Dowagiac lost a great friend in Norman Mailer

Published 11:25 am Monday, November 12, 2007

By Staff
Norman Mailer, a true friend to the Dowagiac Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, died about 4:30 a.m. Nov. 10 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He was 84.
I still have the phone number to call his waterside home in Provincetown, Mass., as I did on Tuesday afternoon, May 6, 1997, before his appearance at Central Middle School.
Provincetown was the setting for the 1984 psychological thriller "Tough Guys Don't Dance," which I read.
In 1987, he directed the film version starring Ryan O'Neal and Isabella Rossellini.
I did not, however, read his 1983 novel "Ancient Evenings," set in 11th and 12-century B.C. Egypt, on which he toiled 11 years exploring his obsession with time and reincarnation.
His third novel, 1955's "The Deer Park," drew on his early experiences in Hollywood after "The Naked and the Dead" came out and was set in McCarthy-era TInseltown. The story focuses on a movie director blacklisted for not naming names who then changes his position.
Writing it proved "agonizing," Mailer recalled. "I wrecked my health doing it."
"The Deer Park," in fact, caused him to take a respite from fiction with 1959's "Advertisements for Myself," a collection of essays and commentary regarded as establishing the non-fiction narrative style that became his benchmark.
"I thought that was, oddly enough, the first book written in what became my style," Mailer agreed. "I never felt as if I had a style until that book."
"Armies of the Night," which won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, was inspired by attending a 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam war.
In the tumultuous year of 1968, Mailer chronicled both political conventions in "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," which he sort of reprised in 1996 at the urging of George, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s short-lived journal on the convergence of politics and pop culture.
Covering political conventions is "hard work," he said. "There's a lot of swimming through the handouts."
Calling Mailer was as intimidating as phoning the White House given his propensity for public pugnacity, but it actually went much better than, say, my interview with Joyce Carol Oates, who had me confused with someone else.
The Dogwood became what it has in part because of post-World War II literary lions like Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike and Joseph Heller.
Mailer, who offered to promote Dogwood and thus became the first member of its advisory board, used his wartime experiences to write "The Naked and the Dead," published when he was just 25.
His most recent work, "The Castle in the Forest," probes the life of Adolph Hitler as told by a demon.
He approached writing as a "holdout for the No. 2 pencil," writing all that prose in longhand.
An assistant with a computer turned his words into copy he could edit with his trusty pencil.
Mailer, who wrote a 250-page story at age 9 and entered Harvard at 16 (his 1943 degree was in engineering, although he already knew he wanted to be a writer), otherwise had unremarkable origins.
Married six times and the father of nine children, Mailer won two Pulitzer Prizes, for "Armies of the Night" in 1968 and for the 1,000-page, "true-life novel" "The Executioner's Song" in 1979 about Gary Gilmore, which remains one of the most amazing books I ever read.
I also enjoyed the exhaustive 1995 "Oswald's Tale (An American Mystery)," which goes all the way back through Marina's family tree in Russia for the story of John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey.
What he said in Dowagiac Friday night, May 16, stays with me still: a deluded and overly self-righteous America could use a good "moral housecleaning."
And let's not forget "The Gospel According to the Son," which had just been released when he arrived for the fifth annual festival and slipped over to Berrien Springs to spar with Muhammad Ali.
His 30th book he dared tell entirely in the first-person voice of Jesus.
Mailer chuckled when it was suggested that asking him to name his favorite book would be like asking a Beatle to name his favorite song.