Commentary Magazine

An American Dream, by Norman Mailer


An American Dream.
by Norman Mailer.
Dial Press. 270 pp. $4.95.

William James probably would have admired Norman Mailer's An American Dream. And since to read James is more instructive about contemporary literature than to read the reviews of Mailer's book, there's a chance that the novel will find the respected place in history that literary journalism refuses to give it. Defining (in The Varieties of Religious Experience) the necessary antagonism, even in 1902, between the “healthy-minded” and the “morbid-minded,” James offers a fable for those reviewers—especially Joseph Epstein in the New Republic, Philip Rahv in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick in Partisan Review—who have found in this latest of Mailer's works a pretext for moralisms that are witty and articulated almost in direct ratio to their critical irrelevance:

To this latter way, the morbidminded way, as we might call it, healthy-mindedness pure and simple seems unspeakably blind and shallow. To the healthyminded way, on the other hand, the way of the sick soul seems unmanly and diseased. With their grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears, and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery, there is something almost obscene about these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth. If religious intolerance and hanging and burning could again become the order of the day, there is little doubt that, however it may have been in the past, the healthyminded would at present show themselves the less indulgent party of the two. In our own attitude, not yet abandoned, of impartial onlookers, what are we to say to this quarrel? It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbidmindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience, and that its survey is the one that overlaps.

Of course An American Dream isn't good or bad simply because it deals with aspects of life seldom treated with candor in serious literature, and even less frequently with Mailer's relish of detail. It is in fact an introspective novel, and in reading it—a very different activity from thinking afterward about those Terrible Things done by its hero—I was most often reminded, for comparison, of the recent poetry of Robert Lowell. Mailer and Lowell are alone, I think, in having created the style of contemporary introspection, at once violent, educated, and cool. Their language substantially extends the literary resources of English, and people will later turn to them in any effort to determine the shapes our consciousness has been taking.

Perhaps the reason for so many uncomprehending reviews is that Mailer put everyone on the wrong scent, especially those with the dubious advantage of having a nose for what a book is like even before the author is done with it. Mailer himself invited us to take the novel as yet another of his public displays. He vulgarly pushed himself, as would-be boxer, would-be mayor of New York, he trivialized the very images that are as often part of his nightmares, and he managed even to make his often bright talk about writing into a parody of Hemingway, which was parody enough to begin with. His antics are all, as related to this wondrously private book, simply worth forgetting. In this novel, and despite his big fuss about serializing it in Esquire (just like Dostoevski used to do in the magazine Russky Vest-nick!), Mailer is not at all interested in advertising his or anyone else's private life. What most of the prose reveals instead is a nearly impersonal honesty about the tightest knots in himself and about the related, Gordian knots of contemporary history. This is our history as Hawthorne might have written it: just as private and nearly as melodramatic and allegorical.

When I refer, then, to Mailer's “self,” it is not to the careerist who has sometimes resembled the hero of this novel, Stephen Rojack. It is rather to the writer who can be discovered at work in the language of this novel. He needs, for his purposes, a style that prevents anything like self-advertisement, that even resists translation into vocabularies that have some public authority, like those of psychoanalytic theory. In fact, not many contemporary writers have with such audacity treated the “findings” of psychoanalytical literature—of Freud, Reich, Norman O. Brown- as only another form of mythologizing. What the style registers is the war within Stephen Rojack of health and morbidity, creative sexuality and a destructive perversity, God and the Devil, the Devil's hideout being associated in the book with the anus and the discovery of it with buggery. Rojack's acts of self-degradation are referrable less to any ascertainable neuroses within him than to the same public and political life that appeals to Mailer's own acts of self-debasement. And yet, quite marvelously, the result isn't a novel of displaced personal responsibility, as Bellow's Herzog often is: Rojack's perversities create in him a desire for health, associated here with the privacy, duty, difficulty of loving another, a desire that involves, implicitly and without cant, the acceptance of guilt for the nature of his own life and for the ruinous life around him.

