Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Shadow Boxing With God

"I didn't go down. You never knocked me down."


EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com

It's been a lousy year for writers. First Bill Styron leaves the planet, last autumn, then Kurt Vonnegut falls down the stairs into darkness, now Mailer.

Of the three, Mailer was the noisiest. Norman started out as a tragic romantic with a sense of humor.

"Most of us novelists who are any good are invariably half-educated; inaccurate, albeit brilliant upon occasion; insufferably vain of course and-the indispensable requirement or a good newspaperman-as eager to tell a lie as the truth." That's from his early days at the Village Voice, a paper he is given credit for co-founding instead of Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher.

Norman Mailer was a heavy hitter from the beginning. He endured critical bombardments of his work. He was a literary brawler who dared the over-educated critics to give him their best shot. In the end, he was a lot like Jake LaMotta, bloody and battered, shouting across the ring, "I didn't go down. You never knocked me down."

I met Mailer in the Sixties when he considered himself a political activist. It seemed that even when he was speaking, he was observing, considering how he could take an event and turn it into writing. He still had a sense of humor about himself in those days. One of the first things that struck me when we shook hands was how small his hands were. Very small and very soft. Not like Jake LaMotta's hands, rough and swollen with crooked fingers. For all his desire to be a fighter, Norman's hands would have never lasted.

When we were at dinner, he was always watching. He had an eye for beautiful women, attached or otherwise. He was terribly incautious. He would make a play for anything that wasn't nailed done and for some that were. What wife was he with in those days? Eventually there would be six wives. Some actually didn't get beaten or stabbed. He wrote two historical books back then: Armies of The Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

We met several times over the years: at the McDowell Colony, some readings in Manhattan, dinner at a publisher's town house, places that didn't lend themselves to conversations. We never got around to talking about Hemingway or boxing. Mailer once said that Hemingway should run for President. Mailer, himself, ran for mayor of New York, once, back in 1969.

But over the years, nothing got to be funny anymore. The writing became harder. He wrote great books that were often unread, or worse, misread. The Monroe book was most satisfying to Mailer, especially if you knew that Norman wanted to make it with Marilyn, but could never quite pull it off. If only he had known how easy it was. Champagne, Norman, Champagne was the way to Marilyn's heart or soul, and every other place.

Norman Mailer was fascinated with boxing because he had been fighting all his life. Sparring with words, jabbing other writers, knocking critics on their collective asses.

He covered the Frazier-Ali fight for the March 19th, 1971 issue of Life. His ringside photographer: Frank Sinatra.

Norman wrote: "Training camps are small factories for the production of one rare psychological item-an ego able to bear huge pain and administer drastic punishment."

Mailer was not talking about training camps; he was talking about his writing desk, his typewriter, his lock tight mind that froze around every syllable to make it right. Even if it wasn't right Norman was going to fight every agent and every editor into believing that it was right.

Norman Mailer kept writing. He believed that his writing was more important than his personal life, so he left a lot of wreckage, but toward the end there was The Executioner's Song and The Castle in the Forest. Norman was still hitting, but not as hard, and not as often. The last time I saw him was in 2004, at Yale University. Norman was at the podium speaking, but he was still looking around. All those tired white audience faces, all those old ladies with helmet hair he might have chased forty years earlier. It was not sad at all, really. He had trouble hearing the questions but had no trouble hearing the applause. You know, Norman, white wisps of uncombed hair, taking the taking it all in with a wry smile. Even on his banty legs, you know he would have liked to go a few more rounds.

Franz Douskey, a poet and writer, is President Emeritus of of IMPAC University, Punta Gorda, FL. He teaches creative writing at Gateway Community College in New Haven. Douskey has been published in more than 150 journals and magazines including the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Yankee. A featured guest at New Haven's Festival of Arts & Ideas, Douskey's books include "Rowing Across The Dark" and "Indecent Exposure." He is a founding board member of the IMPAC-Connecticut State University System Young Writers Trust and has served as a judge every year of the competition. Douskey is also the author of the forthcoming biography, "The Unknown Sinatra."

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