"The Noble Beast": Joshua Furst on the courage of Norman Mailer

In the third of our end-of-year tributes to recently departed literary giants, Joshua Furst makes the case for Norman Mailer's importance-- to literature and to the culture at large. Mailer was a major figure in the history of PEN, and you can read other tributes and reminiscences here.

Joshua Furst published his first novel,
The Sabotage Café, in August. He is also the author of a short story collection, Short People, which Jay McInerney described as "scary, funny, brilliantly observed."

One of Norman Mailer’s great subjects—as the headline of his New York Times obituary so hostilely noted—was his ego. His ego and its discontents. This led, naturally, to an inconsistency in the work he produced—a sometimes embarrassing grandiosity, a sense that he was in love with his public platform and testing the limits of what it would withstand—that left him open to legions of jeers, scoffs and dismissive chuckles. What people often forget about him, though, is that despite—or maybe because of—his misses, when he did hit his punches landed with great force.

It’s hard to condone some of his more outrageous stances. His homophobia and sexism, the way he fetishized African Americans, so many of his ramblings read even worse, more naïve, less defensible today than they did when he wrote them. And they often came off pretty badly the first time around. He didn’t seem to mind.

At times, he appeared to be courting the ire of, as he would have it, “his public.” He’d say anything, piss anyone off, search out the most scandalous position he could muster and then wait, smirking, for the counterattacks. Or so it seemed. In fact, as frequently as not, he provided his enemies with their arguments against him, chiding and flaying his own persona as ruthlessly as he did everything else. For, what can be said about Norman Mailer that he hasn’t already said himself in copious detail? He published thousands upon thousands of pages, a great many of which were dedicated to the analysis of his own strengths and weaknesses, his appetites, his hatreds, his attempts to outpace the hard fact of his own mortality, his habit of sabotaging the public image he so doggedly groomed. He knew who he was and he neither allowed the threat of repercussions to silence him nor shirked them when they came. This, I believe, took courage.

All of which is exactly why he was such an indispensable voice in American letters and the culture at large. If Mailer often willingly played the buffoon, he did so with the knowledge that this was a sure way for him to slip free of the tyranny of his own fame.

Through the confluence of good writing and impeccable timing, he found fame early and realized soon after that this fame threatened to make him irrelevant, to brand him and box him in and squelch any relevance his future work might contain. So he made an existential choice: knowing full well that the journalists and ad-men, the publicists and politicians and marketeers and everyone else who believed more in sustaining the march of capital than in the freedom of the human spirit, would never forgive him for it, he unleashed his rabid nature, what he called in The Armies of the Night, his “beast.” He liberated himself from the expectations of his fame. This, too, took courage.

By loudly, publicly refusing to be accountable to anyone but himself, Norman Mailer was able to carve out a unique vantage from which to observe—and take part in—the national conversation. With his passing, I fear, a certain important animating spirit has disappeared from our national literature. Who among our younger generation of writers would risk his or her reputation and career as gleefully and frequently as Mailer did in his prime? Who among us is willing to rant and swear, and right or wrong, explode with indignation at the tyranny that surrounds us? And wouldn’t we be more vital if there were more brave sons of bitches like Mailer among us.

-- Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Café, a novel, and Short People, a collection of stories. He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and The MacDowell Colony, and was awarded the Nelson Algren Award for his short story "Red Lobster." He lives in New York and teaches fiction and playwriting at The Pratt Institute.

1 comment:

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