(The following is an essay written upon the death of the late, great Norman Mailer.)
When Norman Mailer died on November 10th, it was a tough blow for me. Not because I was a huge fan of Mailer's writing – I've read two of his books and found both tedious and self-aggrandizing – but because Mailer seemed to defy old age. Physically, he clearly showed the wear and tear of 84 years of hard living. His individuality, however, remained forever young, uninhibited by the constraints of his wilting body.
The last time I saw Norman Mailer was at a reading in New York City back in 2004 when he was promoting "Modest Gifts", his new book of poems and drawings. I'd recently read "Armies of the Night" and watched "When We Were Kings" and, as I found my seat in the auditorium, I kept thinking of words that would describe how I perceived Mailer. "Irreverent" was the first adjective that came to mind, then after overhearing that Mailer had had the curtain dropped on him during his last reading for profanity, I thought of "dyspeptic." But, I guess "prolific" would've also been appropriate. The guy had written for over 80 magazines and journals. He'd published more than fifteen books, attempted every literary form imaginable – even made up his own – and, of course, founded the Village Voice. If there was one thing the man did, it was write.
When Mailer hobbled out on stage, the first thing I noticed was that he was really old. He used two canes to walk. That's how old he was. He had to take a five-minute break half way through his reading just to go to the bathroom. That's how old he was. He kept losing his train of thought in the middle of answering a question. That's how old he was. What little white hair he had left looked like a garden badly in need of weeding. His body was much smaller than the barrel-chested, bellowing, ox of a man I had envisioned.
Mailer finally found his seat on stage and the chair seemed to swallow him. I wondered if I was going to be able to hear anything sitting twenty rows back. "The man is so old," I kept thinking. "He might die on stage. And if he dies on stage then I'll have to be the one to run up there and save him cause no one else in the building can run." Mailer's hands shook with palsy as he reached for the microphone.
But then he spoke, or should I say bellowed, and all thoughts of Mailer's antiquity fled. Not once for the rest of the night, did I look at Norman Mailer as old again.
His voiced boomed, a shock wave reaching the furthest corners of the auditorium. Mailer's voice was raspy and explosive at the same time. He kept clearing his throat, moving phlegm out of the way of his words. It added a majestic quality to his speaking, someone pausing at all the right moments in a play. Mailer asked whether everyone in the audience could hear him. I think that was a joke. It would've been hard not hear him a mile away. Then he told the deaf people to see him after the lecture. That was a joke, too.
Age could not tame Mailer. Fucking was the most abundant word of the night. He pronounced it with a hard, short, swift f and the rest just trailed behind like a tail – F-ucking. He said he preferred fucking over having sex because he thought it reflected the act better. His poems were splattered with "fuck-faces" and "shitbags" and "go fuck yourself, you shitbag." Age had certainly not tamed Mailer's mouth, which wasn't that surprising. But, what was surprising was that the audience laughed and clapped every time Mailer cursed. Even the man to my left woke up and started to giggle.
Mailer spoke of the American Empire in Iraq. He challenged George Bush to three rounds, best man win. "Both the devil and God are in the act of f-ucking," Mailer said. "That's why it is sublime and threatening at the same time." He was curious about Vegas's odds on Kerry winning the election. He believed that poets had better lives than novelist; they worked less and got more girls. "Stupidity is a great strength when you have a mean spirit," he proclaimed. There were the occasional reminders of his old age. Sometimes he would pause, look down, shake his head and ask, "What was I talking about?" But then he'd remember or be reminded and pick right back up roaring about jazz in the 50's or class warfare or f-ucking.
Mailer's audacity radiated youthful energy. There was nothing hedged, no words mumbled and no ideas passed over for safety's sake. When he had to take a leak he made a joke and excused himself. It seemed like a natural part of the show. The man was not old, he was honest, and when he walked without his canes you saw the young Mailer again. He curled his arms out like he was carrying a package and stepped out and forward with each leg like a football player. He walked like a rooster struts after it's been hit by a car, proud to still be alive, rubbing it in your face. This was the man who had marched on Washington in the sixties. This was the man who had befriended Muhammad Ali. This was the man who had once showed up so inebriated to a speech that he'd peed on the floor.
Mailer grew younger as the night grew older. The irascible giant infused the audience with life, no easy task considering he was speaking to an old age home. His age worked for him, adding an element of surprise. "Mailer couldn't have said that," I thought. "He's too old. But he did. And he just said it again. What? He wants to fight our president?" He railed and ranted and at the very end, let the audience off the ride with a simple, telling poem:
Why must the masses
kiss the asses
of the wealthy?
It ain't healthy.
The place didn't erupt, but I watched as all these old people used their walkers and their canes to stand and clap. And that's the point. So you're really old. Who gives a f-uck? Strut, bellow, rant, boom, and curse and no one will see you as old. Who knows, they might even get up out of their wheelchairs and give you a standing ovation.