“Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America”
— Paul Simon
“…the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie…but the myth.”
— John F. Kennedy
In 1960, back when Esquire was still a magazine that mattered, it hired Norman Mailer to cover the Democratic nominating convention in Los Angeles. Mailer who was young (ish) and still dangerous, not yet emotionally potted and trapped inside a set of Mailer-esque nesting dolls, let fly a torrent of words; a kind of verbal napalm or carpet bombing designed to shock and awe.
Looking back it still resonates, and yet also stumbles and reeks in places, as one realizes there’s a lot there that has no substance but sounds good, and a lot that had substance but has since lost its truth.
Right out of the gate Mailer hits a homerun, declaring first that he’s not writing a conventional political analysis.
“For once let us try to think about a political convention without losing ourselves in housing projects of fact and issue.”
More importantly he declares he’s not doing it because the truth is, no one gets into politics to tell the truth but as with a nicotine habit the purpose of politics is to drive away the mysteries of not knowing. It’s a big canvass, a shotgun blast designed to be both precisely devastating and scattershot. And it almost succeeds (1). There’s a sort of Ubu Roi “Merde” quality to it and Norman is in that opening just clearing his throat.
“…and politics quarantines one from history; most of the people who nourish themselves in the political life are in the game not to make history but to be diverted from the history which is being made.”
That’s an elegant and interesting construction. It would, even as it remains elegant, be more interesting if it were true but as with many such things, why let the truth get in the way of a good rant.
And so he starts blasting away, letting us know this is something different; something new. He says without headlines (as if to say it’s a fact not in dispute) that the convention is full of freaks, gangsters, pols, and a rag tag assortment of fixers and greased palms. This is Hammett and Chandler ushered back from their exile at the fringe of the pulp circuit and into the mainstream. This is a writer who says, I’m puking on your shoes and pissing in your punch bowl and what’s more, you’re going to applaud while I do it.
These two quotes highlight Mailer’s approach and its defects. This he tells us, will not be some massive, functional and dead on arrival official log of events – it is not, he says, a government housing project. And the very essence of this reportage is beyond mundane questions of facts – it is transcendent.
Of course Mailer can claim anything he wants but if his impressions are to have validity they must be supported by at least the truth – and that’s the truth as distinct from the facts in the Faulknerian construction. But, the greater truths which Mailer ignored, invalidate his impressions and the facts which he used selectively, invalidate his truths.
And then, to ram home the point he offers up a quote from bad boy literary street punk John Rechy, but while the lengthy quote is full of neon soaked streets and demi-monde characters – pimps, queer hookers, junkies – what really tells the tale is that the passage is from Big Table.
Big Table was a truly cutting edge magazine back in the day, that hep kats like Mailer read because it declared war on the establishment just by existing. Containing work that bridged the gap between Beat and what would become counter culture, quoting Rechy was a dare but quoting him from Big Table (2) was a belch in the face of the Eisenhower years; a big fuck you to the establishment press but not just a fuck off but a fuck off and let me into the party you squares! It declared that an alternative view point had arrived and was crashing the scene. It was a kick in the balls to the man even if it was done within the relative safety of Esquire. Esquire of course was the sometime stable for Hemingway and Mailer, ever a man consumed by shadow boxing the great bear, ever at war with the big fish he could not land, was riding two horses with one ass. Cool daddy with a hard-on and an expense account.
Not that we say this with a sense of contempt or to demean. A man’s got to eat and if he’s a writer he’s automatically in debt to forces beyond his control. The editor wanted a long piece and by god Norman was going to deliver even if it killed him, or the editor.
But for all that there’s a successful swagger to the opening. Or rather it is the essence of an opening as successful swagger. A new machine has turned the key in the ignition and Norman was going to god-damned move the gears. This of course was the beginning of what came to be called the New Journalism. The techniques of a novel married to the idea of reporting. Journalism as fiction and fiction as fact. How do you know it’s true? Because, I Norman, said it that’s how you fucking know. Norman was not going to hang with the press boys (3) who in turn were used to hanging with the fixers and ward bosses and could over cigs and cigars and booze recall first hand, stories about Ring Lardner and stories that Ring told about Fitzgerald; stories about how men like JFK’s maternal grandfather Honey Fitz, and eminence grise Joe Senior, had made deals that made men or broke them, or both.
It is worth noting that JFK’s running mate, LBJ was born in 1908. If that doesn’t make your head spin and give you a case of the jitters and shakes, check your pulse and make sure you’re still breathing. The thing about that and why it matters, is that we are still living in a world defined by men who knew people who could tell first hand stories about the Kaiser. It’s easy, far too easy, amid smart phones and all the rest of the proto-star trek technology to forget that like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, these pale riders still linger and push events that, the miasma machine of contemporary media would rather have you believe exist without antecedents.
Politically by which we mean with great ethical flexibility, assorted pols have declared that Vietnam is behind us and we’re ready again to kick some fucking foreign ass. And ass we have kicked. Not just in Panama and Iraq but in our imaginations. Consider that early 80s violence porn set piece, Die Hard, where the cops, who are fools, (riding in on the wings of modern Valkyrie – helicopters which of course reference Vietnam) declare themselves to be ready to reverse the stab in the back and this time – they will let us win (4). Notwithstanding the obvious vile echoes of a sinister moment in Weimar’s death throes, it resonates with us precisely because Mailer was one of a vast crowd that set in motion the idea that there was a myth factory at work humming in the neon-lit distance and he was going to burn it to the ground – while simultaneously declaring himself master of ceremonies for the launching of a new set of myths fresh from yet another factory in which he was invested. This then is a literary insurance fire and Mailer is not just the guy with the gasoline and matches, he’s the insurance company, the bank and the man who interviews the fire marshal.
While it’s true that the Kool Aid has been drunk if not absorbed via massive enemas or iv, the fact is the world moves far more slowly than people want to admit. It is in fact, glacial. LBJ is a figure in black and white; grainy. Old. Talk to the average millennial and they wouldn’t know LBJ from a DJ and to be fair, that’s also probably true for plenty of people well over 25. But we are still living in a world he shaped. His shadow lingers. This is in part down to media – not journalism but media – the machine that never stops; the eye that never blinks. It cannot by definition indulge its memory or be the custodian of the national memory even though it claims otherwise. It selects and thus highlights and elides in the same instance, generating the national narrative as a pixelated smear so that “the 60s” are reduced to this image or that image; this song or that speech and the greater narrative, the slow grind, the gossamer precision (the paradox of the specific that is general and the general that is specific) the sine qua non of the novel, of literature and of art is, in the Platonic ideal (5), hurled into cultural exile. The novel is too slow and requires a slower pace and Mailer’s piece runs at the red line; maximum verbal rpm. This is Mailer on speed, throttle open. Let it rip. But this style (see, On the Road) has its defects.
After the Rechy quote and the waving of the flag with Big Table, Norman indulges in good writing and poor thinking – the literary equivalent of an empty caloric rush of sugar injected right into the reptilian brain stem. He goes off on the banal and false idea that America, the new world, was devoid of history and in being devoid of history lacked a deep substantive culture. There was the Old World with its upward thrust of New York’s sky-line replete with Henry James characters, and roots that connected one to the Old World and then there was a collection of sub-cultural reference points and Norman rattles them off: New Orleans balustrades, small mansions on Chicago’s North Side, flat Midwestern souls trapped within the eternal Babbitry of Zenith, and then all of it culminating in the Disneyland whore house of Los Angeles.
This is Mailer not just waving the banner of New Yorkus Superiorus, this is Mailer as King Kong stomping across what would later be called the fly-over states to the great nothing – the Potemkin village of the modern – Los Angeles.
It is a truism of America’s national mythologies that whole cadres, of otherwise intelligent and observant people, have fallen lockstep into the binary construction that holds these truths to be self-evident. America is so new, too new, and rose from infantile colonial satrapy to senile world domination without pausing to experience maturity. And, the truism holds, the evidence is to be found in the ease with which fabricated cultures sprung up in various locales. New Orleans may have a certain quaint French charm, but it’s really chintz and an import and the real thing is superior. And the deployment by Norman of “small” attached to those North Shore Chicago mansions is designed to indicate both a dick comparison (with both New York and Norman) but also to say, with little effort, that Chicago is a crass also ran – a nouveau riche and pale imitation of the genuine article; second city then and always. That the North Shore was then and is now full of mansions that could double as fortresses capable of holding off vast armies of Saracens and Mongols, or sudden wealth lotto winners is really beside the point, except in as much as it reveals a mile wide inch deep habit that betrays Norman’s insecurities and not the insecurities of the people he’s describing.
What is more important is that while its bull shit, it’s very well written bull shit. The use of “small” is clever and devastating up until both the passage of time and common sense get their iron grip around Norman’s sac.
