“Tough writers can fight.”
Even years after his death, Norman Mailer has detractors wishing for it. One of his biographers suggests that Mailer, instead of trying to avoid the inevitable by going through several surgeries, should have committed suicide. In the afterword for the 2008 reissue of 1985’s Mailer: His Life and Times, Peter Manso looks back on his ex-friend’s last days and wonders: “what was Norman doing, at eighty four, hanging on, all tubed up and stripped of his dignity in a tony East Side hospital?” Writing in Commentary almost two years after the pugnacious author died of kidney failure, Algis Valiunas ends an assessment of Mailer this way: “One is torn between wishing that his memory would disappear immediately and wanting his remains to hang at the crossroads as a lasting reminder to others.” Both these camps find flaws in Mailer’s work that they ascribe to his character, especially his famous competitiveness and fascination with violence.
Readers who long for a Mailer without the violence want another sort of writer altogether: James Joyce without Ireland, E.L. Doctorow without New York City, Herman Melville without the sea. Confrontations are Mailer’s patch, the territory he claimed as his own. Valiunas acknowledges that “violence remained Mailer’s obsession and his literary bread and butter,” but he sees this as a problem, both for Mailer as a writer and as a person. In his September 2009 Commentary jeremiad, Valiunas allows that in his writing on boxing, Mailer’s “fascination with manly violence found a more or less civilized focus,” but fails to see that the qualities Mailer perceived in boxers – refusal to quit, aggressive self-assertion, courage, professionalism, strategic use of both force and misdirection, and, yes, undisguised ambition – provide him with a moral code that directly informs his writing. Not surprisingly, Mailer saw similar characteristics in writers, or at least in himself. Valiunas objects to Mailer’s beliefs and behavior as much if not more than the uses to which he puts his talent as an author. He finds Mailer’s name-making World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), insufficiently patriotic (“There is no sense in Mailer that the war is being fought for noble ends…”), and the writer’s sex life, with its “threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes,” especially unsettles him. Mailer’s gaudy life story keeps certain critics from seeing what he sought to achieve in his prose.
Fighting and boxing (which are not the same things) factor in Mailer’s non-writing life, as Manso chronicles. Doctorow, who as an editor at Dial Press in the mid- to late 1960s worked on Mailer’s books, tells Manso that in “those drinking days” he would see Mailer get mean and “take a swing at someone.” Emma Gwaltney, wife of Mailer’s close friend Francis Gwaltney, recalls Mailer’s tendency to turn every interaction into a contest, which often led to “the macho fighting business.” Richard Baron, Doctorow’s boss at Dial, remembers Mailer scuffling at a party in Provincetown. George Plimpton says Mailer hit him with a newspaper outside another party but denies responding with a left jab as he’d heard Mailer claim he did.
Others who knew him frequently reach for boxing vocabulary when describing Mailer’s movements even when no hitting occurred. His friend Eileen Finletter recollects still another party at which Mailer arrived drunk and “weaving around like a boxer.” New Republic editor Martin Peretz reports on Mailer’s “pugilizing” at the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles: “The physical movements were that of a boxer, and the words were sharp jabs.” Diana Trilling notices the link between aggression and insecurity: “Nobody is that concerned with his masculine inviolability who isn’t unduly worried.” Novelist Chandler Brossard (who also boxed) believes Mailer “equated sexual turn-on with violence.”
Joining sex and violence resulted in problems for Mailer and – especially – for women who knew him, as his detractors routinely stress. In November 1960, at one of those parties he drunkenly bobbed and weaved through, Mailer stabbed Adele Morales Mailer, his second of six wives. The following year, while on probation, Mailer read aloud at an event, “So long as you use a knife there’s some love left.” Wringing words out of such deeds upsets Valiunas as much as the blade-plunge itself. He complains, “Mailer could not shut up about the psychic benefits of wife-killing.”
