- Reviewed by
Robert Merrill's Norman Mailer Revisited is a revised and updated version of his intelligent and well-received study of 1978. This new volume augments the excellence of Merrill's earlier work, for it includes his previous meticulous criticism on virtually all of Mailer's writing through Genius and Lust (1976), and it adds incisive sections on The Executioner's Song, Ancient Evenings, and Tough Guys Don't Dance. Also, in the interest of clarifying the relevance of Mailer's singularly engaged and "public" career as man and artist, Merrill adds a recast preface and introductory chapter, as well as a substantially new summary essay that includes commentary on Mailer's films. His persuasive and balanced conclusions about Mailer's ambition, ideology, metafictional innovation and cultural influence comprise a helpful framework for his individual analyses of the works, and this overview understanding of the writer's line of development proves crucial in Merrill's discussion of Mailer's artistic journey, via three novels from 1979 to 1984, through the landscapes of Utah, ancient Egypt, and Cape Cod.
Merrill has not altered in any major way his chapters on Mailer's work before 1976, and the critic's confidence here is well-justified. Among his notable achievements from the earlier study that it was my pleasure to reread: the provocative demonstration that The Naked and the Dead is not social documentary or metaphysical rumination, but a novel of "character" that involves a "dramatic action" embodying universal concerns with the bestial and visionary forces in humanity; the essential understanding that The Deer Park's major theme is moral evasiveness, and that the heart of this novel involves one of Mailer's grandest successes—the moving and brilliantly anatomized relationship between Eitel and Elena; the persuasive discussion of how The Armies of the Night, as a non-fiction novel emerging in part from earlier models by Hemingway and Capote, ultimately offers significant innovation through a complex and legitimately "novelistic" use of Mailer's own character. What distinguished Merrill's criticism in his original study is still on display in this revised edition: he is primarily concerned with the aesthetic structure of the individual works, and this declared and eminently traditional focus leads him to illuminating judgments (so rare amid the theoretical baggage of today) of a work's coherence, unity, and narrative integrity.
It is true that an approach largely involved with literary design and genre category carries some danger of inflexibility, and in my view there may be inadequate appreciation by Merrill for the disordered energy and contorted art of An American Dream and Of A Fire on the Moon. But these were minor flaws in the original volume, and they loom even less important in this impressively augmented study. Those additional analyses of three Mailer novels are superb in every respect, from Merrill's delineation of the complex "voice" patterns in The Executioner's Song, to his appropriate concern about structural proportions in Ancient Evenings, to his explanation [End Page 383] of the detective-fiction formats ingeniously modified by Mailer in Tough Guys Don't Dance.