Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967)

Here's another Norman Mailer novel that stopped me at the front porch for years, and which I have still managed to get all the way through only once, even though it's a bit of a shorty. For some reason, perhaps because it comes near the first flowering of Mailer the journalist, I always expect some deadly earnest Socratic dialogue between a father and son on the eve of the son's shipping out to war. Where would I get that idea? Could it be the title? Instead it is something much more like the movie Vanishing Point relocated to a bear hunt in backcountry Alaska. It is obviously rooted in William Faulkner's novella The Bear, both in its overt story and its use of same to illustrate wider ideas and principles. But it's The Bear as narrated by an overprivileged '60s teen. The language is almost unbearable—this jivey, punning, slangy onslaught that, while often clever, just smells of painful put-on now. He's not William Burroughs, not even close, although I'd expect to find that marijuana had quite a bit to do with this book. Mailer always struggled for adequate distance from his ego and it's constantly a problem here. It's not the jabbering 16-year-old narrator D.J. who dominates this screed, as he should, but rather you keep sensing Mailer himself peeking out from behind his narrator with a big grin and thumbs-up, reminding you how clever he is. And yes, he's clever to a very fine point here. It's carefully audacious, his specialty. The license he takes with his characters' names alone is often greatly entertaining. And I always appreciate anyone taking on corporatism as acidly as Mailer can, even though it's an easy target. Indeed, Why Are We in Vietnam? could well be one of his greatest moments for that. You realize as you read that it could have been called Why We Are in Vietnam rather than the interrogative. But then the flaws intrude again in the composition of the story. It's more of a metaphorical polemic than a proper novel. It's Mailer the literary pugilist and he wants to have a fight, so he casts a play in order to make the insult and throw down the gauntlet, as it were. Why Are We in Vietnam? is one of a kind, I'll give it that. Vanishing Point the movie picked it up from here five years later and the rest is the dustbin of history.

In case it's not at the library.

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