Mailer famously combines sex and violence in several works. “The Time of Her Time” in Advertisements for Myself (1959) sees former Air Force light heavyweight contender Sergius O’Shaugnessy relay how he had sex with Denise Gondelman: “I threw her a fuck the equivalent of a fifteen-round fight….” Prior to that bout, they’d “made love like two club fighters in an open exchange, neither giving ground….” He slaps her; she hits him on the jaw. “I might have known she would have a natural punch,” O’Shaugnessy reflects. Another former boxer, Stephen Rojack, kills his wife in An American Dream (1965), a novel Valiunas dismisses as “a boys’ book with pretensions to profound insight about sex, death, wealth, power, and the national psyche – Spicy Detective making believe it is Dostoyevsky.” In building his case against Mailer, Valiunas could have used this aside in Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984): “I was thinking that surgeons had to be the happiest people on earth. To cut people up and get paid for it – that’s happiness, I told myself.”
Such literary episodes don’t make Mailer a misogynist or an advocate of criminal violence, despite what certain critics may contend. Valiunas points to and then willfully misrepresents the “notorious” 1957 essay “The White Negro,” where Mailer parenthetically discusses two hypothetical teenagers killing a fifty-year-old storekeeper. “The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly,” Mailer writes. Valiunas claims he “justifies and indeed honors the murder.” Though stronger than the “not wholly unmacho” phrase perpetrated in Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the “not altogether cowardly” construction in the essay hardly stands as a vigorous defense. Moreover, Valiunas skips the part where Mailer explains that such an act requires “courage of a sort,” which hardly amounts to an endorsement either. Jack Henry Abbott killed a man in prison and another one soon after Mailer help to free him (and to get Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast published), as Valiunas recounts, but Mailer only took a reckless chance on Abbott because he believed in his talent. While Mailer frequently writes of killers, they aren’t his true heroes: boxers and writers are.
Given Mailer’s belief in the similarities between the fighters and authors, it’s noteworthy that the spouse he nearly killed thought she contributed, at least indirectly, to the novelist’s fascination with boxing. Adele Mailer tells Manso that her father got Mailer interested in the sport. Mailer’s friend Mickey Knox (who played a boxer in the film Killer McCoy) says Mailer “used to box a lot” with his father-in-law. Mailer mentions boxing with his second wife’s father in Advertisement for Myself, where he refers to familial fisticuffs as a way to get into shape. (He also compares a spell of being unable to write to punch-drunkenness.) In fact, Mailer followed the sport well before meeting the Moraleses. A Harvard classmate recalls Mailer fantasizing of being Rocky Graziano.
Mailer’s personal history involves numerous fighters. He didn’t only write about or admire fighters; he also befriended them. Interviewees in Manso’s oral history mention many boxing-related episodes. Harold Hayes, as editor of Esquire, assigned Mailer to cover the first fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in 1962. Hayes knew of Mailer’s “capability of making a metaphor of anything he wanted to look at” and of the writer’s long-standing interest in the sport. Mailer caused a ruckus at the post-fight press conference – what fellow writer Pete Hamill called “one of the last great boxing scenes” – and the promoter, Harold Conrad, feared Mailer’s antics would rile the new champion. However, Liston found Mailer amusing. Roger Donoghue, a professional middleweight in the 1940s and early 1950s sparred with Mailer and also accompanied him to parties attended by champions such as Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore and Joe Louis. (When Donoghue got married, Mailer supplied a wedding cake topped with bronze figures of fighters, one male and one female, which would probably irk Valiunas, given Mailer’s history of marital violence.) The boxer Jake LaMotta was present at the Manhattan bar P.J. Clarke’s the night Mailer first met the woman who became his fourth wife. Hamill introduced Mailer to light heavyweight José Torres, who became a lifelong friend. (Mailer’s mother blamed Torres for her son’s involvement with boxing, of which she disapproved.)
Perhaps because of his close connections with fighters, Mailer understood more about boxing than most journalists covering the sport. According to Manso’s biography, trainer Cus D’Amato endorsed Mailer’s belief in a fundamental similarity between fighters and writers. “He claimed that a writer had to have discipline, that it was just like going into a fight, and he was right, ’cause discipline is the whole thing: you make yourself do what needs to be done no matter how you feel.” In his most sustained contemplation of the sport, Mailer identifies discipline as the central tenet of boxing’s philosophy. In “The White Negro,” Mailer reflects on psychotics, psychopaths and killers, and in The Fight (1975) takes pains to distinguish them from boxers, who must possess a wholly different mentality.
