Sparkle in the Night

by Hal Trussell

Driving out of the parking structure, I emerged into a fog of light to medium density.  My first thought was that it was a metaphor for the impediment I had been experiencing in my writing. But instead of the typical negative application of that metaphor, I imagined it as the fog that had been shrouding my creativity finally lifting.  This thought of metaphor reminded me of the evening I had just spent listening to Norman Mailer answer questions and reflect before an audience of about 300.  He had specifically used the term metaphor in describing the evil of Adolph Hitler, saying he killed because he saw his victims as part of a grand metaphor, and he believed he was doing God’s will.

Mailer discussed many things besides Castle in the Forest, his new book about Hitler, including his own previous atheism and subsequent realization that there must be a god from whom we are created, one who does not meddle in our affairs.  Entering the small theater, the audience began to applaud as he made his way slowly down the aisle to the dais, using two canes, one in either hand, to steady himself, much the same as an elderly person might use a walker with wheels.  His hair was a shock of pure white, and he was shorter — much shorter — than I had expected.  His legs almost frail, yet his chest still projecting that robustness of character which has been his persona. Following him were the event hosts, one carrying his book, the other carrying a bottle of red wine with a red label.  The bottle had been re-corked.  He would sip the wine from a water glass between speaking.

Only 25 years old at the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, Norman said he was catapulted into such instant celebrity and fame that he was lost inside himself for several years. “Back then we didn’t have the term identity crisis, so I was unable to have a definition to help me understand what I was going through,” so essentially he had to flounder on his own until he worked his way through it.  This was the bad side of sudden fame, but he said there was also an enormous benefit for him, because with this fame’s accompanying wealth he had time to think.  He didn’t have to go to work 8 hours a day and be nice to a boss he did not respect, and then go home and try to find the energy to work on his novel.  He had the financial means that gave him time to think and to write, and he spent a tremendous amount of time thinking.

Even at his age of 84, everything he discussed was framed by extraordinary clarity of thought and verbal style, and as I drove further on my journey home and the fog grew more dense, my own metaphor shifted to that of an unexpected journey deeper into the mystical and thought provoking phenomenon of nature.

I hadn’t seen Norman on television or in a photo for at least two or three years, and I was surprised at his age and seeming frailty.  Yet any concern over his intellect was immediately dissolved when he first glanced toward the audience and I saw that remarkable sparkle in his eyes.  It was clear we were in for a Mailer evening.

“Fundamentalists are like the spawn of the Devil; I wish to be quoted on this, so I will say it again,” which he did, to the absolute delight of the overwhelmingly senior and predominantly Jewish audience.  (Norman knows how to keep his integrity, yet play to the house.)   In answer to the question, where will George W. Bush rank among all Presidents, his responded with two blunt words: “the dumbest.”  Reflecting on the decline of the importance of the writer, particularly the novelist in American society, he said that television was to blame more than anything. 

A question prompted by his book, Oswald’s Tale, regarding his thoughts on the legacy of JFK, led to his explanation of how he started the book assuming he would find evidence of a conspiracy, but not finding one, he now believes 75% that Oswald acted entirely alone — adding that if someone were yet to find such evidence he nevertheless wouldn’t be surprised.

Continuing with thoughts of Kennedy, Mailer set him in the context of the presidents who preceded him, so that he could make clear why he believed, even in 1960, “that Kennedy would have a profound influence on our country.” 

“He was handsome, young, and he had a beautiful wife. I mean, for goodness sake, before that there was Truman and Bess.”  Lots of laughter, then Norman continued recounting: Roosevelt, “who was handsome, but crippled, and of course his wife, Eleanor, who was…” he paused to gather his thoughts midst anticipatory giggles from the crowd.  “…And she was, or of course did a wide variety of programs, and she had a stature, but certainly was not beautiful.”

Next were the afore mentioned Truman and Bess, followed by Eisenhower and Mamie. Therefore, Mailer said, as a society we had become conditioned to believe that our president should be someone essentially older and boring.  So when JFK ran for president, suddenly here was someone “who looked like a ski instructor running for president.  And not only was Kennedy handsome and young, but he could speak very well.”

Thoroughly engaged by this discussion, Mailer had a sudden thought, supposing that if one wanted to know why the fifties were so flat, uninspiring, and generally uncreative — adding with tongue in cheek, “except for some particular artists and authors” — one had only to look at who our leaders were. 

Which brought him back to Kennedy.  “Our society follows our president, and it is imperative that our president be an excellent speaker.”  He re-phrased and repeated this statement with such conviction and force that it seemed as though he had arisen from his seat and stood before us.

As a youngster, I had a very precocious experience when I had read one of his books without knowing anything about him, or literature in general.  A few days earlier, I saw a review of his new book which seemed to conclude it was not significant.  Mailer addressed that very issue head on, reflecting that he always found that mediocre reviews of his books were written by critics who completely misunderstood the book.  As such, it had become clear to him that it was obviously a requirement for being a mediocre reviewer that you had to also be a person who misunderstood the book you were reviewing. 

As the discussion concluded, it was announced that he had spent the previous hour pre-signing copies of his new book, which would be on sale in the lobby.  For those who had brought a copy purchased previously, he would sign them also.

That time of thinking probably contributed to Norman’s evident ability to reduce characters, plots, even whole philosophies to abstract structures then balance them in his thoughts along with many others simultaneously. This mental capacity as well as his reflection on mediocrity prompted me to stand in line afterward to purchase an autographed copy of Castle in the Forest, if only for his signature on the title page.  Certainly I hoped the literary content would be both entertaining and inspirational, but even if it did not provide that, at least gazing upon his signature would remind me both of his comments this evening, and of my own early experience with his work.

The line snaked through the lobby. It seemed to be moving very slowly or not at all, yet people would pass me on their way to exit, with six sometimes eight books in their hands. It was very curious until I noticed that about every fourth person in line had a bag full of books, Norman’s earlier books, that they wanted him to sign, which apparently he was graciously doing. 

Someone next to me joked that these people were having all their copies of Mailer’s books autographed by him so they could put them on eBay immediately upon his death.

As my section of the line neared the table, the friendly conversations ceased, such was the sense of reverence or the power of celebrity, or both.  The woman behind me had purchased her copy the day before and brought it now. A man in front of me had done the same. It was my turn.  The assistant asked if it would be alright if they gave me an unsigned copy, which Mr. Mailer would then sign if I wished. 

He wrote his name slowly and with distinction, and I took the opportunity that fate had given, telling him that when I was 12 years old I had lived in Brazil, isolated from English and books written in English.  I had wanted something to read, and looking through my father’s books, had come across a paperback copy of The Naked and The Dead, which I promptly took and read, and I thought it was quite wonderful.

He raised his face from signing my book and looked straight into my eyes and said with that sparkle, “Actually I think The Naked and The Dead would be an excellent book for a twelve year old boy.   …An intelligent twelve year old boy.” 

Norman sure knows how to play to the house.