Jack Kerouac in 1960 was fleeing from being famous. On the Road, published 3 years before, has reporters knocking on his door and pursuing him for interviews wherever he goes. Everyone in the literary bookshops in San Francisco recognizes him, and his secret visit to the bars and skid row hangouts is no secret at all, and ladies come in wanting a real beatnik for her party, so there is no way to deal with it except be rude and drink more and more, and finally he gets a cheap bus ticket to Big Sur where a hip friend has a cabin he can use.
(I will pause for breath even though Kerouac rarely does, just a nonstop stream of words in the present tense.) Jack digs the ocean and having no people around and he is going to get down to writing another novel but first he will have a drink. Then he is walking in the canyon where the wind roars and the ocean has a voice and then the bottle is empty and he goes to bed. He wakes up in the morning without any food, but first he would rather have a drink but the bottle is empty. So he hitch-hikes up the mountain to the nearest tavern, where he has several drinks including a Manhattan with a cherry in it for nutrition, and he starts feeling like writing again, but this time makes sure he brings a couple of bottles back to the cabin. After three weeks of this, he can’t stand it any more, so he goes back to San Francisco, where everything is just like it was last time. So he rides 50 miles down to the farm country to see his old buddy Cody who drove back and forth across the country with him stoned in his last book and they do some drinking and driving around. Then it’s back to San Francisco and then Cody and a bunch from Los Gatos all pile in a car and go to the cabin at Big Sur where they get in each other’s way. Jack gets into a really long binge which goes like this: every day he drinks until he feels sick. Then he gets up in the morning and starts drinking to ease the hangover. He doesn’t feel like eating so when he’s hungry he drinks to get some energy in his body. This does something to his metabolism so after a while he can’t sleep. So he is hallucinating and wandering around and quarreling with people until something happens that pulls the plug on him and he sobers up for a while--
There’s more. We haven’t touched on the Zen/ beat theme and the literary movement and their drop-out trip and why the beats are different than the hippies that came after them. The point here is only that a writer has to have something to write about and a style in which to write it, and Kerouac got both of them by seeking intoxication. He’s not the only one, which is why Kerouac is a good entry-point for a whole movement. For another pointer-reading, take Norman Mailer.
Mailer and Kerouac are about the same age, in fact Mailer was born a year later (in 1923), but he became a best-selling author in 1948 for his war novel, The Naked and the Dead, while Kerouac was still trying to get his book published about bumming his way across America. The theme of intoxication is not important in Mailer’s earliest novels, but it looms more centrally into the 1960s when Mailer is a celebrity, a self-appointed political guru, an obnoxious drunk, and one of the most extreme self-promoters of that counter-culture decade. Mailer also happened to be a writer with flashes of excellence-- clear and easy to follow, a sharp eye for how things look and an ear for the way people talk, energetic writing that moves you forward on the page. For the sociology of creativity, it is very worth explaining how one acquires these skills, and the fact that Mailer is good at some aspects of writing and fails at others makes him useful for dissecting what makes a writer tick.
Here is Mailer in one of his most successful books, The Armies of the Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The topic is a big anti-war demonstration in Washington D.C. to shut down the Pentagon, or at least dramatize opposition to the Vietnam War by the tactic of non-violent resistance and getting arrested. Mailer puts himself in the center of the narrative, which is legitimate enough since he was one of the celebrity intellectuals invited by the organizers to make speeches and draw attention to their cause by their willingness to emulate Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Mailer is both participant and observer, and he uses his tell-it-like-it-is style to include backstage preparation for speeches in leftist political meetings and what it is like to be thrown into a police van. Mailer thus acquired literary acclaim for breaking down the boundaries between novel-writing and news reporting, becoming known as an exemplar of “the new journalism” along with Tom Wolfe and (on the heavily drugged-out side) Hunter Thompson.