Not many psychotics could endure the disciplines of professional boxing. Still, a Heavyweight Champion must live in a world where proportions are gone. He is conceivably the most frightening unarmed killer alive. With his hands he could slay fifty men before he would become too tired to kill any more. Or is the number closer to a hundred? … Prizefighters do not, of course, train to kill people at large. To the contrary, prizefighting offers a profession to men who might otherwise commit murder in the street.
Fighters must control their impulses and emotions and condition themselves to direct their energy positively. “Humans were not beings but forces,” he avers. (Mailer “actually falls for all that guff about … voodoo prizefighters,” critic Clive James jabs.) Valiunas calls The Fight a “marvelous book about the Rumble in the Jungle” but can’t see that Mailer’s larger, fighter-filled body of work was about more than the cultivation of ugliness. It is not that in The Fight “great heavyweights replaced lawless brutes at the apex of his regard.” Both kinds of fighters reveal something essential about human mind, but boxers do something worth emulating.
It is no coincidence, then, that Mailer incorporates boxing into many of his books. Sometimes the sport simply provides him with ways to describe combative discussions. In his second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), he likens a conversation to a fight. Talking with fellow rooming house resident (and erstwhile Stalin agent) Bill McLeod, narrator Mike Lovett loses his cool and throws an imprecise verbal punch. “He had a facility for wearing one down,” Lovett explains of McLeod, “and it was not surprising that when I swung I was wild.” Mailer remarks on fighter-like elusiveness in his reporting on the 1968 presidential conventions. Catching an adept politician off guard with a question is “approximately equal in difficulty to hitting a professional boxer with a barroom hook,” he says in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Roughly a decade later, in The Executioner’s Song (1979) Mailer again sees similarities between speech and sparring, writing that an interviewer threw a question like a punch. (He also says anticipation of an execution generates excitement like that surrounding a heavyweight championship bout.) In Tough Guys Don’t Dance, another murder story, Mailer again connects fighting and talking, by having the narrator, Tim Madden, say that a question he asks Provincetown police officer Alvin Luther Regency amounts to “the first punch he has to acknowledge.”
|Mailer’s use of boxing goes beyond conventional sports metaphors, however. He turns to it to develop characters in novels or explore pet ideas in his nonfiction. Gary Gilmore claimed to have stabbed a black professional boxer to death even before committing the murders that put him on death row, as Mailer relays in The Executioner’s Song. Gilmore, who tried to amplify his moment of renown, “liked people who rose to heights and became famous, like Muhammad Ali,” Mailer writes. Lawrence Schiller, the primary researcher for The Executioner’s Song (and co-owner of its copyright), previously packaged a book of Ali photos, and while doing that clashed with a potential collaborator on the Gilmore project, which Mailer mentions. During his first conversation with Gilmore, Schiller sees something of Ali’s personality in the prisoner. And this side of the killer intrigues Mailer, who includes several passing references to boxing when writing about Gilmore (who spars with one of his lawyers soon before his execution and also receives letters from a young female boxer) in order to convey Gilmore’s purported intelligence, slyness and self-confidence – all fighters’ traits.|
When describing a bullfighter’s motivation as being “to discover a new large truth about himself and the mysteries of his own courage or the lack of it,” O’Shaugnessy in “The Time of Her Time” outlines the same test a boxer faces – and the one he failed as a boxer in the military. The boxing incident has a precursor in Mailer’s first novel, where a twelve-year-old Robert Hearn boxes at summer camp as a demanding father watches. (“Don’t let up, Bobby, his father shouts.”) A similar scene occurs in Tough Guys when Madden attempted to impress his father in his sole Golden Gloves bout. As in The Naked and the Dead, the youngsters flail at each other, but while Hearn wins his fight, Madden, like O’Shaugnessy, loses. With his fighter’s “rage to achieve,” O’Shaugnessy attempts to compensate for his ring loss via his conquest of the previously unorgasmic Gondelman. A more decorous writer (or, as Trilling suggests, a more secure man) wouldn’t insist so relentlessly on fusing demonstrations of manliness in the ring and in the bedroom.