The truth, needless to say, is that even in the most nouveau riche of the nouveau riche there were and are stories that ricochet off the assembly line of History Incorporated. A point made, with far greater emotional truth and stylistic dexterity in Gatsby, where the traps of sudden wealth and memory, identity, class, culture and history and the entire madhouse of Americana, fell upon the empty big houses of the shore like a love letter that arrived too late, because the bride had already run away with the best man.
Norman & Co would no doubt respond that it is the essence of the novel that Gatsby is all East Coast – a veritable hit parade of New York cultural talking points which is valid up until you remember that Scott came from Saint Louis, and though he wanted to arrive, he trailed his roots with him like Marley’s rattling chains wherever he lived.
Of course, Norman was not Scott and he knew it and it gave him both the literary heebie-jeebies and motivated him to try harder.
“Seeing Los Angeles after ten years away, one realizes all over again that America is an unhappy contract between the East (that Faustian thrust of a most determined human will which reaches up and out above the eye into the skyscrapers of New York) and those flat lands of compromise and mediocre self-expression, those endless half-pretty repetitive small towns of the Middle and the West whose spirit is forever horizontal and whose marrow comes to rendezvous in the pastel monotonies of Los Angeles architecture.”
But is, was that really true? After all, this waste land of forceful nothing, this vast middle America of nothing, had already produced Hemingway (who said of suburban Oak Park: It was a place where the lawns were wide and the minds were narrow) (6) and Twain and Charlie Bird Parker and Ralph Ellison. It was already Kerouac’s America – that incredible bulge rushing and flailing under the stars bursting like fireworks and while Babbitt is one truth of it, so too is everything else. Are we to believe, are we to take seriously the idea, that compromise, moral compromise and the banality of it, the terror of it, are exclusive to the Midwest? (7) Are we to take seriously the idea that New York is hermetically sealed off except for an unexamined “Faustian bargain”– walled off like some reverse ghetto of high culture – from the vapid flatlands? Mailer may have forgotten Bartleby but we haven’t and to the scrivener we shall return.
Which brings us to Norman’s Jack Kennedy.
“One gets the impression that people come to Los Angeles in order to divorce themselves from the past, here to live or try to live in the rootless pleasure world of an adult child. One knows that if the cities of the world were destroyed by a new war, the architecture of the rebuilding would create a landscape which looked, subject to specifications of climate, exactly and entirely like the San Fernando Valley”
It’s an uppercut right to the jaw. It’s got the tone of a sociological dissertation, but the sinew of a welterweight who has landed a combo on your head that leaves you reeling. Mailer’s Los Angeles is fake and alive to its own fakery, and it’s a thing, like Yorick’s skull to be considered from different angles, and then cast back to earth with a sense of having decided the contours of an ancient and long lost world. Norman has conquered. And of course one is hard pressed to defend the San Fernando Valley. After all, bowling alleys may be fascinating in their own way but no one in their right mind would confuse them for a great museum. And yet, one is reminded of the REM line: “Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peters.” An anachronistic foul of logic you could say but while REM is decades ahead of Norman’s time in this piece, the point is valid across eras. There is a snobbery to the idea that Los Angeles is any more false than anywhere else. (Consider the 18th century European trend to design gardens that looked like Roman ruins – as if to say I am already awash in my decline and isn’t it grand. Surely this is inherently no different than a drive through Los Angeles where one can point out Modern next to Tudor next to Victorian next to Bau House and so on. After all, said Hemingway, the money could always be arranged. Especially in a foreign country) (8).
But Norman continues:
“It is not that Los Angeles is altogether hideous, it is even by degrees pleasant, but for an Easterner there is never any salt in the wind; it is like Mexican cooking without chile, or Chinese egg rolls missing their mustard;”
Well, that’s mighty white of you Norman. And speaks not to what wasn’t there in the city, but what was there that you couldn’t see or find in yourself. This of course is in stark contrast to the brutal but beautiful Los Angeles of Ray Chandler. And Chandler’s L.A. was no Eden. Romantic and romanticized but also an existential hellscape.
As Ray describes it:
“Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there were still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions…They were all rooming houses now.” (9)
But one is left perplexed by the idea that Los Angeles, Norman’s version of it at any rate, is devoid of a Mexican accent. This isn’t just not true, but is a kind of fart in the middle of a concerto; a cramp, as Mailer might have put it, at the moment of orgasm. And to go deeper still, the Chinese eggroll is of course not only a Western invention (10) but a betrayal of Norman’s New York Jewish roots. Late night inexpensive feasts of ersatz Chinese food are as New York Jewish as the Forverts and a deli. But the goyim reading Esquire wouldn’t have noticed, and maybe Norman didn’t either or at least he could pretend he hadn’t noticed.
