Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Armies of the Night (1968)

Norman Mailer’s account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War is a landmark of the burgeoning New Journalism, signaled in part by the ornate subtitle: History as a Novel / The Novel as History. This book may be his single greatest advertisement for himself, with teeming insights at once profound and absurd, much like the attempt by the Fugs at that very protest to levitate the Pentagon "300 feet in the air." It might even be Mailer's best book, and certainly it belongs on any short list, but I must leave it to you to parse the definitions of "history" and "novel." Much like Truman Capote's label for his 1966 true-crime book, In Cold Blood—the "nonfiction novel"—the terms are fungible and more suggestive than anything else. The first section of this one (History as a Novel) details Mailer's experience on the long weekend of the protest, which includes drunken speech-making, petty personality conflicts over position and status, hanging out with Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, and, eventually, participating in the protest to the extent of getting arrested as quickly and efficiently as possible, the arrest itself, a night and day in jail, and an appearance in court for pleas and sentencing. The second section (The Novel as History) is much shorter, closer to the final third of the book, and recounts the brutalities of the scene at the Pentagon during Mailer's night in jail, when demonstrators were systematically beaten and abused. It's the more impressive section, with its straightforward reporting, whereas the first is more gossipy and, if I may say, fun. The depredations and horrors of 1968 and then Richard Nixon's feckless prosecution of the war for another five years were yet ahead. There's a kind of playful innocence to aspects such as the Fugs' attempt to levitate the massive building which disappeared quickly among the protesters—for good reason, as the confrontations and the war both become increasingly violent. Among other things, Mailer steps back to assess the reasons for fighting the war, considering answers to the question of the title of his previous novel (Why Are We in Vietnam?). Most of the answers are related to resisting communism. He's not unfair to the hawks' side, though ultimately he rejects it. With this strange book, Mailer affirms his role as buffoonish speaker of truth to power, a role at which he might have been one of the best among many during the permanently oversized '60s. Even people with a casual interest in the times and events should make a point of getting to this one. It's essential for anyone interested in Mailer.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I think I'm totally w/ you here. My thing is that on the one hand Mailer is to blame for the meandering wankerdom style of prose writing that has dominated, say, NY-er writing ever since but somehow he makes it work? He's always counter-punching, so often the butt of his own jokes, and such a careful observer of the dramatic gesture? But this is at his best, he could be insufferable, right?