Of all the Jewish American writers who have shaped our culture these past 60 years, none has been so controversial or "outside" society as Norman Mailer, who recently published his 36th book, "The Castle in the Forest," his first novel in a decade. An immediate commercial and literary success at 25 with the publication of his war novel, "The Naked and the Dead," in 1948, Mailer became famous overnight. He was nearly a decade younger than Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but already better known. Philip Roth, who was 15 at the time, was not to win acclaim for another 11 years, when he published his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus."
By 1959, Mailer had already written two other novels, "Barbary Shore" and "The Deer Park," and had just come out with his first grand compendium, "Advertisements for Myself," which consisted of fiction and nonfiction and included his sexually charged story, "The Time of Her Time." There seemed little doubt then that of all the post-war American Jewish writers, he occupied center stage.
Nevertheless, it was Bellow, Malamud and Roth who became "our" Jewish American trio: The writers with whom the synagogues, Jewish organizations and readers identified, although not always with glee nor without complaint. They were "our" authors, like it or not, but all three resisted the identification, even though Jewish themes dominated much of their writing.
Mailer, however, with little effort, avoided the embrace. He seemed not part of the tribe.
"Is he Jewish?" a friend asked me at the time.
It was a logical question, for Mailer had barely written a word about the Jewish experience in America: not about growing up Jewish in an America where anti-Semitism was ubiquitous nor about attending Harvard (1939-1943) when it maintained an unofficial quota system.
Mailer, one of the accepted 10 percent, was naturally enough given two Jewish roommates his freshman year, for segregation was the assumed custom of the day. It is not difficult to imagine the riffs that Roth would have played on that life passage.
But none of this is present in Mailer's fiction or his reportage, either.
When a Jewish voice surfaces briefly in "The Armies of the Night," a third-person portrait of Mailer as guide-protagonist of the 1967 Washington protest march against the war in Vietnam, he flicks us a comedic account of his encounter with an anti-Semite.
Mailer, one of the leaders of the march, is arrested along with a young American Nazi protester. Mailer is delighted. The two men begin to eye one another in the police paddy wagon:
"'You Jew bastard,' he shouted. 'Dirty Jew with kinky hair.'
"They didn't speak that way. It was too corny. You could only answer.
'You filthy kraut.'
"'Come here you, you coward,' he said to Mailer, 'I'll kill you.'
"'Throw the first punch, baby,' said Mailer, 'you'll get it all.'"
That parody aside, Mailer's books read as though all the autobiographical themes and experiences of his life, his journey from child to man, have been purged, as though he had succeeded in pole vaulting over his own life, landing on the other side, his imagination and literary sensibility rushing forward to engage with the present and future experiences of his life in America.
Part of this we know from his writing has to do both with his ambition and his narcissism. Mailer had written in "Advertisements for Myself" that he hoped to succeed Ernest Hemingway as the greatest writer of his generation and that his goal, above all, was to create a revolution of his time in the consciousness of his readers; it was America he wanted to capture, not the fractured experience of Jewish America, not the voice of a minority scratching at an open wound. That was too modest a dream for him, too provincial a pennant to capture. He had no time for being cosseted by a Jewish identity. That was irrelevant.
Thus he wrote in 1959, at age 36, "I have been running for president these last 10 years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began.... The sour truth is that I am imprisoned with a perception that will settle for nothing less than making a revolution in the consciousness of our time. Whether rightly or wrongly, it is then obvious that I would go so far as to think it is my present and future work which will have the deepest influence of any work being done by an American novelist in these years. I could be wrong, and if I am, then I'm the fool who will pay the bill...."
The consciousness of our time! What could be more grand or grandiose than to affect the revolutions in our century's culture -- sexual, political and popular; to be present and to bear witness to nearly everything -- power, violence and the CIA; Hollywood, boxing and our national political conventions; the march on Washington and the execution of a mass murderer; Picasso and Marilyn Monroe?
But nothing about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. No Jewish demons or humiliations. And nothing about Israel. Indeed, Mailer told an audience at The Writer's Bloc last month in Los Angeles, that when he published "Harlot's Ghost" in 1992, he had never visited Israel.
And yet Mailer appears to have maintained strong ties to family and roots. His was not a religious home, but it was decidedly a Jewish one. He was the adored son of a strong-willed Jewish mother, the Jewish prince named Norman Kingsley Mailer, who remained close and warm to parents, younger sister and relatives all his life. This included Friday night family dinners at his mother's home, at times with several of his six wives, along with a mix-and-match collection of his nine children. And while he was not shy about his sexual exploits, love affairs and the explosive role of sex in his life's theology, he also was determinedly a family man, though none of this finds its way into his books.
Power, politics and sex. War and violence. What more could he write about, you might well ask. Now, just turned 84, he has published "The Castle in the Forest," which attempts to engage and scrutinize the nature of evil personified in the life of the young Adolf Hitler. He -- Hitler as a youth -- ostensibly is the subject of the novel.
But in reality, Hitler's parents and his siblings dominate the narrative. Much of the material is derived from historical sources -- Mailer is a prodigious researcher -- with the addition of some fictional liberties and incidents. Mailer, for example, explores the historical questions surrounding Hitler's parents and comes down on the side of an incestuous coupling, not just uncle and niece as some have claimed, but he opts for the view that Hitler was the offspring of a father and daughter who were unaware of that bond.