Armies of the Night is Mailer’s breakthrough performance. He is very self-conscious about his rank in the American literary pantheon; thus he is pleased to write about himself marching next to “America’s best poet?” (Robert Lowell) as “America’s best novelist??” But not to follow traditional decorum. He gets roaring drunk the night before the demonstration, when the big names are supposed to make inspiring speeches at a rally. Just before going on stage, Mailer urgently has to take a piss, but he can’t find the light switch in the bathroom so he pisses on the floor. This gives him the idea of confessing he’s the one who did it so the hostile press can’t accuse the demonstrators of being slobs. He loves the idea because it will bring existential reality into the artificiality of public speech-making, and when he finally gets on stage he makes it the main point of his obscenity-laden speech. This tells you something about Mailer’s judgment, and how his worst ideas come from his belief that intoxication is writer’s satori.
The other side of Mailer’s method gets his book back on track. Once the march starts moving, he delivers perceptive details of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon (mostly small-town boys, like those he knew in the Army) and the demonstrators (mostly urban and educated) who clash with them. Mailer continues his own preoccupations. He had planned to attend an exclusive party in New York that evening, and he grows impatient that the march is taking so long. So he makes himself one of the first to cross the open grass, accosting a military guard to arrest him; then he mingles details about being held in the same paddy wagon as right-wing counter-demonstrators, with his urgent need to get booked, bailed out, back on the plane and on the way to his Manhattan soirée. Honesty, egotism, political relevance, mix with not a little drunken recklessness to power the book to its conclusion. (Which is that he has indeed succeeded in writing The Novel as History, plus a sermon on how America lost its mojo.)
Intoxication as topic or as method
Intoxication is writer’s capital in two senses: a topic for a writer to write about; or intoxication as a method of writing, writing while drunk or stoned.
Intoxication as topic was explored by naturalistic writers like James Joyce describing the taverns of Dublin (later he did a riff on drunkenness as stream of consciousness). Hemingway had his impotent narrator watch his companion exiles from Prohibition America drinking and coupling in 1920s Paris. The genre goes back at least to De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and medieval student-monks wrote Latin poem/songs about drinking.
Intoxication as writing method has been extolled since antiquity, but it clashes with the general pattern that most writers are disciplined and at least partly methodical, using notebooks, outlining, drafts, revising, putting in long months or years to see projects to completion. Historically some writers were heavy drinkers (and more recently, drug-users) but many were not; some carousing authors alternated respites of intoxication with long hours of literary concentration. If and where intoxication was actually a creative method needs ferreting out in the details of how authors spent their time while writing.
The Cult of Intoxication
What makes intoxication important for a particular ecology of writers is that both kinds of capital overlap in a cult of intoxication. The writer is inspired: by the sheer act of creativity, of words in flight through one’s head and one’s pen, by the lyrical desire to sing what is in your heart, by echoes of pagan incantation in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Zen monks in medieval Japan had to produce as evidence of Enlightenment a poem that conveyed their experience. Baudelaire epitomizes the modern cult of the writer, simultaneously the free spirit unchained from social convention, the aristocrat of taste and perception, and the energized professional who can meet journal deadlines with a music review, an art exhibit criticism, or a serialized novel. Those were the social conditions for the writer’s cult of the 1850s; Baudelaire’s expression of it was the artist as magician in a world of bored readers.
Balzac contributed to the emerging cult by fueling himself through all-nighters with 50 cups of café noir, as he penned endless revisions directly on printer’s proofs. (He produced 85 novels in a spurt of 20 years, before dying, not too surprisingly, at age 50.) Downstream from Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud deliberately engaged in “a reasoned derangement of the senses” by means of absinthe, hashish, whatever was available; and succeeded in writing memorably gnomic poems:
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,
Golfes d’ombres; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’umbelles;
A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I will tell some day your latent births:
A, black corset hairy with brilliant flies
That bulge around cruel stenches,
Gulfs of shadow; E, artlessness of vapours and booths,
Launched by proud ices, white kings, thrills of umbrella-shapes;
I, poupres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;
U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d’animaux, paix des rides
Que l’alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;
I, crimson, spit-up blood, laugh of beautiful lips
In anger or drunken penitence;
U, cycles, divine vibrations of heaving seas,
Peace of meadows scattered with animals, peace of wrinkles
That alchemy prints on great studious foreheads;
O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des Mondes et des Anges:
--O l’Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux!