And all of this though about Norman is also then about Mailer’s Kennedy, his Jack and the entire contraption of invention which Norman both dissected like a pro and fell into like a rube.
Take a dive into the porcine parenthetical Norman unloads like a magnificent deuce that no doubt reminded him of some culinary conquest and a publishing deal.
“…(after being with them a week, one thinks of this party as a crazy, half-rich family, loaded with poor cousins, traveling always in caravans with Cadillacs and Okie Fords, Lincolns and quarter-horse mules, putting up every night in tents to hear the chamber quartet of Great Cousin Eleanor invaded by the Texas-twanging steel-stringing geetarists of Bubber Lyndon, carrying its own mean high school principal, Doc Symington, chided for its manners by good Uncle Adlai, told the route of march by Navigator Jack, cut off every six months from the rich will of Uncle Jim Farley, never listening to the mechanic of the caravan, Bald Sam Rayburn, who assures them they’ll all break down unless Cousin Bubber gets the concession on the garage; it’s the Snopes family married to Henry James, with the labor unions thrown in like a Yankee dollar, and yet it’s true, in tranquility one recollects them with affection, their instinct is good, crazy family good)”
There is a kind of imitation Twain here, despite the staccato assault that speaks to a New York in-your-face vs Twain’s more boa constrictor approach to crushing the life out of someone or something of which he didn’t not approve. Twain after all was a border state drawl, whereas Norman is the rude report of a Brooklyn Tommy gun. And yet, the down home nicknames, the sly factual and stylistic reference to Master Faulkner, and the allusion to Steinbeck, all contribute to a sense that Norman has spread out before us and for our amusement and bewilderment, if not our affectionate embarrassment, a set of curios from deep within the American psyche. And he has done so in the manner of a man sitting on his front porch, sucking on his corn cob, but with that machine gun and the collected works of Freud at the ready. He is bridging the gap between the old, and the fossilized on one side and on the other, the feline cool of the modern.
There’s truth to it, at least on the surface, because of course there is something of the huckleberry hound to Johnson, something of the rodeo clown, and something of your well intentioned if overbearing and annoying old Aunt to Eleanor and so on. The broad stroke of Norman’s caricatures work because the man was not a fool exactly, and no one, not Symington of the back room deals, or Jack of the soon to be New Frontier could tread the public stage and avoid the inevitable process by which the actual is transformed into the mythic, and by the strange alchemy of consciousness the process is then reversed.
But it is there again, that Norman’s limitations as a thinker and thus as a writer, make their appearance. He has these cartoon characters nailed to the wall. He has the cartoon versions of Los Angeles and Chicago nailed as well. But, none of it is really true or rather, better to say, none of it is really accurate.
If they are cartoons, if the rube quality, the Snopes essence of them is real then paradoxically what is also real, what is also true is that they were and remain, potent precisely because they are authentic. The totem is at once inert and magic. And while LBJ’s Texas cowboy routine was all too true and made the clichés of Texas cowboys all too real, the fact is that Texas and its cowboys are as deeply rooted in the truth of the nation’s soul as the skyscrapers and jazz clubs of New York. The ghosts of Chicago’s North shore may be small and they may be large but only a fool would dismiss the puzzle palace of the Midwest with a yawn.
This of course highlights the danger in Norman’s use of Faulkner’s Snopes. New money clowns they were, but no less tragic than a Danish prince or a mad Moor, or a power hungry Scotsman seeking after the vapor trail in the voices of three witches.
But then, Norman is to Bill Faulkner as double A ball is to The Show.
The deeper, more interesting and far more horrific truth is that LBJ was no Texas flunky but a Machiavellian beast and a Texas flunky; a predator, as has been said elsewhere, of Shakespearean size as well as a rube. It is not that he wasn’t a caricature but rather that the cliché, the trope, the archetype for all its familiarity is not without teeth, and woe be to any that doubt the ferocity of its jaws. And while dear old Adlai may have lacked the proverbial fire in the belly, he was not stupid and this was not a caravan of Okies. Victims of history yes, and victims of their own hubris certainly, but also a cauldron of curses and schemes and deals and shadows, that would spread out across the nation and the world and are still with us.
