Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tough Guys Don't Dance (1984)

After going big with The Executioner's Song and then indulging himself with Ancient Evenings, Norman Mailer trimmed back the metric word tonnage for this genre exercise, which at least is fun to read. It's basically hardboiled detective fiction. In this case the person doing the detecting is an amateur, Tim Madden, who is a marijuana grower and bartender. Naturally he is the prime suspect in a murder too. He is also a drunk and libertine and in general a lot like Mailer's ideal of manly. He is heartsick for a woman who has just left him and he is drinking hard. When Madden comes out of his latest blackout he finds blood all over the front seat of his car and the head of a blonde woman—only the head, no body in sight. So it goes. Crank up the lurid action and mysterious motives like a hurdy-gurdy coming to life. The setting is Provincetown in Cape Cod and there are lots of rich folks, who all seem to be terrified of being seduced by gay homosexuals. It quickly turns out to be the familiar anxiety panic states we know from previous Mailer fiction, perhaps most notably the previous book, Ancient Evenings. But this one also reminds me of an earlier novel, An American Dream, another febrile hallucination with all the Mailer trademarks. Tough Guys Don't Dance was a quickie to meet a contract, but it's clearly Mailer. Somehow so much keeps coming back to anal sex. One character here, an "Acting Chief of Police" with deep military background, is more or less officially put in charge of the homosexual panic. His fear and loathing is trembling on a hair trigger, and we all know what that means. Wait a minute—I'm not sure I do. In 1984, this kind of stuff still might have had some power to shock, and I note for the most part, without giving anything away, that the homophobes are generally on the losing side of things. Still, it's so strange that Mailer keeps coming back to this specter. It's like the gross-out effects in Frank Zappa's music—apparently baked in, and for reasons I'd rather not think about. As private eye stories go, think Ross Macdonald and the infinite complications of fracturing families. At that it's not too bad when Mailer gets out of his own way.

In 1987, a film version written and directed by Mailer came out. I remember the book but not the movie, at all, yet there it is, all legit-looking with Francis Coppola's name on it and Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini starring and music by Angelo Badalamenti. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum even includes it in his list of 1,000 favorite movies. But I had a hard time seeing past the painfully dated '80s production style. It is technically Mailer's fourth feature, but his filmmaking hand is tentative and distracted by effect, rudimentary at best using visual strategies to tell a story. I don't know his other movies. This one is professionally done, but the doomy literary pretensions are closer to Woody Allen phoning it in on a bad day than anything as raw and vital as, say, a John Cassavetes picture, which I would expect more to be Mailer's aim. Stick with the book if anything.

In case it's not at the library.

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