O, supreme bugle full of strange shrillness,
Silences traversed by Worlds and Angels
-- O the Omega, violet ray of His Eyes!
Rimbaud still writes formally conventional verse, rhythm and rhyme; the stylistic break is in the shock of word associations. Does it have a meaning? It was not written to express a preconceived idea; the method itself creates striking phrases that readers must parse for themselves. Much in the same way rock bands of the 1960s gave themselves names like Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Where can you go after this, if you are a writer at the beginning of the 20th century? Several places. Balzac was a caffeine freak but his method was naturalistic word-pictures of all corners of French society, propelled by melodramatic plots. These genres prospered for another century in novels of society and popular adventure, the invention of the detective story, and several other niches where an abundance of writers could find work. Not everybody took the Fleurs du mal / Bateau ivre route. Why then does the cult of intoxication come back so strongly in the 20th century, from the 1920s through the 60s?
The Partying Scene of the 1920s
The obvious thing would be Prohibition. The underground drinking scene of speak-easies and bootleggers gave American writers something new to write about, and they could be ironic or moralizing about what the change in American manners meant. But it wasn’t just an American phenomenon. American writers flocked to Paris where they wrote about the easy drinking and easy sex among the expatriots. But the expats were also British and other nationalities, who had no Prohibition but were mixing in the same scene, which they variously interpreted as loss of values, disillusionment from WWI, but also attraction to the center of action in literature, painting, and modernism generally.
In fact there was a new social phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties. Superficially it was the wild and crazy parties of the younger generation, thumbing their nose at the stiff formality of the older generation-- which, they could add, had disgraced themselves with their stupidity in promoting a devastating and pointless war. Fitzgerald became famous for writing about the partying scene in the U.S., but the same kind of scene provides the materials for Evelyn Waugh’s and Aldous Huxley’s early novels of youthful high society in England. Germany has it too, reflected in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (the name of a Berlin bar that is the entrance to an alternative reality, more drug-flavored than alcoholic). Underneath the ideological blaming was a structural change: the breakdown of the traditional marriage market controlled by adults, and its replacement by a courtship scene where young people picked their own partners in affairs that began in fun parties. Love used to be sentimental but led to socially sound matches; now love is fun and excitement, leading to marrying the really fun guy or gal. If you were rich enough on your parents’ money, or had a good job in the booming Twenties, you could keep up the partying scene after you were married, full of fun couples like Scott and Zelda and the hilarious stunts they were always cooking up. (Evelyn Waugh gives a more sardonic picture of this than Fitzgerald, who is always sentimentalizing his alter-ego heroes, then bringing them down with a romantic/tragic crash like his bootlegger hero Gatsby who can’t get the rich girl after all, even though he does give better parties.) The sexual revolution isn’t yet full scale, compared to what happens later in the century, but the partying scene of the 20s is not only flirtation for the young but adulterous affairs later on and the growing acceptance of divorce (reaching even the King of England in 1936); in short, on the way to modern serial monogamy.
All this was great material for novelists, who at their best are sociologists of the moving social frontier. It also fed the modern cult of intoxication. Fun parties and zany antics were best engineered with a heavy dose of alcohol, but mixed with the excitements of flirtation, and a mild amount of sex (the real sexual outburst, as Kinsey, Laumann and others have shown, came decades later). Above all, making the scene, being present at the really cool party is more important than anything else. (Not for nothing does Norman Mailer waver between stopping the Vietnam War and attending a high-status party in New York.)
As further proof that Prohibition (repealed in 1933) was not the cause, the partying cult continued into the WWII years and after. Drinking was a big part of seeing it through, especially in London during the blitz, along with singing and rolling home in the arms of your buddies. This was mass-participation drinking, with nothing specific to intellectuals. Why does there emerge a full-scale intellectual cult of intoxication in the postwar era? This time the U.S. is the center, already in the late 1940s, when Jack Kerouac is trying to hitch-hike his way out of New York City (although the term Beats does not catch on until the late 50s). The timing is a puzzle, since this is the period of postwar economic boom, and America has vaulted to Top Nation in world geopolitics. But the intellectuals are bailing out, not just ideologically (they aren’t as far Left as they were in the 30s), but in lifestyle; just when everyone seems to be becoming middle-class, the beats are going in for lumberjack shirts and fisherman’s dungarees, trying to find their soul downward and outward as far as possible from the upscale world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The crucial development is a new form of intoxication, a scene, a philosophy and a status that trumps everything anyone else can do.
Heroin-fueled jazz and the hipster
Syncopated popular music, AKA jazz, had existed since the ragtime of the early 1900s. In the late 1940s it morphed into an esoteric version, modern/cool/jazz/bebop. The social scene was different. Instead of loud audiences and dancing, it was more cerebral, dim-lit clubs where you concentrated on the music, and clapping or snapping your fingers showed you were not with it. Just being able to follow the way-out sounds was a secret code, and drugs unlocked the code. Booze made you sloppy, but the musician on heroin felt they could concentrate on the intellectual patterns of the music, creating new riffs for hours on end. A woman described a jab of the heroin needle in her leg as “an incredible exhilaration, as if an electric current flashed through her body, leaving her detached yet connected to the music and everyone in the room.” (Schneider, 31). The cult of musicians and jazz fans were a secret society, with their own clothing, gestures, their own rhythm of walking and their own talk. (“I ain’t hep, to that step, but I dig it.”-- song lyrics from the 40s) They were cool and hip; everyone else was square.
Heroin wasn’t the only drug, and it had its problems. Hipsters also used morphine, cocaine, anything you could get your hands on if you were addicted enough. Marijuana was popular in the same circles, although advanced musicians looked down on it as “for kids,” too light to get the really far-out insights (that would come a dozen years later with LSD). But heroin addicts became unreliable band members, easily forgetting to show up for a gig. Teenage gangs, which appeared in New York around the same time, had the same problem; heroin was popular (as was bebop) but the really heavy users were useless in fights and tended to wander away from the gang looking for a fix, so that after a few years the tough gangs became antagonistic to junkies. William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) gives a brilliantly surrealistic picture of the junkie’s life and fantasies. (Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg helped get it in shape and find it a publisher.)
Music and popular culture continued to evolve in the 50s and 60s. More up-beat music became easier to understand, dancing and partying came back in, youth gangs expanded and created a fringe of wannabees and look-alikes, youth movements both black and white became more political. Through it all one basic marker continued: the distinction between the hip/cool and the square. This was the essence of literary movements like the Beats (who tried to make their poetry readings sound like jazz), non-literary movements like the hippies, and celebrity writers like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer.
Intoxicated by writing vs. writing while intoxicated
The cult of intoxication is one way of capturing the high point of a writer’s life. As the image of the writer as a higher being spread in the 19th century, even very straight-laced writers like Emily Dickinson could express it:
I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!
If you get into Emily Dickinson there is no pitying her solitude; she is genuinely turned-on, tripping out on her own word-play and the shadows angling across the lawn.
Intoxicated writers, full of the lyric impulse, are not necessarily users of intoxicants. Walt Whitman, drunk on words as anyone could be, was more of a teetotaler. Ezra Pound, at his best in summoning up the spirit of tripped-out writers from the galleries of world history, conveys the downside of addiction to writing:
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxes
piled up neatly upon the shelves
And the loose fragrant cavendish
and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing,
where one needs one’s brains all the time.
Getting intoxicated from writing can be an antidote to heavy drinking or doping, since one is competitor to the other.
Nevertheless, there have been great writers who were intoxicated most of the time. Some of them, like Scott Fitzgerald, made drunkenness their writer’s capital throughout their career. All his novels, from The Beautiful and Damned to Tender is the Night, follow somebody like himself and Zelda, giving it a high-tragedy seriousness by making the pursuit of intoxication into a noble flaw, the hubris of the modern age. In his personal life, Fitzgerald’s drinking in pursuit of gay-zany episodes mostly alienated his friends, and kept him from getting his work done until he was no longer in fashion. Kerouac was pretty much a one-note writer but he kept himself going by reporting each segment of his life in a new novel. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, he made no transition to the upbeat 60s, and died in 1969 at age 47. Other writers who drank themselves to death at an early age were Dylan Thomas -- an intoxicated poet in every sense-- and Flann O’Brien, who was an inventively good-humored drunk and a tremendous mimic of the voices of Dublin saloons and newspaper writers. For some of these, their topic and their style was so close to the world of drinking that they couldn’t avoid it; they lived in the groove that killed them.