Mailer does not refer explicitly to the sport in “The White Negro,” but his understanding of men as inherently violent and his celebration of courage and ambition as virtues permeate the essay. Competition, energy and rebellion against conformity are the qualities he admires in hipsters (the putative subject of the piece). He argues that unconventional acts require great courage (and not mere “courage of a sort”). He calls life a contest that can only be won through unyielding effort. To look intently at oneself and to confront pain and shame as well as desire demands bravery. He says men are both creative and murderous. While one should affirm the former impulse, these fundamental drives are not completely separate. Valiunas, who so disapproves of Mailer’s ceaseless attention to the violent side, may inadvertently lend support to the idea that a brutal imp resides in everyone when he says a photo of young Mailer shows “the perfect mama’s boy cruising for a bruising.” The critic not only wants to desecrate the man’s corpse; he also wants someone to retroactively strike the seven-year old “little tyke” who’d yet to write an offending word.
D’Amato the boxing trainer and Doctorow the novelist share the same conception of professionalism, and both believe Mailer meets it. D’Amato, who describes Mailer as “someone who was curious not only about boxing but also about people’s minds,” remembers a conversation he and Mailer had about fighting and fear in which he gave the writer his definition of “a real pro: a man who can be completely impersonal, who doesn’t allow his emotions to get involved with anything he does, who’s able to be objective.” Doctorow says Mailer could in precisely this manner separate his writing from himself and consider it coolly without vulnerability or defensiveness. He could recognize his work’s flaws. Doctorow uses a boxing analogy to describe Mailer’s attitude toward his own work. “It was almost as if each book was a round in a fight: some rounds he did better than others, while in some he took some bad shots. But he was able to judge it and go on.”
For Mailer, boxing not only exemplified professional detachment; it also offered a model of perseverance – a necessary virtue for a writer hoping for a lengthy career. The reviews for Barbary Shore were “unbelievably bad,” Mailer admits, but they taught him something useful: that he “could get up off the floor.” He goes on, in The Spooky Art (2003):
It’s the way a young prizefighter with a promising start can get knocked out early in his career and come back from that to have a good record. The time he was knocked out has become part of his strength. You start writing a novel and think, This could end up badly, but then you shrug: All right. I’ve been down before. It won’t be the end of the world.
Mailer shrugged more than once and made a habit of taking out newspaper advertisements reproducing the most negative lines from reviews of his novels.
One of Mailer’s greatest attributes as a writer is his willingness to risk humiliating himself. For him to choose quiet dignity instead of messy fighting, as Manso wished, would have been wholly out of character. At the start of Advertisements, Mailer declares his intention to make “a revolution in the consciousness of our time,” and recognizes that if he miscalculates the extent of his influence then he is “the fool who will pay the bill.” In The Fight, boxers wish for admiration, which leaves them open to very public disgrace if they fail. Similarly, writers willing to take bold chances can end up looking ridiculous, as Mailer more than once does. Both boxers and writers must believe in the importance of what they do to expose themselves to the jeers of the crowds and the critics, a point Mailer reiterates in The Spooky Art. Mailer wrote like his writing was truly a matter of life and death, and he didn’t mind if his ambition left him naked and unprotected. Mailer’s boastfulness might aggravate some readers, but The Executioner’s Song alone shows that he actually had the talent he said he did, even if he didn’t compile a perfect record. (Perhaps only Ali ever lived up to his own assertions of greatness, and even then only for a relatively small number of years.) Mailer consistently – relentlessly – aimed to be provocative, and if he still arouses animosity and disgust among his literary opponents, then that counts as a kind of victory.
John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s essays and reviews have been published by The Mailer Review, The Oregonian, Spot Literary Magazine, California Literary Review, Logos, Slow Trains, Shaking like a Mountain, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry and The Humanist.