by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
November 11, 2007
A MAN OF MANY WORDS, MANY BOOKS, MANY FRIENDS
BRADENTON, Fla. -- "I really like your handshake," Norman said. "Do you mind if I just stand here and shake your hand?" I don't remember what I said, but we stood there for a few seconds, and then a very, very strange thing happened.
In front of me, from my perspective, a vision of the man exploded in front of me. I was looking at a man made of books, not all of them quite perfectly formed but as a whole, yes, a man made of books. I stared for what seemed four or five seconds, and then it disappeared. Norman Mailer was across the room, talking to someone else.
That was at Elaine's, where Mailer had once punched a hole in the wall that was now covered up by a flier, maybe for a Rip Torn play down in the Village. I saw that play, too, The Deer Park, and like everyone in New York I read everything Mailer wrote with as much urgency as I read draft notice. Norman Mailer, who said that when he stabbed his wife with a penknife and got sent to Bellevue, "If you use a knife, it means you love her," was my hero. On that night I was writing a piece on spec for Esquire, where I worked in 1973, and Elaine Kaufman, a wonderful proprietress, had been kind enough to introduce us.
As a founder of the Village Voice, which gave me the first real break I got in this business, Mailer was the leading literary light of the generation just before mine, the one that had fought World War II and won it - the last war we ever won - and written about it with a calm but overwhelming energy. His "The Naked and the Dead," along with Hemingway's work, defined that war for readers and has never been equalled.
Not too many months later, i was cast in a play by the great nouveau opera creator, Robert Wilson, and it was playing to very large and influential crowds for just four days at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was 12 hours long, and my part was in the seventh act. Unfortunately, that Saturday night show was on the same night as Lucian K. Trucott's "Old Voice Crowd Party," and I couldn't miss that. Since the play was so long, though, I thought I could skip out and make the party at his loft on Houston St. and take a can back to the play before my appearance was due.
Norman Mailer was rthere that night, and I told him about my experince with the man of books. "That sounds like me," he said. And in another part of our brief conversation, he told me he liked my work for the Voice. That was probably the supreme moment of my journalistic career. It was the last iof my operatic career, however, as Robert Wilson had to do my part; I stayed at theparty. It was the night I met Jim Goode, the quirky editor who has been executive editor of both Penthouse and Playboy, and would later run the most difficult piece I ever wrote in a magazine called Film News International, and many months after he'd become Larry Flynt's man at the new investigative magazine Rebel, which had folded and gone into bankruptcy, the trustees sent me $500 that saved me from eviction and eventually allowed me to be able to start The American Reporter at the same address..
My conversation with Mailer that night ended when I saw my friend Paul Goodman. Paul was the author of several well-thought-of, very truthful investigative books about Wall Street that never got the audience they deserved. But in real life he ould be something of a boor, and I was someone who always humored him whenever he stopped by the Lion's Head, the watering hole of the rougher half of the New York writing community, where guys like Joe Flaherty and Vic Ziegler, Larry Merchant and Pete Hammill held court. Barney Rossett of Grove Books and the founder of Mad Magazine, William Gaines, Voice writers Nick Browne and Paul Schiffman, baseball's poet, Joel Oppenheimer, and others were some of the greatest conversalionalists I ever met. Paul would break into a conversation like he had just started it, and we let him, but at the party I saw him coming through the crowd with his hand raised like the prow of a ship bearing down on the precious (to me) conversation I was having with Mailer, and I just gave up. He took my place an instant later. And when he died of an apparent suicide a few years later, I was glad he'd had the chance.
I had a dream just last night, one of those that don't make much sense but that keep on coming when you think you've woken up and chased it away. In it, a disembodied voice was floating over the shelves of a library, and someone was murmuring treatises and commentaries to my unsconscious in huge verbal paragraphs that flowed on and on, quite euphoniously, quite cogently, quite well and clearly but barely available to my analysis. (I went to see his analyst once; of course, we talked about me.) Today, when I learned of his death, I thought of the man of books. How sad it is that he is gone, that in a digital age his may become a trailing voice far in the distance, unheard except by the sleeping and the old. I am nearly both. My mom died a year ago today, and at Mass for her Saturday afternoon, the priest said to celebrate her entry into Paradise. Norman Mailer won't be happy there, but the soul-starved will be jubilant.
All of this occurred before the years of his greatest fame, when he told the story of a ruthless killer named Gary Gilmore with such power he won another Pulitzer Prize. In "Armies of the Night," "The Prisoner of Sex" (which helped save Esquiire) and other enormously influential books, he more than lived up to the idea of a man who would write a book called "Advertisement for Myself," befriend John Kennedy, run for Mayor of New York with Jimmy Breslin (a graceful writer and gracious man who once quoted one of my Voice stories to me), and spend his seed among six beautiful wives and countless lucky women, most of whom never complained. He made movies, loved to get in or watch a fight, drank when he felt like it, and said that each use of LSD wasusing up a part of your soul - enough to caution the would-be hippie in me.
I really don't care when he was born, like Adam, only that he died yesterday not even long enough to stop floating above the book stacks in my dreams, always telling the story of his good, growling world.
Joe Shea is the author of "Revolution!." "On the Doorstep" and "The Gate," among other lost and unpublished novellas. He is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter.