The Nice Jewish Boy from Brooklyn

Journalism is chores”–so wrote Norman Mailer in The Faith of Graffiti. His problem is largely a formal one; conventional journalism so often tends towards the programmatic, which is perhaps a symptom of the journalistic compulsion to tell “the truth,” that to get anywhere at all it became necessary for him to spell out all of the untruths: his biases, his prejudices, his underlying motives, even his modus operandi for writing. This makes sense. For a journalist to write with any depth of feeling, it’s pointless for him to pretend that “I” doesn’t exist (the irony with conventional journalism is that it often doesn’t). Moreover, it betrays the possibility for honest discourse. Certain agendas might be disagreeable–right. But hidden agendas are toxic, and journalism is chores.

Supposedly, objectivity does not mean impartiality, but rather means having a natural bias towards truth. At least, that’s the idea. For Mailer, who was not content to hide his hand, this was “one of the great lies of all time.” His belief was that objectivity is an elaborate construction, and with the heft of his personality endeavored to let us know exactly who he was and where he came from, situating himself bang in the center of the page, where any self-respecting journalist was not traditionally expected to divulge his or her own interests.

Appropriating the stylistic devices of literary fiction, he sometimes referred to himself in the third person, as a novelist would. Other times he used pseudonyms, to the effect of creating distance between himself and the character on the page, which many found intolerable then and many more find intolerable now. As far as Mailer was concerned, he was smashing atoms, and indeed the whole gestalt is unmistakable. But all he was doing was experimenting with the form.

Readers willing to permit Mailer’s highly subjective style confront a bigger problem: Mailer himself. Capitalising on the success of his first novel in 1948, “the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn” quickly transformed into a narcissistic blowhard. Life became an endless parade of television appearances. He fought, he fucked, and in 1955 he co-founded the Village Voice, where he actively challenged readers to stop reading, almost on a weekly basis. When it came for him to promote his third novel, The Deer Park, he took out a half-page advertisement using $127.50 of his own money, in which he quoted from his worst reviews. However, it was during the sixties when he truly earned his reputation, and the decade that started with the stabbing of his second wife using a two-and-a-half inch penknife, ended with his second unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of New York. In a nutshell, the man was unbearable. But back to the art.

But if only it were all so simple! For at some point it becomes impossible to separate the man from the art. The fantastically ambitious, ideologically messy, violent public life he never lived down colours much of his work, and helped shape many of the defining features of his trademark style: the macho veneer, the stratosphere of ego, metaphysical flights of fancy and existential world view. Though it did not please him to admit it, it’s a style better suited to his nonfiction, where it pays to know why John F. Kennedy was an existentialist hero. The twist is in having it read like fiction, the journalist seemingly capable of extricating the inner dimensions of his subjects, insights that are usually right on the nose. Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for the novelist.

End of Part One