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Reviewed by:
  • Conversations with Norman Mailer
  • Philip Bufithis
J. Michael Lennon , ed. Conversations with Norman Mailer. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1988. 419 pp. $26.95 cloth; pb. $15.95.

Norman Mailer has given about 250 interviews. The thirty-four collected here number among his best. They range from 1948 when The Naked and the Dead appeared, to 1987 when Mailer's film, Tough Guys Don't Dance, premiered. They have been knowledgeably introduced by J. Michael Lennon, a literary executor of Mailer's papers.

Mailer talks like a professor with street smarts: "Philip Rahv was the big disappointment for me. In the old days when I was a young writer, I used to quiver like the most thorough-going masochist at the privilege of being flagellated [End Page 302] by a fine whip from Partisan Review, but Philip's review [of An American Dream] was a disgrace, because it said nothing I had not heard before, and that is the Old Folks Home for a writer who comes so directly out of the high intellectual grain of the old Partisan Review." And Mailer can be morally outrageous: "Now I wouldn't want to take away from people who want to kill their own." If a parent kills three of his children, he "may have just decided there was something in their strain that was profoundly evil, that did not deserve to continue." Mailer unsettles the bourgeois: "I think the reason we're having the war in Vietnam is because we need it." His probity seems always at risk.

Actually, Mailer gives interviews not merely to promote his work—most Mailer books and movies are well greased with interviews before and after launching—but to forge his ideas in the exigent heat of dialogue and then to write what he has discovered about himself. His interviews fuel his art.

A Mailer interview is a kind of theater as the dynamic of his psyche is played out before our eyes. His attempts at seriousness can fall into clownishness; he can become doctrinaire refuting the doctrinal; he shifts precariously between clarity and turgidity, generosity and self-aggrandizement, libertarianism and autocracy. Yet Mailer does not try to neutralize any of these polarities in himself. He refuses to put together a harmonious personality because he suspects that consistency is only another name for inertia. These interviews, then, are not calm dialogues in which the artist's self is reasonably explained by way of answering questions. Rather, Mailer's self is continously dividing, wasting, strengthening, reconsolidating.

Mailer's self takes its various shapes in antagonistic response to the banalities and mass values of the world at large. In 1955, at the age of thirty-two, he entered the furnace of that antagonism when The Deer Park, a novel anguishing to write and a painful ordeal to publish, was attacked by the critics. Mailer felt that the conventions and pieties of Eisenhower America were out to crush him. Seven years before, The Naked and the Dead had asked the question: what is the world that the self may understand it? But with the hostile reception of The Deer Park Mailer turned into an impassioned literary outlaw and in his art shifted his attention from the world to the self. The thematic question of his books becomes: what is the self that the world may understand it? In 1955 in Exposé magazine Mailer makes statements the like of which become the very indices to his authorial voice for the next thirty years. "Try to keep the rebel artist in you alive, no matter how attractive or exhausting the temptations." The rebel artist finds full embodiment two years later in Advertisements for Myself. The admonishment to realize your deepest drives and explore your "primitive nature" is the foundation of Mailer's theory of cancer, a theory his art has never stopped exploring, as the recent Tough Guys Don't Dance, novel and film, show. Cancer, Mailer believes, is the result of implosion, of not doing what you are afraid to do but want to do. And Mailer's desire to "discover the secrets of communicating with the dead" attains its fullest expression in his Egyptian novel, Ancient Evenings. Indeed...


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pp. 302-304
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