In vino veritas?
The phrase goes back to folk proverbs, meaning no more than a drunk cannot keep a secret. If taken to mean anything deeper, why would anyone believe it? Drunks mostly are sloppy, clichéd talkers, repetitive and boring. A good analogy is the way Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan-era occultist, summed up his life of magic calling up spirits: I have heard their voices for forty years, he said, but never learned anything from them but gibberish.
In vino there is little veritas, although a group of like-minded drunks may convince themselves that the only worthwhile truth is their happy solidarity. Intoxication works best when it is social, producing collective effervescence in the group, and thereby the feeling of deep, uninhibited bonding. One of the literary expressions of this is in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (another cult-of-intoxication book from the 1940s, published in 1951). The book’s two protagonists, tough Sgt. Warden and soulful bugle-player Pvt. Pruitt, get falling-down drunk outside the Enlisted Men’s Club, and play out their comradeship in a parody of saluting each other. Alcohol encourages expressing deeper masculine bonds than anything else; and these are two soldiers in love with the Army, with Pearl Harbor about to happen.
Shared intoxication is good for temporary solidarity, but bad for action, planning, or self-control. Shakespeare depicts drunks as low-comedy buffoons. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus seeks the devil’s path of intoxication but he ends up selling his soul for little more than drunken hi-jinks, and the plot peters out without any great breakthrough on the wisdom front. Other drugs, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop heroin, are more cerebral but their creativity is short-lived and self-liquidating. The only one who kept up a long career along this route was Burroughs, who would break his heroin habit from time to time by taking a cure, but then let himself get back on heroin for his next book; he knew he was on a life-long cycle. It helped that he was the heir of a big business fortune, always had an income, and could flee to foreign countries when things got bad, such as when he accidentally killed his wife while playing William Tell with a pistol in Mexico City in 1951.
And this brings us back to--
Mailer’s method of literary intoxication
Mailer’s pissing incident at the Pentagon rally is ludicrous, except from his own point of view. Mailer is no humorist, and he explains very seriously the key to his own creativity, as he sees it:
“He was fond of speaking in public because it was close to writing... a good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one’s conscious intent. (Consciousness, that blunt tool, bucks in the general direction of the truth; instinct plucks the feather.) ... speaking-in-public (as Mailer liked to describe any speech that was more or less improvised, impromptu, or dangerously written) was an activity like writing; one had to trick or seize or submit to the grace of each moment, which were usually occasions of some mystery. The pleasure of speaking in public was the sensitivity it offered: with every phrase one was better or worse, close or less close to the existential promise of truth, it feels true, which hovers on good occasions like a presence between speaker and audience. Sometimes one was better, and worse, at the same moment; so strategic choices on the continuation of the attack would soon have to be decided, a moment to know the blood of the gambler in oneself.” [Armies of the Night, 28-29]
Mailer then describes what went through his mind while he decides that he will make the pissing incident the high point of his speech; later he describes how he tried to play the audience, getting a combination of laughs, hostile jeers, and embarrassed silence. Nothing fazed, Mailer both acutely reports his own stream of consciousness, and concludes that it was a great speech.
