November 10, 2007

Southpaw Grammar

Norman Mailer, the bad boy of American letters, died this morning. By sheer coincidence, this past week I had picked up Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer's guided tour of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. It's not as strong a book as its predecessor, Armies of the Night, but the beginning is sufficiently terrific that it sucked me in for about a hundred pages before the seams started to show. The opening paragraph is worth quoting in full:
They snipped the ribbon in 1915, they popped the cork, Miami Beach was born. A modest burg they called a city, nine-tenths jungle. An island. It ran along a coastal barrier the other side of Biscayne Bay from young Miami—in 1868 when Henry Lum, a California 'forty-niner, first glimpsed the island from a schooner, you may be certain it was jungle, cocoanut palms on the sand, mangrove swamp and palmetto thicket ten feet off the beach. But by 1915 they were working the vein. John S. Collins, a New Jersey nurseyman (after which Collins Avenue is kindly named) brought in bean fields and avocado groves; a gent named Fisher, Carl G., a Hoosier—he invented Prestolite, a millionaire—bought up acres from Collins, brought in a work-load of machinery, men, even two elephants, and jungle was cleared, swamps were filled, small residential islands were made out of babybottom mud, dredged, then relocated, somewhat larger natural islands adjacent to the barrier island found themselves improved, streets were paved, sidewalks put in with other amenities—by 1968, one hundred years after Lum first glommed the beach, large areas of the original coastal strip were covered over altogether with macadam, white condominium, white luxury hotel, and white stucco flea-bag. Over hundreds, then thousands of acres, white sidewalks, streets, and white buildings covered the earth where the jungle had been. Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic hair with adhesive tape for fifty years? The vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas. Ghosts of expunged flora, the never-born groaning in vegetative chancery beneath the asphalt came up with a tropical curse, an equatorial leaden wet sweat of air which rose from the earth itself, rose right up through the baked asphalt and into the heated air which entered the lungs like a hand slipping into a rubber glove.
I think Mailer's prose is a great example of how compositional style and compositional intent are two different things. It's odd to call writing that extravagant efficient, exactly, but look how much Mailer crams into that paragraph: a little history lesson, a lapidary sense of place, a quirky theory of archaeology and atmosphere, and, lest we forget who's writing, an outrageous simile tossed in like a drum break. His oversized personality oozes from every phrase, but, unlike a lot of similar writers, Mailer's always telling you stuff, showing you stuff, because he never forgets that he has stuff to show you. Sometimes the style works with the intent—notice how the breezy swagger lets him compress all that history into telegraphed details. But where the two are at odds, the intent trumps the style; later in the same chapter, in place of a baroque description of Miami Beach's slightly stale, old-movie neverland glamour, Mailer just tells you the names of all the hotels, which ends up being more evocative than any description, anyway.

Some of the things Mailer had to say throughout his career were more profound than others, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him that was a mere stylistic exercise—having something to say was the driving force behind everything he wrote. I was never a particularly rabid Mailer fan, but in retrospect, his work has a lot of the attributes I like in music: ambition, risk, a sense of the absurd, but most of all, a two-way street between creator and audience. Mailer never adopted a pose of indifference; his literary persona, at least, cared very much whether you liked him or not, but at the same time, was honest enough to not pretend to be something other than he was. The best art doesn't pander, nor does it hide its intent behind a stylistic cushion. Mailer told you what he thought, the way that he thought it, and hoped for the best. He often made me want to throw the book across the room—but I'd still pick it up and finish it.

1 comment:

sfmike said...

A friend made me read "The Deer Park" in the 1970s even though I didn't want to read any Norman Mailer. The book is so great it changed the way I looked at the world, but oddly enough it didn't make me want to read anything else by the guy.

But since I finally finished "Against The Day," it's time for "Harlot's Ghost," his 1,000 page tome about the CIA, which according to a few writers I trust is the ONLY book that really explains the whole sick world mess we're in via Washington, DC.