As most of you know, I’ve been relentlessly pursuing Norman Mailer for an INTERVIEW WITH THE DEAD. Since he had originally proposed to meet in Provincetown, I’ve been scouring every inch of the town with the diminishing hope of finding him. So, as darkness began to shroud the city, I started back to Carpe Diem Guesthouse, to pack and finally head home to Boston. About a block away, I heard footsteps approach from behind. I turned and there he was, fists clenched, barrel chest and curly haired head leading the charge. I wondered if I was going to be face punched, but Mr. Mailer just invaded my space standing nose to nose.
MAILER: And where do you propose to conduct this little chat?
I nodded toward the guest house, practically grazing his forehead with my own and led the way inside.
ME: We can use one of their dining rooms.
Mailer: You would pick a hotel that has rooms named after authors but none of me.
ME: Must have been an oversight.
Mailer: Poppycock! Provincetown’s most famous author an oversight? I don’t think so! People have short memories.
ME: (laughing) Not at all. You’re all over the Internet, your books and essays still in print. Nobody has forgotten you.
MAILER: Then why did you interview that little homo before me? King I understood. But that pasty-faced girly man, Capote?
Both of us took our seats and Mailer’s fists curled even tighter as he leaned across the wooden table between us.
ME: It was you who said, “Harsh words live in the dungeon of the heart,” and that description seems pretty harsh.
MAILER: If you think that was harsh, you must be a fag too.
ME: Have you ever considered that all your misogyny, violence, and homophobia is really about your own love of masculinity? That deep down underneath you’re attracted to men—strong men, real boxers, something you weren’t or could never become?
MAILER: Do you really expect me to answer your half-ass pop psychology?
ME: I wasn’t trying to analyze you Mr. Mailer. Just looking at facts.
MAILER: And what facts might those be, Mister Klein?
ME: Where would you like me to begin, Norman? The Naked And The Dead? All about the boys who actually fought in the war as opposed to cooking like you did.
MAILER: You are a cheeky bastard, aren’t you? I like that.
ME: You’re making my point.
MAILER: I’ll use the language the publisher made me use in the book: fug you. I was in the Philippines with the 112th Cavalry.
ME: I know, but by all accounts, you were just in a couple of minor skirmishes before you were assigned to be a cook.
MAILER: Really now? Apparently I fought enough battles for the book to become a New York Times bestseller for 62 weeks. Oh, and in case you forgot, or didn’t know, named one of the “one hundred best novels in English language” by the Modern Library. Not bad for a cook, eh?
Me: A novel about which Gore Vidal wrote, “My first reaction to The Naked and the Dead was: it’s a fake. A clever, talented, admirably executed fake. I have not changed my opinion of the book since… I do recall a fine description of men carrying a dying man down a mountain… Yet every time I got going in the narrative I would find myself stopped cold by a set of made-up, predictable characters taken not from life, but from the same novels all of us had read, and informed by a naïveté which was at its worst when Mailer went into his Time-Machine and wrote those passages which resemble nothing so much as smudged carbons of a Dos Passos work.”
MAILER: (shaking his head) I wondered how long it would take before his name came up. Though you surprise me by not beginning with the Cavett fiasco. There is no greater impotence in all the world than knowing you are right and that the wave of the world is wrong, yet the wave crashes upon you.
ME: If you believe that why do you call it a fiasco?
MAILER: I lost the fight, although I still maintain it was just a TKO. I simply couldn’t fight my hardest with Janet Flanner present. And, I have admitted to being drunk during the show. Handicapped if you will.
I began to speak but Mailer interrupted.
MAILER: Speaking of drink, do you have anything decent here?
ME: I thought you stopped drinking and smoking pot?
MAILER: Actually I stopped because it hurt my writing and health. Don’t write anymore, health doesn’t matter, and there is little pleasure lying around all day, every day. So, just get us some whiskey, all right?
I was lucky. Bourbon in one of Carpe Diem‘s kitchen cabinets. I brought it back with a couple of glasses. Helping himself to a healthy pour, he waved the liquor towards me.
MAILER: Drink up Klein, it’s not every day you get a chance to drink with a literary lion.
ME: Mr. Mailer, you really were one of the 20th century’s literary giants, but don’t you think all the macho, boxing, misogynistic, bullying posturing actually reduced your stature rather than enhanced it? I mean, head-butting Gore Vidal in the green room of The Dick Cavett Show, telling him on air that he ruined Kerouac by sleeping with him?
Nothing ever seemed to be enough for you. Six years later, you threw a drink at Vidal—and punched him—at a Lally Weymouth soirée. And even then Vidal’s response made you look small. Still on the floor, he said, “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”
At first I thought he was going to explode but he just took a deep swallow and refilled his glass.
MAILER: Time and quiet does give one a chance to reflect and I’ve had plenty of both. Still, every moment of existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit. I never enjoyed the thought of dying even a little.
I want you and your readers to know that I’m not interested in absolute moral judgments. Just think of what it means to be a good man or a bad one. The good guy may be 65 percent good and 35 percent bad—that’s a very good guy. The average decent fellow might be 54 percent good, 46 percent bad—and the average mean spirit is the reverse. So say I’m 60 percent bad and 40 percent good. Should I suffer eternal punishment for that?
Also, I must say, while he might have made me look small with his clever retort, he deserved to be on the floor. Would you sit silently by when someone says, “Mailer, Henry Miller and Charles Manson as brother chauvinists who should be collectively referred to as M3.” Now, while I had many wives, to be compared to Charles Manson was frankly too much to tolerate.
ME: You don’t seem to be suffering eternal punishment. In fact, there’s a strong argument that it was the people around you who were punished. Hell, you nearly murdered the second of your six wives, Adele Morales.
MAILER: I never meant to kill her. It was 4 A.M. at a party to announce my candidacy to run for Mayor of New York and I walk into a room only to hear her say, “Come on, you little faggot, where’s your cojones?” It’s public record that I spent time in Bellevue for that act, which, while I won’t discuss, I do regret.
ME: Not at the time. Numerous people say you stood over her while she was hemorrhaging on the floor and said, “Let the bitch die.”
Mailer: Adele has written a book about our life together. She can have the final words on the subject. But here we are talking gossip and public behavior when you yourself say and I’ll quote, “Mr. Mailer, you really were one of the 20th century’s literary giants.” Yet all of our book talk amounts to Vidal’s insult of The Naked And The Dead. Have you really spent this much time pursuing me to talk about my public persona, or are we going to talk about my work?
ME: We’re there now, Mr. Mailer.
Mailer was right. We sat in Carpe Diem’s breakfast room the entire night and more—much to the chagrin of the other guests who came down for coffee and omelets and were seated in another area. But this is enough for today’s post. More to come.
“What lasts is the strength of your ideas and the force of your expression of them.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor