Eat, pray, shove

By JAMES PARKER  |  March 30, 2010

Raymond’s book and Mrs. Mailer’s are sibling publications, in a way. Norris’s is of course the more extensive memoir; she knew Mailer for far longer, and she was (not insignificantly) married to him (for 27 years). But she and Raymond write of him in much the same key — one of astonishment, loyalty, amusement, exasperated affection, and, in the end, completion, as Mailer goes to meet the Great Novelist in the Sky with his life fully lived and his loved ones fully loved. Lived well, and loved well? Not always. Halfway through their marriage, Norris busts him cheating — cheating serially, cheating everywhere, cheating Olympically. She is stunned, heartbroken. “Why?” she asks. Mailer, in a characteristic display of cosmic BS, chalks it up to the creative process, claiming that he needed to maintain a double life to write his CIA novel Harlot’s Ghost. The deception, the slinking about — all part of the research! “It was an imaginative excuse,” writes Norris. “I do give him credit for that.”

Norris, 26 years his junior, was Mailer’s fifth and final wife. In order to marry her, he was obliged — over the course of a few days — to divorce his third wife, then marry and immediately divorce his fourth (for the purposes of legitimizing their daughter). Not a particularly auspicious start to a marriage, one might think, but she was a match for him: they sparred, they fucked, she slapped him a few times, they stayed together till death parted them. “I used to tease him that the reason he got married so many times was that he kept running out of stories and jokes, and had to keep getting a fresh audience. Maybe there’s more truth than poetry in that.”

How seriously should we take Norman Mailer? Or rather: was Norman Mailer serious? I think that will become the question, as his work begins to sit back in the rearview mirror. He was certainly courageous, and intermittently prophetic, and he wrote a beautiful sentence when he wanted to. But he was also a great and conscious buffoon, that long, exaggeratedly straightened upper lip of his seeming to quiver constantly with suppressed laughter. Lear and the Fool at once, perhaps. I just rewatched his P-Town gothic Tough Guys Don’t Dance, prompted by Norris’s hilarious description of the film’s opening in 1987: “Nobody took it seriously, and lines like ‘Oh, man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh man, oh God, oh shit and shinola,’ which Ryan O’Neal had to say when he found out that his wife was having an affair with the police chief, were repeated with delighted incredulity. Ryan just wanted to pretend he hadn’t done the movie.”

Scripted and directed by Mailer himself, it really is an insanely bad piece of work, a turkey taking instructions from some other, more sinister turkey. On the other hand, who but Mailer? Not that he set out to make a terrible movie, but there was something in him so dedicated to exploding the categories of taste, so twinklingly committed to a deep voyage in tastelessness, that he almost, almost succeeds in bringing Tough Guys. . . out the other side.

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