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It was degrading, I had never seen myself as a hero. My father--with the best will in the world--had taken care of that. But I had usually been able to picture myself as not wholly un-macho. I could stand up for my friends...I tried to hold my own. Yet now, each time my mind was clear enough to bring forth a new idea, panic soiled me. Not surprisingly. Madden gets from his childhood not a unified approach to life but rather a set of sharp reactions by which he decides whom to worship and whom to despise.
IT IS PERHAPS the greatest of the novel's many ironies that every character, not just Tim, experiences the world as a hateful siege of contrary elements. And though Tim can see this in the other characters, the perception does not help him. Mailer conveys this best when Madden describes a sleazy friend and would-be rival of his in Provincetown.
Will it help to explain that his nickname was Spider? Spider Nissen. Henry Nissen, a.k.a. Hank Nissen, a.k.a. Spider Nissen and the last clung to him like a bad smell. He had a touch of the hyena for that matter--the same we-eat-tainted-meat-together intimacy that burns out of a hyena's eyes behind the bars of his cage. So Spider Nissen would look at me and give a giggle as if we had both had a girl together, and each took turns sitting on her head.
Sexual pervert though he may be, however, Nissen is fanatically loyal to the Patriots. Tim observes that
It was disquieting. Nissen might be unsentimental enough to piss on his slave woman, but he'd lick the shoelaces of any, athlete godlike enough to play for the Pats.
Madden and Nissen apprehend the world not simply or sympathetically but indirectly through a theory of hierarchical oppositions. Other, like-minded characters in the novel agree that it's okay to be poor or to be a pervert so as long as one is genuinely a reverse snob and can believe that being at the bottom of "the ladder" is just as good as being at the top. Of course, Mailer's characters cannot accept any such proposition for long: the inevitable resurgence of desire--for status, normalcy, wealth, or what-not-cancels the values of the day before.
Mailer has produced a gripping and fully-realized depiction of the social tensions created by murder and larger conflicts. But the author has not ended anything; he has simply let his characters drop from exhaustion. Though the crimes are clarified, the real mystery of why his characters are unhappy--as opposed to how--is sketched and explored but never solved. Initially, one thinks this is because Mailer suffers from his own macho image: he does not want to wallow in moralizing. Perhaps this is the correct interpretation. But, following the theory of polarities. Mailer avoids the problem not only because he is too tough but also because he is too tough but also because he is too chicken--he has wimped out. To give an authorial opinion on what happiness is and how happiness relates to social justice and individual behavior would involve taking a political stance, and herein, evidently, lies the problem. Mailer's sexuality places him with the liberals; however, his bravado, his sentimentality, and his creed of suspicious-but-generous self-interest put him firmly with the social conservatives. Mailer is in many ways a typical American, and so perhaps America can take part of the responsibility for his confusion: on the other hand. America is in confusion in part because people as influential as Mailer are no help to them.
FOR ALL HIS posturing. Mailer is too much the sheltered child-artist to use his art to say specifically what he thinks of the Big Bad World. He is like a fourth grader who will show but not tell. Authors need not supply a moral to every story, but Mailer is not even responsible or interested enough to include different points of view among his characters. Thus the social scope of the novel is harshly limited--which is a great pity, seeing that he can work with broad canvasses. In his reflexive fear of being thought simple-minded or today. Mailer is reduced to "convictionless" scene painting, to sentimentality, and to clutching at other people's semi-coherent and mysterious goodness. Again, Norman Mailer is like a painter who can depict but not name his subject; it is no surprise that he had trouble with the title. None of this obscures the fact that the novel is good, even great. But the spectacle of a talented writer serving up musty decadence is a distressing one.
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