is striking to see this political summer, when power leaked from its usual
barrels, through Mailer's sharp eyes. There is a trueness to this tale, even the parts where Mailer is wrong. The real terror of this time, we see, we feel, wasn't just about whether or not one would be beaten by an unaccountable police officer, or if too much of "politics as property," as Mailer names it, would be "owned" by the wrong leader. The terror was in not knowing what to do. Without the usual moorings, who could tell what choices would be the moral ones? What compromises were failings of conscience, and which were smart and public-spirited? At what point did an act of bravery become not worth the very real suffering it entailed?
I know of no better book about ambivalence.
Mailer is also prescient, incidentally. "Dear Miss," he writes near the end of the book, speaking to Gene McCarthy's daughter, " we will be fighting for forty years." As it happens, NYRB reissued Miami and the Siege of Chicago in July 2008, four months before Barack Obama was elected president. It was a fortieth anniversary edition.