Sunday, January 10, 2016

An American Dream (1965)

Norman Mailer's fourth or so novel was conceived in serial form from September 1963 to October 1964, a historically busy period for America and dreamers. A stunt project (like all of his best), the high-fever Manhattan tale turns on the nocturnal adventures of a celebrity professor, Stephen Rojack, on the night he kills his wife. The effrontery, it must be said, verges on crass—only a few years earlier Mailer had stabbed his second wife. But it's nonetheless compelling, carried on the transports of Mailer's language and his ponderations about good, evil, the eternal, and so on. It is never less than obnoxious. The women characters are there strictly for purposes of the adoration of Rojack and/or some competitive male peer. Mailer is very good at noir, that's part of how he is getting away with this mess. I think he is getting away with it, I should say first. He blows across Manhattan like the best stark, glossy, buff, black and white scenes from Sweet Smell of Success, taking the rapid-fire tempos of dialogue and repartee to shadowy profound realms of Kierkegaard and dark absurdity. It's a comedy that is constantly worried about suicide and immolation. It's an indictment of American society by the one who is guilty. It's a dream and moves like one. People are prone to grand statements about cancer just before they leap to their deaths from penthouse terraces. But the cops aren't having any of it, and neither is Mailer on one level, a neat trick. He knows it's a joke, and he seems to know that we know it too, but he's not letting on, he stays in character all the way, and that's the beauty part. It's just brave and outrageous enough to get across, but it's not for everyone. Every last woman character is painfully dated, to start. And the shoe-leather stink of Mailer's ego, as usual, is all over it. But lord he was gifted too. He somehow makes all the huffing and puffing about God and Satan eternally locked in deadly and uncertain battle for ... something ... just compelling enough that you don't want to look away. Or I didn't. Again, compare a similar exercise in Tough Guys Don't Dance (from 1984, his other full-on noir, which we will be getting to eventually) for how good Mailer can be at stripping away the inessentials and letting the raw Dostoevskian details of crime and its aftermath do the work. There's also something pleasingly lumpy in An American Dream about the eight chapters that make up the bulk of it. Each one coheres of itself but sits slightly at odds with the others. The sense is strong they were written pell-mell and intensely to eight separate deadlines. In this case it's a winning effect. Recommended with caution.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. Yesterday, I wrote this comment on Scott Woods' site, in regard to excerpts from a 1975 Norman Mailer interview in which he criticized the Rolling Stones from somewhere beyond pop's solar system: "Thanks for resurrecting this interview segment, as I don’t think I’d ever seen it before. Like a lot of other Mailer pronouncements, the ideas are odd — the Beatles “terrified” by music (?) — but you don’t have to agree with him to dig the chutzpah of his language." I hadn't yet seen your review of "An American Dream" at that point, but now that I have, my comment probably fits that novel pretty well too, as I recall from my own readings of it.
    -- Richard Riegel

  2. Just finished reading Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped The Sixties, which had a few pages on An American Dream. (Read it ages ago, remember nothing.)