Sunday, September 04, 2016

Of a Fire on the Moon (1969)

Norman Mailer sounds a little tired and depressed in this one, likely because his fourth marriage was ending as he worked on it, which he discusses in passing toward the end. Somehow this book had seemed daunting to me for many years, but, finally getting to it, it turns out to be a mostly interesting if rather long curiosity. I found out, among other things, that Mailer studied aeronautical engineering as a college undergraduate. He thus seems to know enough to grasp and communicate the dangerous technological feat in 1969 of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." For this book he has christened his narrative voice "Aquarius" (much as he has formerly been "The Novelist," "The Historian," just plain "Mailer," etc.). First he rushes through the press events surrounding it, and then backs up and goes over the whole mission again, more slowly, grinding on the technology. His description of the rocketry going on at takeoff is epic. I especially appreciate the sections when he goes into "the psychology of machines," on which, of course, the whole venture hinged. On some level, knowing what we know about Mailer, what he has freely disclosed, I suspect a good deal of the glum air could also be envy working out. It certainly feels feeble when he compares understanding rocket science to understanding James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It seems incredible to me now that this thing happened—actually, it is literally incredible now to a certain species of truther, which only makes me sad. Mailer's painstaking guide from takeoff to splashdown takes up the bulk of the book, and if it's tinted some by a weird emotional overlay, it's still really excellent reportage on how much was new and unknown on this mission, how precarious the whole thing was. He veers off on personal tangents, but for once his heart rarely feels in them, and so he tends to return quickly again to the mission and the astronauts, plumbing every point that occurs to him. Is it fair to discuss it with Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff? Sure. Wolfe's book may be the better one on the U.S. space program generally, but Mailer covers that pretty well and is also much better on what space travel is like—what it is based on, where the dangers and unknowns are likely to be found, and the sheer old-fashioned adventure of it buried under the PR hoopla and governmental maneuvering for funding. This one never follows through on the wit of the "Aquarius" moniker, but Mailer is journalist enough to let the facts tell the story when he's got nothing else.

In case it's not at the library.

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