Norman’s LBJ is all cliché and no bull on the hunt for cows that exist only as cartoon cutouts, as real as tin targets at an arcade. This is a surface portrait masquerading as an hour on Freud’s couch. This Lyndon is a fraud, a callow machine of obvious third rate political skills. A decade and tens of thousands of dead later, a nation transformed and Norman’s prognosis looks not just ham-fisted but positively embalmed in the juice of its own arrogance and condescending faux hipsterism.
Yes, Johnson was awkward where Jack was smooth. Yes Johnson was crude where Jack was graceful. And yes, there was a disconnect between Johnson’s irradiated soul and his words, but it was Norman who would come to be the rube and Johnson who would be Caesar if not Nero. Which is not to say he wasn’t a cartoon figure. But what Mailer could not see, what his arrogance could not allow, was that the bloody hand of history could rise from the mists and shape its own clay, the clay of its own echoes, and create a new form that was old and an old version of itself that was new. LBJ was a Texas clown but only a fool would look at such a clown from Texas and laugh without keeping one eye fixed firmly on the nearest exit.
Contrast this stumble with his near pitch perfect glimpse into the gimlet-eyed soul of RFK. A kick in the balls indeed, and here Norman closes in on a truth but still while he is accurate in portraying, in seeing the ferocity and determination in the man, the ruthless will to achieve and to win, he stops short of saying what would have pushed his portrait from good to the art of the historical, the epic. Yes he’s right, RFK is an archetype of Irish combativeness, and of a type that has on the one hand the polish that a Harvard degree provides, while on the other still maintaining the habits of a street brawler. This is after all the same Bobby who threw Curtis Lemay against the wall, put an arm on his windpipe and told him in no uncertain terms, that if he ever spoke to his brother like an errand boy again, he would kill him. And that mind you, was in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But what is missing here of course is that Norman is not James Joyce, and so his Bobby is not Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s The Dead, though Bobby is most certainly floating among the shades where Michael Fury was buried. This then reopens the fresh wound where Norman faltered in inventing a nowhere culture of American devoid of depth. Joyce’s Irish are the Kennedy’s and America’s Kennedy’s are Joyce’s Irish, who are themselves the echoes of an epic narrative we call Europe, and beyond that the mono-culture with local accents that turns a single day in Dublin into a retelling of the Odyssey.
And if that is true for dreary provincial Dublin, adrift on the fringe of the empire, then it is equally true for Boston. The point then is not that Boston was not then provincial and that America was not also provincial, but that within that raw new identity, one heard the echoes of old terrors and saw them tattooed on the faces and the souls coming off the boats at Ellis Island.
Who was Bobby? Let us consult the resident sage, W.B. Yeats and let us consider “Those I fight I do not hate, and those I guard I do not love…” If not exact, if not a fingerprint then a genetic blueprint of Bobby’s soul; the Irish vortex in which to yield is death, and to resist is damnation but better to take the bastards down with you then to do nothing. This Bobby, Yeats’ Bobby is already the existential hero, half mad with self-loathing but able to turn that hellhound loose upon the crowd; to summon the crowd to achieve greatness. This Bobby (and this Jack) are capable of being utterly ruthless and genuine. Yeats knew and so did Joyce. Norman, not so much.
And here a word about the other counter narrative, the left-ish parsing by the late, and sometimes missed Christopher Hitchens, in his pre Road to Damascus conversion to a believer in Dick Cheney’s liberation theology of shock and awe.
In Hitchens’ version of the myth there is no myth but rather a cold warrior masquerading as a New New Dealer; a whore hound, product of gangsters, in bed with gangsters, ready to coldly vaporize noble Cuban revolutionaries with the flick of an elegant wrist beneath cufflinks. This iteration originates with Mailer. It is a chuff off the old block (11). It is JFK as a more efficient but no less inauthentic beast and creature of the system; a more elegant and refined opposite of the same coin that also shows Nixon. And of course, again these things are not false. But these are not as Mailer and Hitchens insist, binary and exclusive choices. Kennedy as cold warrior, as pol, as gangster among gangsters, can be true and still accommodate Joyce and when at the dinner scene in Portrait, after the proto-fascist Opus Dei fury, Dante (12) screams that Parnell rots in hell, and his bereft followers cry for their dead king, Joyce has laid before us the deeper truth: neither history nor god or the secular facts are required to fit our demands for logic.
And that the Irish (like everyone else) have romantic sentimental ideas about their mythology, neither detracts nor elides the power of those myths. Parnell as a dead king need not be true to be truthful. The myth in other words, may contain lessons in grandeur but it may also contain sweat and grease and dirt, and not be any less noble or dramatic for containing those other qualities.