He has behaved far worse. Back in 1960, he stabbed his wife with a knife and almost killed her. Mailer had decided to run for mayor of New York, on a third-party ticket of hipsterism and existentialism. The idea seems to have come from petition campaigns that Mailer was involved in to change local cabaret licensing laws that prohibited drug-convicted musicians from performing. It was also a time when liberals and lefties were coming together to support the Civil Rights movement growing in the South. After John F. Kennedy got the Democratic nomination for president, Mailer wrote an Esquire magazine article called “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” extolling Kennedy as a hipster, like Mailer himself. The article was successful in the literary world, and Mailer got a thank-you letter from Jacqueline Kennedy, whereupon he replied that when they next met he would explain his ideas about rehabilitating the Marquis de Sade. Mrs. Kennedy did not write back nor invite him again, but after the election Mailer started claiming partial credit for Kennedy’s victory. He began to drum up support among his lefty and celebrity friends for his campaign for mayor. His wife, sister, and friends mostly think the idea is bonkers, but Mailer is running around to meetings, doing literary readings, and writing letters to famous people. A big party is planned for his apartment two weeks after Kennedy won, where Mailer plans to announce his candidacy.
On the big evening, Mailer is hyper. He has a couple of hundred guests, but enthusiasm for his candidacy is mixed, and as the evening goes on Mailer becomes more and more pugnacious. He follows departing guests into the street and gets into scuffles and fist-fights. Mailer has been drinking steadily. Around 4 a.m., the party is down to a handful. Mailer comes back in with a black eye, and his wife taunts him; he stabs her in the back and chest with a knife, narrowly missing her heart.
Mailer beats the rap. His friends arrange for a psychiatrist to admit him to Bellevue mental hospital. His wife survives and withdraws charges against him; a sympathetic judge gives him a suspended sentence and probation. During his two weeks in the mental ward, Mailer uses his time to gather material from the patients that will go into his next book; particularly interesting to him is one of the criminally insane who stabbed his brother. Mailer is developing his philosophy of violence. A year later, Mailer tells an interviewer that the death camp commander Adolf Eichmann had bureaucratically murdered thousands of people, but that if he had killed them with his bare hands, “he would have worn the scar of his own moral wound” and gained “our unconscious respect.” [Lennon 2013: 303] Such is the existential viewpoint of the hipster philosophy.
Enough. Mailer had terrible judgment in the kinds of things he would say-- and apparently believe-- in his own hipster intuition. It is sometimes said that genius is personality; thank God it isn’t. You don’t have to like someone’s personality to get the best out of their writing. How could he be so good at some things and so ridiculously bad at others? Here is an example of what Mailer is good at, from his 1955 novel about Hollywood:
“Seated on two couches which faced each other were half a dozen women. They were all dressed expensively, and their make-up to make up for such faults as thin mouths, small eyes, and mouse-colored hair, had curved their lips, slimmed their cheeks, and given golden or chestnut tints to their coiffures. Like warriors behind their painted shields, they sat stiffly, three and three, staring at one another, talking with apathy. These were the wives of important men and men who wanted to be important, the husbands in chase of one another through the Laguna Room while the women were left behind.
“When a man went by, they tried to take no notice. They either walked by without a look, or stopped for a brief but wild gallantry which went something like:
“Carolyn!” the man would say, as if he could not believe he saw the woman here and was simply overcome.
“Mickey!” one of the six women would say.
“My favorite girl,” the man would say, holding her hand.
“The only real man I know,” the deserted wife would say.
Mickey would smile. He would shake his head, he would hold her hand. “If I didn’t know you were kidding, I could give you a tumble.”
“Don’t be too sure I’m kidding,” the wife would say.
Mickey would straighten up, he would release her hand. There would be a silence until Mickey murmured, “What a woman.” Then, in the businesslike tone which ends a conversation, he would say, “How are the kids, Carolyn?”
“That’s great, that’s great.” He would start to move away, and give a smile to all the women. “We have to have a long talk, you and me,” Mickey would say.
“You know where to find me.”
“Great kidder, Carolyn,” Mickey would announce to nobody in particular, and disappear into the party.
“All through the Laguna Room, wherever there was a couch, three wives were sitting in much that way. Since a lot of the men had come without women, the result was that men got together with men, standing near the pool, off the dance floor, at the café tables or in a crowd near the bar. I picked up a drink and wandered through the party looking for a girl to talk to. But all the attractive girls were surrounded, though by far fewer men than squeezed up to listen to a film director or a studio executive. Most of the girls seemed to like the conversation of fat middle-aged men and bony middle-aged men. Actually I wasn’t that eager [to join a conversation]. Being stone sober, the fact was that it was easier to drift from one circle of men to another.” [The Deer Park, 69-70.]
