45. God, the Devil, and Norman Mailer

“I had never been able to make a philosophical peace with the notion of spirits, nor come to any conclusion. That you might die but still remain alive in some vale of our atmosphere seemed no more absurd to me than the notion that every part of your person ceased to exist after death. Indeed, given the spectrum of human response on any matter, I was ready to assume that some who died remained near, and others went far away, or were altogether extinct…”
Thus Tim ‘Mac’ Madden, narrator of Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a New England-set thriller of 1983, written – it’s generally agreed – mainly in order to cover Mailer’s alimony payments and settle an outstanding contract with his publisher. It’s not much rated, old Tough Guys… but I love it, for all that it’s a pot-boiler, bashed out over a couple of months. (Over at Bookhugger I once called it “a divertissement from the heavyweight champ of American letters, but full of pleasures and useful tips.”) It’s almost like a dime-store compilation of Mailer Greatest Hits in its bite-sized menu of themes and preoccupations – a ‘personal’ work to that extent, but also in the way that it is about the place where it was written: Provincetown, Mailer’s elegant bolthole, a place of ‘cold sea air filled with the bottomless chill that lies at the cloistered heart of ghost stories.’
Like most of Mailer, it has an occult dimension that the reader may ponder if they care to. As the critic Lee Siegel once put it very nicely, Mailer “believes in God and the Devil the way Greeks and Romans believed in meddling supernatural rivals.” Towards the end of his life Mailer did a spectacular job of adumbrating his own very personal cosmology – his idea of an existential God, “the greatest artist”, worrying over His brilliant but turbulent creation, and opposed by other gods, including Satan, whose mission is “to keep reducing human possibilities” whereas God (He or She!) desires above all to be “stimulated by what can be learned from us.” This is why Mailer was so passionate about the idea of karma as some objective accounting of our daily levels of bravery and goodness. He always insisted that something spiritual was at stake in every instant of our lives (“Whenever we have an emotion we can’t account for, good or bad, I expect that the root is karmic…”) And, with his genius for perceiving the different persons within each person, Mailer argued that whenever we feel closest to God we are most likely doing Satan’s work – and vice versa. At any rate, this meddlesome and non-canonical Satan was certainly an influence on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.
“I do possess the freedom to enter many a mind”: so writes Dieter, the demon narrator of Mailer’s last wondrous novel The Castle in the Forest. Mailer too had that power, though he also threw himself wide open to other spirits that sought entrance. I must say I approached that novel – the story of the boy Hitler, and the play of spiritual forces upon him – with a good deal of trepidation. But I thought then, and think now, that it is as fine a novel as he ever wrote, and I would love to extol it at length. Some other time… For now, let us have Mailer in his own words on the matter; and then this glorious TV trailer for the 1987 movie he made out of Tough Guys Don’t Dance, his performance an imperishable tribute to the man’s humour. This is how I described the film in Ten Bad Dates with De Niro (2007), and I wouldn’t change a word.

“Few of the twentieth century’s great writers got to direct screen versions of their own books, and were he not so legendarily hard-wearing then Norman Mailer might have wished he hadn’t bothered. Nicolas Roeg had been circling Mailer’s 1984 novel, a roman noir set in Provincetown, written double-quick after the years Mailer had lost on his Egyptian epic Ancient Evenings. It’s a mark of Mailer’s obsessions with Marilyn Monroe and strong grass that he hinged his plot on two dyed-blonde female heads severed and stored in a woodland locker reserved for the hero’s stash. Having dabbled in celluloid during the late sixties Mailer seized the chance to make Tough Guys himself with finance from Cannon Films in return for trying to script Godard’s King Lear. The results are clunky at times, but offer some heroic efforts to convey the authentic Mailer mood by a cast of flawed stars and unsung character actors, led by Ryan O’Neal and Isabella Rossellini.”


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