And before that, in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, Joyce with his lethal elegance shows us how the (political) sausage gets made (and again in Two Gallants and later still in Ulysses with The Citizen et al) and make no mistake – the hard thugs of the Kennedy machine, the men who made sure the secrets were kept, the deals were made, the men with steel handshakes and iron souls, brought those qualities with them on the boats that ran away from the Potato Famine. And when they made Boston their own, they did it with a blueprint from that Old World.
But Norman (nor Hitch) was no Jim nor was he Willy B., and his Bobby is a more simple iteration of the fighter and the martyr and the dead prince written nearly a decade before Bobby became both. The defense, if one were so inclined, would be to say Mailer can’t be found guilty for failing at something he wasn’t trying. But there’s the rub. He saw Bobby in the immediate klieg lit now; the moment of the flash and the convention with Sinatra and Peter Lawford and Tony Curtis all glad-handing, as if they were voting for best picture rather than the next president of the United States. But in that now, amid the fakery, was the all too real and in that Bobby was already ancient. Ancient Irish, ancient man, ancient idea, ancient tragedy. A man who fell out of Joyce’s coat pocket and lived in Yeats’ desk amid the sheaf’s of paper and the incantations. Freud, after all, had laid the template among the hysterical ladies of Vienna who (even if they could not themselves be laid) despite their newness, were already harpies, sorceresses and martyrs from the old pagan cauldron. And when it was convenient, Mailer could hold forth with the best of them, deconstructing nightmares and cigars, but when it was a bother, well then fuck off, and his Bobby is then a man without a past. When in truth, Bobby was all about the past and the snow that was general all across Ireland and which he carried with him in his bones and was stamped across his soul.(13)
And then Norman skips stones over the surface, dispensing with the court flunkies and the Horacio’s to Jack’s noble prince, and then tells us that he is at last done warming up and is ready to reveal the truth of the main attraction.
He gives us an extended quote from Richard Rovere* from The New Yorker. As with Rechy and Big Table, the quote serves two masters. Rovere and The New Yorker are of course the elegant end of the blunt fact of the establishment. If Big Table is a beret, scraggly beard and cheap beer and some grass with jazz in the background, then the New Yorker is an expensive martini, and a piano bar and someone you know, who knows someone who lives in the Village, who knows a guy who can get you some weed.
So Norman the literary faux Beatnik and flame throwing pseudo Bolshevik, comes home. And because he’s going to pull the curtain back and show us the truth about Jack, what better stage then The New Yorker.
But the portrait painted by Rovere ends up upon close reading to be right but for all the wrong reasons. Rovere’s Jack is witty but not an intellectual. He’s cool but essentially a political animal in a cage, whereas Stevenson is described as a kind of favorite lit professor, who would make a great president except for the need to have presidents who like to eat raw political meat.
This is one of the standard versions of JFK. Bright in the sense of a card shark but lacking a soul. A political animal brilliant at the politics of winning, but devoid of the poetry that reveals a love for success as a means to helping others, and not as a means to winning so as to be the center of attention.
There is some truth in this standard issue version of Kennedy just as there is some truth in Noman’s version of Bobby and his LBJ. But these creatures of the machine are not fixed. Rather they exist like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase; they move on a spectrum. That Jack is a better more ferocious political animal than Stevenson, goes without saying and in being said, is so obvious as to border on the banal. But the JFK who was more national blow-up doll than thoughtful, says nothing about the man but speaks volumes about those who repeat the narrative.
And right on cue, Norman gives us movie star Jack. He is the big man on campus, the matinee idol, the football hero with a dazzling smile visible “at fifty yards.”
This is the inverse of the dead-end flat Midwest. This is a cliché and a trope of other clichés deployed to tell us that JFK was both fake and genuinely fake. That is, he was a cliché, a totemic figure of no genuine substance, because the machine had coughed up a totemic figure of no genuine substance, though the experience of the machine coughing him up was itself authentic. In other words a political version of genuine imitation leather.
Except what Norman fails to see, unlike Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Hemingway and Joyce et al, is that today’s cliché is tomorrow’s myth and tomorrow’s myth is the future’s hero, and the process repeats endlessly first one and then the other. Picasso, it has been said, had in truth a limited repertoire of figures. And indeed there is truth in that but with those few figures he created a universe of types – the ancient pagan ur woman with a vaginal vase and the contemporary Catholic hysteric, who is of course the child of the ancient one and thus the mother of the next and so on. The Minotaur as victim and as hero, seducer and seduced. Thus JFK as football hero, as movie star, as prince charming, is not without substance but is instead weighted down with the tonnage of the generations. As Joyce’s Bloom is both bumbling cuckold, he is also Ulysses and so too the matinee idol is both gossamer and totemic fetish.