Perversity is in many ways the subject and the villain of the book, or at least the evidence of villainy. One senses it most superficially in the great many disgusted and rather boyish allusions to homosexuality. Thus the kind of deception in which Rojack would have been involved had he remained (though privately obsessed with death) a public figure and politico, is compared to that of male film star idols, adored publicly by women but “homosexual and private in their lives. They must live with insanity on every breath.” Mailer is not much interested in homosexuality itself but only as one of the symptoms of other kinds of sickness within society, and the homosexual figures from his earlier novels who come to mind are General Cummings in The Naked and the Dead or Leroy Hollingsworth in Barbary Shore—men in whom there is a direct connection between sexual deviation and the destructive assertions of public and private power—rather than Teddy Pope of The Deer Park. An American Dream reveals Mailer's increased revulsion from all kinds of sexuality that are, in the literal sense of the word, degenerate, that express what he takes to be the decreative impulse, the turn toward death in American society. I cannot therefore recognize the novel described by most of the reviewers, especially the three already mentioned, claiming as they do that murder for Rojack is merely a sexual stimulant or that he isn't made to bear any responsibility for the death of his wife.


The moral problem of Rojack as a murderer unpunished by law and as a sexualist who finds murder exciting is confronted by Mailer in the opening pages, where any reader might also confront it who is able to see what is going on in the passages describing the hero's killing of four Germans in World War II. It is therefore scarcely understandable that Mr. Rahv can wonder how Rojack could know before the strangulation of his wife that murder “is never asexual.” The first of the four killings strikes a note that will resound through all the subsequent action, and does so in metaphors that shape the action here and throughout the novel. This early on, Mailer establishes the connections necessary to the impersonal and historical meanings of his work, between personal neuroses and neuroses so much at work in public affairs as to give, in the very plot of the book, a license for familial as well as national killings. What is most grue-somely comic about the novel—a really brilliant twist of plot that to Mr. Epstein is “a shamelessly shabby deus ex machina”—is that Rojack escapes prosecution for a personal crime, the murder of his wife, who is involved with spies, because, like his publicly awarded killing of Germans, the murder apparently fitted into the larger designs of international politics:

Years later I read Zen and the Art of Archery and understood the book. Because I did not throw the grenades on that night on the hill under the moon, it threw them, and it did a near-perfect job. The grenades went off somewhere between five and ten yards over each machine-gun, blast, blast, like a boxer's tattoo, one-two, and I was exploded in the butt from a piece of my own shrapnel, whacked with a delicious pain clean as a mistress's sharp teeth going “Yummy” in your rump, and then the barrel of my carbine swung around like a long fine antenna and pointed itself at the machine-gun hole on my right where a great bloody sweet German face, a healthy spoiled over-spoiled young beauty of a face, mother-love all over its making, possessor of that overcurved mouth which only great fat sweet young faggots can have when their rectum is tuned and entertained from adolescence on, came crying, sliding, smiling up over the edge of the hole, “Hello death!” blood and mud like the herald of sodomy upon his chest, and I pulled the trigger as if I were squeezing the softest breast of the softest pigeon which ever flew, still a woman's breast takes me now and then to the pigeon on that trigger, and the shot cracked like a birth twig across my palm, whop! and the round went in at the base of his nose and spread and I saw his face sucked in backward upon the gouge of the bullet, he looked suddenly like an old man, toothless, sly, reminiscent of lechery. Then he whimpered “Mutter,” one yelp from the first memory of the womb, and down he went into his own blood just in time, timed like the interval in a shooting gallery, for the next was up, his hole-mate, a hard avenging specter with a pistol in his hand and one arm off, blown off, rectitude like a stringer of saliva across the straight edge of his lip, the straightest lip I ever saw, German-Protestant rectitude.

On inspection of such a passage Miss Hardwick might want to rephrase her criticism of this novel as “poorly written” or of Mailer's style as “indolent.” To get what these sentences have to offer, one must entirely put aside the assumption that Mailer is here writing out of any vulgarity of motive. He shows instead the most intense involvement in the words he uses and in the patterns of association among them. In that long middle sentence there is held in suspension, in a neutralizing balance, materials that would in shorter grammatical units—the kind familiar in popular literature of sexual crime—have a psychological luridness which Mailer is choosing here to avoid. Yes, he can remind us of James M. Cain, as Tom Wolfe was proud to observe in the New York Book Week, but only when he is on his way to other significances with which Mr. Wolfe's kind of block-buster criticism is incapable of dealing.


