Norman Mailer in HisTime 5

Mailer was there before them, and he went much deeper into the possibilities released by the undermining of traditional distinc¬tions between journalism and fiction. The techniques of fiction are what made his piece on the 1960 Democratic National Convention, which nominated John F. Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Su-permarket,” such a famous performance when it appeared in Es¬quire in 1960, three years before Wolfe is supposed to have invented the New Journalism. Mailer viewed politicians with a novelist’s eye; he read the inner man from the outer:
[Kennedy’s] style in the press conferences was interesting. Not ter¬ribly popular with the reporters … he carried himself nonetheless with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his man¬ner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from the corner when the bell ended the round. . . . Yet there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man pres¬ent in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an an¬imal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was ade¬quate for the classroom, but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing. Perhaps one can give a sense of the discrepancy by saying that he was like an actor who had been cast as the candidate, a good actor, but not a great one—you were aware all the time that the role was one thing and the man an¬other, they did not coincide, the actor seemed a touch too aloof (as, let us say, Gregory Peck is usually too aloof) to become the part. Yet one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness or to be¬ware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.
There is nothing in Wolfe to match the sheer intuitiveness of this writing; Wolfe got his effects by other means. Still, Mailer was only elevating the form. He had not broken it open. That happened when he wrote about the 1967 march on the Pentagon for Harper’s, the story that became The Armies of the Night. There he did what no other New Journalist except, later, Hunter Thompson did (and Hunter Thompson went to school to Norman Mailer), which was to insert himself, as a character called Mailer, into the reportage. He did it again, under the name Aquarius, in Of a Fire on the Moon, again as Norman in The Fight, and by one name or another in virtu¬ally every piece of journalism he has done since. Most readers have chalked the device up to ego; but it was not ego, or it was not only ego. It was a way of placing directly before the reader’s attention the circumstance that the text was written by a man armed with such- and-such prejudices, operating under such-and-such moral and physical limitations, altering events by his presence in such-and- such a way, and (as in The Fight, for example) induced to undertake the work by the promise of such-and-such a fee. The conditions of production are visible right there in the story, since they are in the story whether they are visible or not.
In Cold Blood was a great triumph for Capote, and no doubt Mailer pondered a little on Capote’s example, and whether he wanted to be perceived as emulating it, before embarking on his most successful book, The Executioner’s Song (1979). The Execu¬tioner’s Song is based on a story, the 1976 execution of Gary Gilmore, in Utah, that brought together many of Mailer’s obsessions—the psychology of the psychopath, the technology of punishment, exis¬tential risk and rebirth. He scarcely needed to add a thing, and it was his genius (though it was not characteristic of his genius) to re¬alize it. “What I had was gold,” as he once said about the story, “if I had sense enough not to gild it.”
He was referring, of course, to the sort of cosmological interpo¬lations his readers had grown, with some resignation, to expect. But it is a mistake to think that he turned himself into a tape recorder. His first artistic decision was to solve a problem that had plagued Capote’s book, which was the problem of direct quotation. Capote had conducted interviews for his book, but he was reduced in most cases to re-creating dialogue out of his own head. The results, par¬ticularly in the case of the secondary characters, are often stagy, an Easterner’s idea of what Kansans talk like. And having flattened down the dialogue to suit the characters (it did not help that Capote was writing the book for the New Yorker, which imposed implicit re¬strictions on the kind of language he could use, even for his murder¬ers), Capote flattened his own prose down to match it. The writing is genteel, careful, perpetually on the edge of cliche, as though a fresh expression might suggest some sort of authorial attitude, and throw off the journalistic “balance.” The consequence, as usually happens when a writer with as large an ambition as Capote self¬consciously suppresses his or her personality, is a story utterly dom¬inated by Capote. Except for the killers, whom he interviewed and who frequently speak in something approximating their own voices, the characters in In Cold Blood are just cogs in the machine of Capote’s prose.

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