But then Norman almost sticks the landing.
“Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull if not for the consequences of the actions of some of these men; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation.”
This is almost accurate. The defect lies in the idea that the dilemma and the rot, and the paradoxes and the schism between the actual and the romantic ideal, begins with the advent of the media age – film, radio mass culture.
It’s an attractive scenario and Norman spins a heartfelt screenplay. He echoes Adorno and the Frankfurt crew by talking about the emergence of “mass man” the manufactured personality that finds itself reflected in the mirror candidate JFK, who is the idealized version of the mass produced man’s dream image of himself. Handsome, witty, capable, getting the babes and going for the gold. The very title of the piece – Superman comes to the supermarket – is a wry gambit designed to highlight the absurdity, the fakery of the idea that a movie star could be president, and that a president could be a movie star, because of course superman doesn’t need detergents and ketchup.
And of course presidents look like your old uncle, and they look old like portraits in wood-heavy gentleman’s clubs; they look like old Ike and crippled Roosevelt. But they most certainly are not supposed to look sexy and have beautiful wives. And Mailer swerves towards the depths when he assembles a list of previous political animals that were avatars. FDR, with his bad leg (Mailer cheats here as of course it was legs – plural – which undercuts the ancient wounded hero allusions) and even Hitler – whom he hastens to add was evil, but even in being evil was a hero to the mob that applauded his chicanery and his terror.
Except we cannot escape our roots. Decades before the first war, and decades before the emergence of the assembly line culture, the anxiety was already being absorbed and analyzed and written about. Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, Mary Shelley’s Monster, Sterne’s obsessional inability to write a story that did not interrupt itself, (or if you prefer his success at using that obsession) Dostoevsky’s underground man giving birth to the existential antihero, all point a finger at the world and say something has gone wrong; there is a schism. After all Gogol’s, The Nose, is written in a fever of anxiety in the early half of the 19th century and two views are open to us. Either it is an aberration and only of significance to Russians (and a limited number of them at best) which cuts us off from the idea of the universal human all too human, or it is a part of the whole and signals a recognition that already and early on, there was a profound sense of the jitters and shakes; of Mailer’s two rivers of culture. How did you go broke, a character is asked in The Sun Also Rises. Gradually, he says, then all at once.
“Nowhere, as in America, however, was this fall from individual man to mass man felt so acutely…”
No Norman. Dostoyevsky’s sick man, his underground man was there first. And the myth of a broken hearted America being broken hearted, because it was the great or is the great terminal case of modernity, is not true and is not just a variant on American Exceptionalism, but is revealed through Mailer to be the liberal iteration of the chronic condition. (14) This is liberal nostalgia and liberal reactionary romanticism dressed up as hardboiled honest analysis. But it is in truth, reactionary and elitist; aristocratic but making damn sure you see it’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
And then this: Mailer’s target is Kennedy. The first attempt to assassinate but maintain.
And Mailer then goes off ploughing the field and seeding the soil with all the now well established oaths. There was a moment of joy and passion and it gave way to the Father figure of the General – Ike who soothed and smoothed over the cauldron, and beneath the surface the truth slept but was there, and then came McCarthy and the return to terror, and to deny these things is to run afoul of the liberal intelligentsia in the same way a heretic would run afoul of Opus Dei. Because of course McCarthy was a malignant troll, and Ike was the president as a bank manager, and America rolled on with all the tension of a tranquil Sunday afternoon.
Except Mailer, like Roth in American Fiction (which came out the following year in Commentary) (15) misses the fire next door. The 50s were not placid though the machine claimed otherwise. The 50s were Elvis and Jerry Lee, and Little Richard and Richie Valens, and Jazz and James Baldwin. The 50s were a young Dr. King, and the machine may have claimed things were calm but they were not, and then there is the longer view. And Mailer says as much but constructs the rebellion as an underground, and that it invalidated claims to authenticity by anyone outside of the magic circle, and we say instead there was nothing underground about it nor was there anything inauthentic about the rest of the tribe – you just had to know your history and have a map that would bring you to the right neighborhood.
