Saturday, October 15, 2005

An Act of Grace.

Norman Mailer, The Time of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1998), $39.50.

There have been times when writing was considered an act of grace, a form of almost supernatural intervention in the ordinary affairs of the human imagination. ...

Jack Richardson, "The Aesthetics of Norman Mailer," in Robert F. Lucid, ed., Norman Mailer: The Man and His Work (New York: Little & Brown, 1971), p. 193.

Meeting a literary hero or a famous actor can be a disappointment. One is inevitably shocked to discover a person who is ordinary in social interaction, but still a compelling force on stage or as a voice on the page. This is part of the mystery of art. One expects an epiphany and is often left with an impression of dullness.

I have met only a few of my literary heros -- Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and the literary-political essayist and journalist Christopher Hitchens, other famous writers are not exactly "heros." I have also met or encountered many other types of "celebrities" from our entertainment culture. There are more of them every day. One of the unusual features of life in Manhattan is the frequent sighting of famous faces in places like coffee shops or grocery stores.

At the Time Warner building in Columbus Circle, I saw a world famous actress -- one of the most beautiful women in the world -- riding down a long and very slow escalator. I was moving up on the escalator next to hers. We were almost face-to-face at one point when, without missing a beat in the conversation with the people that she was with, she saw me -- really saw me -- taking in my particularity, offering the merest hint of an acknowledgment. The intense scrutiny directed at me suggests a powerful actorly curiosity about interesting "specimens," such as myself. I felt like a frog about to be dissected in a high school biology class.

The surprise I found in that familiar and lovely (yet strong) face, is the intelligence and authority that she projects. Her public persona is clownish, but this is not a woman you ever want to try to bullshit. Her body language is defensive, which makes sense for someone in her position. There is a toughness in her manner that is usually missing from her screen persona. This suggests that no movie role has yet allowed for an expression of all of the aspects of her personality.

I planned for days to see Norman Mailer at a signing ceremony in a bookstore, having read his work for years. Call me Virgo. Virgo rose early that morning, though the signing would not take place until evening. He was tired. He was working on an essay that had stagnated with a discussion of the technicalities of linguistic philosophy. Virgo faced that familiar difficulty of mastering the details of an argument that he rejected, coping with the seductiveness of sharing the philosophical space of another mind, whose "fundament" (fundament is an important word for Mailer) was hostile to Virgo's own theoretical foundations, if still attractive by its power and elegance.

You cannot absorb another person's philosophy and try to match or defeat it, without also stealing a little of its power. This is an insight that explains some of early man's concern to take a physical part of a defeated enemy or a weapon, as a trophy or prize ... a heart, scalp, or possibly something more symbolic these days. Maybe today's winner in a struggle between two Alpha males in suburbia gets the best parking spot.

Virgo arrived early to pick up several copies of Mailer's books for signing, chatting with other admirers, while scoping out the talent in the room. There were several attractive women, but they seemed angry. They were waiting to ambush the aging lion, so as to confront him with his "misogyny." I was hoping for a ringside seat. To mix my metaphors, if this was to be a bear baiting contest, then I was betting on the "gray" bear -- even if I agreed with the women on the merits of the issues.

Sympathy is a mystery. You have to fight for your friend in a tavern brawl, even if you kick his ass afterwards for getting you both into trouble in the first place. Men.

Do women understand such things? "You and your friends are so childish!" My response: "when you're right, you're right. In fact, even when you're wrong, you're right." I make it a point to agree with the women who matter to me, regardless of what they say, because all of them are tougher than I am -- and much tougher than Mailer will ever be. Worse, they're usually right in their criticisms, even if they fail to understand why we sometimes have to be childish in order to hang on to what they love most about us.

True to form, Mailer arrives with a beautiful woman on each arm: one is his wife, Norris Church Mailer and the other a model or actress whom I do not recognize. The Pulitzer and National Book Award winner's hair is now completely white, he is walking with a cane because of a knee injury, and yet the impression is youthful, quietly vigorous. Mailer is about my height, 5,' 8" or slightly less, but only in physical stature. In every other way, he is bigger than I am or than most of us can hope to be.

Mailer can still go a few rounds with you and -- if you drop your right -- he may well nail you with a solid punch to the jaw that drops you. Never take him lightly. As fighters get older, they all become punchers because they can't dance as much. Mailer must still be fearsome on the ropes, like Marciano or Frazier working on the body of an opponent.

He banters with the women who have come to harass him. He handles the predictable objections with a deft touch, with wit and some charm. They are unpersuaded, but willing to listen. He is not to be taken lightly by them. It is unresolved whether they can think beyond their platitudes and jargon. With someone like Mailer, they will have to. With me too, I hope.

Mailer speaks for about fifteen minutes and does the obligatory "buy this book" routine. We form a line to get signatures for our first editions. As I approach, I catch his eye and we smile at one another. We chat about his "Open Letter to Fidel Castro" and he tells me that he met Castro. We like each other right away. The impression is too strong to be mistaken. There is real warmth between us. For a few moments, the surroundings are forgotten and we both realize that, if we met in a bar or at a party, we might become friends. Maybe we did become friends. An encounter with a very famous musician and a discussion of his work was the only other time that I felt I had an impact on someone world famous shortly before his death.

Mailer is pressured by a bookstore employee to move on with the crowd, but he takes the time to write something in Spanish for me and to spell my name correctly, not just signing the book. We exchange comments of a personal nature, thereby creating a subtext that says: "We see each other." He then bursts into a smile and I realize that the blue eyes of the writer -- call him "Aquarius" -- whatever his age, are those of the kid in high school who always got you into trouble and managed to escape unscathed. Then I realize that I am also smiling. A secret is shared. Male bonding. On the subway train going home, I open the book and read the final paragraph of the Foreword:

"... So I can have the hope that this book may stimulate your sense of our time, and will even offer its marrow to all the years in which so many of us have met as friends and antagonists, as fools and philosophers, witnesses and protagonists, alive in our actions and upon occasion rich in our power to meditate upon the perversities and wonders of our world, our arena. In effect, this is a book that nearly all of us have created in our own minds; each book vastly different yet still related by the web of history, the style of our lives, and the river of becoming that we refer to by the most intimate and indefinable of words, the most mysterious word of them all -- time. Time!"

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