Given the continuum of movement in that long, unbroken second sentence, none of the implications can be isolated; they are in an interdependent relation that is an image of Rojack's mind. And we are made to feel this even while the simple excitement of what is going on is itself sufficient warrant for the breathlessness of the narration. Perhaps Mailer planned this sentence, but I suspect it represents something better than planning, some saturation of the author's mind in what he wants to do that makes everything that spontaneously issues from it part of the life that the language has already produced. This fluidity of association is the most frightening aspect of the passage. Thus, though Rojack's dexterity of violence is first ascribed to a sort of magic, it is almost at once re-associated with the vanity of human skill in a sport, boxing, that has a strong component of homoeroticism. From this the mind of the hero quickly shifts to a heterosexual fantasy occasioned by his wound, the comparison being to a woman's affection for his rump, and from there his thoughts move more confidently to the German-soldier-as-faggot, whose “rectum is tuned.” At this point sodomy gets connected with blood and mud, with death and with something like bodily wastes, and then, from this extremity of explicitness, the drift is back again to a woman and her breast: the act of squeezing the trigger that kills the faggot is like squeezing a breast, the shot itself reminds him of childbirth (it feels like a “birth twig”), for Rojack the most creative and therefore worthy consequence of heterosexual intercourse. No wonder the cry of the German for “Mutter” seems dramatically powerful. And it is by the same token metaphorically relevant to the obsessive tension throughout the book between creative sexuality (the German's “one yelp” is “from the first memory of the womb”) and sex that is murderous, associated with blood, mud, feces, and buggery. While the allusion that follows, to the dead soldier's “holemate” (and to his “rectitude”), doesn't require explication, it has the remarkable quality, like everything else in the passage, of being so utterly right in an innocently descriptive way that its metaphoric implications seem natural rather than a result of contrivance. This is of course what the passage as a whole, the book as a whole, wants to express: that the world in which we ordinarily participate simply is a version of our most neurotic imaginings.

With such a passage at the opening, the novel nears its end in the Waldorf Towers with a proposition from Deborah's father (he is also her first seducer) to Rojack, and possibly also to Ruta, the German maid with whom Rojack committed an athletic combination of buggery and ordinary copulation immediately following his murder of Deborah: “‘Come on,’ Kelly murmured, sitting on his throne, ‘shall we get shitty?’” Though the perverse sexual desires that stir in Rojack and that he rejects are said to be “unfamiliar,” they are, as we've just seen, hardly new, and Mailer at this point is coy and evasive. Nonetheless the scene, like other mad scenes in the book, has a credibility nearly astonishing, especially with accompanying evocations, always on the verge of being long-winded and ludicrous, of glamor excessive to the point of comedy, of unimaginable wealth, and of power so beyond the control of a single man as to be supernatural. The mad scenes are endowed with the ramifications they often have in Elizabethan drama, with significances reaching into governments, into organizations—the Mafia, the CIA—and beyond into the metaphysics of power. Kelly is a man who “has strings everywhere,” and when he remarks that “there's nothing but magic at the top,” he means that beyond the web of his influence is nothing but God and the Devil. His invitation to be “shitty” is one indication, within the metaphors of the book, of what might delicately be called the side he chooses to be on in the war of heaven and hell, and the effectively discreet hints of swishiness in his tone are another. From such “magic,” such manifest power associated with decreation—with sodomy and the odors of corruption that classically belong to the Devil—Rojack struggles to free himself. He doesn't wholly succeed, his hope of freedom being in his love for Cherry, who does not live to bear the child he wants to have given her. But partly because of her he has, by the end, had what James meant by a second birth, and we last see him alone in search of an environment in which he can be that second self, traveling in the car he and Cherry had hoped to take together across the continent.


Much of An American Dream is a grim saturnalia, under the influence not so much of the moon as of the craters of the moon to which Rojack feels suicidally drawn. As a saturnalia, the book manages to create justifications not merely for extraordinary behavior but also for attitudes that, taken strictly as attitudes, would be offensively moral, even hysterically so. The attitudes toward sex, for example, are strangely puritanical, lacking any acknowledgment of the power not of sexual dexterity merely, but of sexual tenderness and of pleasures within the capacities of ordinarily able-bodied persons. Too much is required of sex by Mailer, so that both its perverse and its creative aspects are melodramatized. What saves the book is a commitment to creativity invested not in sexual acts but in acts of writing, and not even on every page, of course, but on many of them. The paragraph about killing the Germans is a paradigm in which a personal dream of creativity barely flickers within a publicly ordered nightmare of death. Necessarily this dream has no lasting embodiment in the story, not even in such a nucleus of a new society as Lawrence would have preserved in the marriage and isolation of lonely lovers, but the energy that derives from that dream gives velocity and life to the sentences in the book and the requisite courage for the exposure in the hero and in the author of all that is trying to kill it.

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