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Reviewed by:
Nigel Leigh. Radical Fictions and the Novels of Norman Mailer. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 206 pp. $35.00.

Nigel Leigh writes about Mailer and power, a large and prickly topic, and shows a sure grasp of the fundamentals: namely, that Mailer disagrees with theorists like Reich and Marcuse who believe that power is always something to be renounced, or something of which there is only a finite amount. As he points out, Mailer anticipates Foucault in attacking the weakness of the "zero-sum" power model. For both of them (in Foucault's words), "power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth." Leigh does not break much new ground regarding Mailer's ideas, but he synthesizes some of the work of earlier critics such as Robert Begiebing, Robert F. Lucid, Richard Poirier, and Robert Solotaroff. Leigh is most conscious of the intersection of politics and "voluntaristic" power and traces Mailer's shifting and qualified allegiences to liberalism, Marxism, Trotskyism, anarchism, conservatism, and so on. Unfortunately, although Leigh rejects close reading in favor of "the history of ideas" perspective, he does not look at Mailer's nonfiction narratives of American political life, excerpts of which are collected in his 1976 reader, Some Honorable Men: Political Conventions, 1960-1972. This is a major omission in a critical study devoted in large part to power. Mailer has never been able, or really desired, to separate his personal, political, or literary activities. His nonfiction narratives are all fictive, writerly [End Page 572] exercises, and many if not most of his ideas on power came from his immersion in the dangerous waters of American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Leigh discusses Mailer's involvement with the Progressive party in the late 1940s but does not say anything about his run for mayor of New York in 1969. The size of the gap in Leigh's approach can be gauged by the fact that he mentions J.F.K. twice in passing and L.B.J., Nixon, Eugene McCarthy, Castro, Muhammad Ali, and Marilyn Monroe not at all.

But his chapters on Why Are We in Vietnam? and Ancient Evenings are impressive. He sees the tragic implications of the former and the gnostic theme of the latter. Vietnam ends with its protagonist, D. J., joining the Marines and going to Vietnam, an enlistment that has always troubled readers. Leigh argues convincingly that Mailer is trying to show just how hard it is for D. J. to regain "the redemptive power of mythopoeic perception" by baring himself to nature, even if he goes unaccommodated into the wilderness, like Ike McCaslin. Like all of Mailer's heroes, D. J. has insights and victories that are severely qualified. Certainly those of Menenhetet, the man who lives four lives in Ancient Evenings, are. Leigh believes that Mailer's motives in his 1983 novel may be "too cryptic for its own good" but nevertheless takes seriously Mailer's attempt "to make the mythical reappear in culture." For his reading, Leigh relies heavily on Harold Bloom and Richard Poirier.

Radical Fictions contains an amazing number of misquotations, typos, and incorrect page numbers. By my rough count, there are seventy-two errors in the first chapter alone. A lot of these are minor, but twenty-seven words are dropped or changed in quotations, some of them important. In one egregious case, Leigh confuses the words of Gen. Cummings with those of Lt. Hearn. This sloppiness detracts from his study, which contains thoughtful readings of three of Mailer's novels, the two mentioned above and An American Dream.

J. Michael Lennon
Sangamon State University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 572-573
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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