This is Mailer being a micro-sociologist, walking around stone sober making mental notes on the ways people behave. He was in Hollywood for the filming of The Naked and the Dead, and accumulated enough material for a no-holds-barred portrait of the Biz. It also gave him the idea he was as fit as anybody to be a film producer, director, writer and actor, all of which he tried back in New York with his friends. Nothing much came of it; Mailer’s roll-with-your-intuitions approach did not work in an enterprise that requires a lot of coordination and planning.
Totting up his strengths and weaknesses, on the plus side we can put his vivid, realistic observations, his capacity to make the reader feel like you are there, and his quality of always being interesting. On the negative side, his characters tend to be off-putting, especially those based on himself. The narrator of The Deer Park is an ace fighter pilot, a near-professional boxer, great poker player, big-handsome-sexy irresistible to women who resemble Marilyn Monroe, and of course a great writer-in-the-making. This adolescent fantasy check-list does nothing to advance the plot, but Mailer uses it for the main characters in most of his works of fiction. For his new journalism, he himself is the observation post, but this is his strong point and these are his best works.
He intrudes too much of his opinions, which he thinks are brilliant existential psychology but mostly come down to asserting that what the world needs is more of his spontaneously macho risk-taking and violence. He admires Hemingway and has some of his descriptive skill but none of his restraint. He regards himself as a high-intellectual leader but his ideas are too wacky to influence anybody; and as we have seen, his practical judgment is terrible.
His strength is social ethnography, vivid portrayals of cutting-edge scenes in America. Where does he get his skills? He trained himself to be a writer, already as a high-school student in New York and an undergraduate at Harvard. He went into the army near the end of the Pacific war, hoping to get near enough to the front to write a great war novel. (He had one combat patrol, but everything he observed went into a convincing picture of the military machine, especially the previously little-discussed class conflict between officers and enlisted men.) He has an excellent memory for detail and the sounds of people’s voices. Some of this is the memory component of high intelligence. One remembers best what one deliberately sets out to observe, and Mailer trained his mind to see what messages people are giving off while claiming to be something else. This is a Freudian-inspired mode of observation, that Mailer shared with his exact contemporary, Erving Goffman, when the Freudian vogue of the 1940s and 50s shifted away from deep childhood traumas to the fronts people are acting out all around us. In action Mailer was usually a jerk, but as an observer he was focused and on target.
What makes his writing so energetic? His sentences have flow; often they are long and strung-together, but without complex grammar or subordinate clauses, the whole thing rushing forward without a hitch. Whatever he is saying, you get it; you don’t have to figure it out. Like him or not, he keeps you awake; and except when he is sounding off on his own trips, his descriptions have the feel of reality.
With Mailer and Kerouac alike, the cliché is right, trust the writer’s reports, not the writer’s ego. Ironically, these are writers who believe the cult of intoxication gives them their true voice, but it gets in the way of the idea part of writing, which requires a lot of reflection. For all his claims to be writing philosophical novels, Mailer’s philosophy is the least impressive thing about it. Writers who truly have something to say (as distinguished from something to report), like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Proust, have a calmer tone; and their writing practice is the opposite of a frenzied rush.
What, then, does the cult of intoxication really deliver? As a method, it has its Kubla Khan peaks of poetry, but novels are made for the long perspective, passion recollected in tranquility. There are not a lot of successfully intoxicated novels. Its successes are all on the other fork, the cult of intoxication as a topic. It has been increasingly a central part of modern history, and one whose allure we have yet to fully understand.
Jack Kerouac. 1962. Big Sur.
J. Michael Lennon. 2013. Norman Mailer: A Double Life.
Norman Mailer. 1955. The Deer Park.
Norman Mailer. 1968. The Armies of the Night. History as a Novel, the Novel as History.
Bill Morgan. 2011. The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation.
Eric C. Schneider. 2008. Smack: Heroin and the American City.