But how to tell this story and include Mailer himself? For Mailer in one voice or another has been a performer at the center of all his novels. In this instance, he chooses for his narrative voice a surrogate named Dieter, who is a midlevel minion of the devil, partly, one supposes, as a way of setting up his long-held Manichean belief that good and evil, God and the devil, each with great and limited power, are locked in combat. It is a theme -- good vs. evil -- that has appeared in much of his fiction.
The effect of this on the novel is somewhat undermining. The novelist here is wading into territory largely skirted by historians and psychologists. Presumably we are going to consider the source of Hitler's depravity. The presence or absence of his conscience or perhaps examine the forces and occasions that helped turn him into a monster.
Was Hitler then the abused child, a product of brutal experiences? Or was it all genetic? Either conclusion would appear to make Hitler's behavior a foregone, deterministic conclusion. Or was he just one of many monstrous personalities who wandered onto the world stage at the right or wrong time? If not Hitler -- if he had found another career -- then perhaps someone else would have stepped forward. These are all possible and legitimate questions for a novelist to raise.
But Mailer engages none of these themes. It is the devil and his midlevel lieutenant who are responsible. They lie in wait, looking for an opening -- when DK (dumbkopf for God in the novel) and his supporters, here called cudgels, are otherwise engaged or are lax and inattentive -- a moment when the devil can act quickly and insert himself into the dream-memory state of a promising human. Thus Hitler is born. Literally. The book's narrator boastfully tells us that he was present at the heated, lubricious moment when Hitler's parent coupled and the child was conceived.
Later, when propitious moments surface, Dieter slips into the hallucinatory mind/body state of young Hitler, particularly when he appears vulnerable for a brief takeover. Thus young Hitler, age 10, jealous and vengeful toward his younger brother, Edmund -- who is now the adored child in the family -- deliberately infects his younger sibling with measles. It proves fatal. Meanwhile, Dieter gives us pictures of an unattractive young Adolf, or Adi as he is called: foul smelling, in love with excrement and masturbation, deceitful. But Hitler is always seen at a distance and through Dieter's eyes. The result is there is no one to loathe, to feel sorry for, to witness coming alive. It is Dieter who is alive, in Mailer's stiff, avuncular and, at times smug, voice. It all but buries the novel.
The exception here is the actual (and unintended) main character of the narrative, Alois, Hitler's father. A crude peasant figure who has climbed through the ranks as a bureaucrat, Alois is a customs official, petty bourgeois and rough hewn, with an all-consuming sexual appetite. Inadvertently, he becomes the figure that Mailer identifies with, as he couples -- morning, noon and night -- with one servant girl after another. It is the sexual jousting that appeals to Mailer, sex as some form of vital Godhead, and it is here, perhaps only here, that Mailer's charged prose achieves some of the energy and force of his earlier books. It all adds up to a novel in which Hitler, the boy, is wooden, two-dimensional and -- perhaps most damning of all -- uninteresting.
All of which raises the question: Why take on the subject? Or why choose the devil's subaltern to tell the story? It relates, I believe, to performance. One way of looking at Mailer's extraordinary writing career is to consider each novel -- indeed, each work of fiction, nonfiction, essay, short story, biography, memoir -- as a performance: The writing itself a seamless extension of the life lived. Each is a stage on which Mailer performs.
The role model, of course, was André Malraux, the writer as man of action. In midcentury America, the Cold War was everywhere; the sexual revolution and the women's movement challenging norms, social roles and behavior; our popular culture upended, Mailer the writer and performer was never without ideas or defiance.
The young Mailer backed Henry Wallace in his bid for the presidency and later he ran for mayor of New York, calling for gang members to engage in tournaments of combat in Central Park, like medieval knights. He helped start the newspaper, The Village Voice, which in turn led to the explosion of alternative weeklies in many cities, and he made several rather amateurish films. He drank and fornicated beyond count and famously engaged in violence, stabbing his second wife, Adele, nearly killing her.
Mailer was voracious. Not only did he seem determinined to rouse our conscience (and our imagination) through his charged and eloquent language, he appeared intent on playing onstage in all the day's major events. He seemed to have a different voice for different scenes. An Irish brawler's voice on one occasion; a small-town Southerner on another. He identified with John F. Kennedy; he craved Monroe; he wanted to be a boxer; a film director; a political leader. And he switched, almost seamlessly from public performance to writing. Thus, he tried on the voice of a senior WASP figure in the CIA in one novel and wrote in the third person of Mailer, a leading actor in his novel as history, "The Armies of the Night." There appeared to be nothing left for him, but to try on the devil's voice. One saw bits of Mailer as performer at The Writer's Bloc event.
Mailer at 84 is a figure with a back that curves over into a question mark. He is now a fragile man, reduced in height to about 5-foot-4. He can walk only with the aid of two canes. But the mind, the wit and the command of language are all still there, not one whit diminished. He was still the contrarian. He denounced political correctness, the women's movement, television and technology -- all familiar themes, the performer replaying old lines, almost from memory.
But then, on a closing note, sparring (as always) with the audience, he remarked with an amused shake of his head: What's good for the Jews, he said disapprovingly.
What could be more paranoid than that?
Gene Lichtenstein is a psychologist in Los Angeles. He was the founding editor of The Jewish Journal (1986-2000). More than 40 years ago, he worked as a literary editor in New York, where he occasionally encountered Norman Mailer.