And so, Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, and Melville’s Bartleby say Norman is wrong; this dilemma though fraught, though often an acute ranging fever, has been with us since the first sailors set foot upon this new world and had with them, the as yet not lost capacity for wonder. And Bartleby is of specific if not crucial interest in that he nails the mendacity, the corruption, the moral compromise of Wall Street, of New York, of America, to the door of the nation’s church and proclaims here I make my stand. Even if it is a supine position of existential collapse and I would rather not is the height of passive aggression, it remains a rebuke to the claim that the Midwest is a flat-zone of spiritual bankruptcy and New York is morally, spiritually, another planet.
And then to the Beat. Mailer, hip seeking guided man missile of the true underground, knows about weed and scraggly bearded myth seekers, myth makers exemplifying the wayward undercurrent of the last honest America. But in order for that to be the whole truth, the rest must also be true and Mailer’s dead end nowhereville Midwest, his fabricated but soulless Los Angeles, must be the truth but we know he’s wrong. Not that the Midwest isn’t a flat interzone or that Los Angeles isn’t an echo of its own fabrications but that those things are no less electrified and firing off sparks than 52nd street. You just have understand the code and know how to read the signs.
That Ginsberg was genuine, and an artifact of a culture both in crisis and in rude health precisely because like an antibody, it had produced Ginsberg in response to the infection of conformity, we ask, who was Ginsberg’s father if not Whitman? And if that is so, if Whitman is to be found in the mad rush of the open-ended delirium of Howl, then in Whitman we find that the story rolls back into the mist and in the past rebounds to bring us to the present. I contain multitudes, says Uncle Walter and indeed he did, as does the nation.
So then we would see him off except, cheat, imp, pugilist and conjurer that he is, Mailer doubles back on himself to declare he is all too aware not only of his simplicity, of the simplicity of his thesis but of the fact that the hero as singular entity, and as receptacle of the communities’ unexpressed dreams, is both of the now and eternal.
But if that is so then the entire exercise, the preceding rush of words describing the falsity inherent in New Orleans as a pale imitation of the genuine French article, and the flat imaginations of dull Midwesterners, of Los Angeles as a third rate knock-off of Sodom and Gomorrah, are all lies. You can’t have one without the other.
But this cheat, this conceit has life. It refuses to surrender to either the facts or the injection of details that highlight its terminal contradictions. Why? Because Jack must be captured. He must be held hostage as either fabrication with charm or the empty suit of charm with fabrication.
For the conservatives (and ironically the left) he is a cad, a fraud selling slick bullshit covering up gangsterism and nepotism and half-assed political shortcomings, culminating in disasters and catastrophes; in Castro and the dark side of Camelot.
In this version of the story, he is feckless to the point that Reagan, himself feckless and an empty suit closer to Mailer’s bad actor than JFK, invoked Kennedy as a romantic talisman – as if to say, as I am soulless and utterly cynical, a commercial pitchman reading whatever lines I’m given, I will use Springsteen and Kennedy (16) and anything else that sells, so long as you allow me to treat them with all the reverence I hold for any other commercial product. And so the conservatives can then claim, a real politician by automatic comparison and inferred contrast, a man who was not skirt chasing and was not sidetracked by his movie star persona, would have taken care of business.
The conservative captures Kennedy as a means to deny historical complexity and social tension, and elevates atavistic simplicities to the level of mythologies, while denying that they’re mythic in nature. The liberal captures Kennedy, to create obscuring mythologies in order to avoid atavistic truths, that reveal historical complexities derived from myths. For the liberals he is the great missed opportunity, or the political baptist who loses his head but not before clearing the path for the liberal messiah and martyr to follow. But that is all. Anything else and the liberal runs the risk, as Mailer pointed out during annus horribilis 1968, of revealing his greatest fear – being accused of being a leftist.
And so Mailer constructs a false narrative. The culturally bankrupt America of rubes and conmen – the dull Midwest and the cheap whore of LA, in search of a flimsy seduction. He writes so well and in such a mad rush of verbal shrapnel that in sixty years no one, so far as we are aware, has noticed that the piece is a train wreck of contortions, contradictions and fabrications, that exceed the g-force tolerance of truth.
His JFK is at once a genuine (fabricated) hero and also a genuine lie, and the lie wins out because Mailer’s Jack only inhabits a role called hero. And in order for that construction to work he must elide the facts and summon the hit parade of every liberal talking point – Red Scares and the FBI, the Beats and weed, stodgy conformist Eisenhower, hokum spewing crude cowpoke LBJ, the advent of the media saturated whirlwind, and of course each of those things is true or reflects some part of the truth. But without genuine context they ring hollow. Or if not hollow, then like the surface of a field that appears to be singular but upon examination comes to reveal a mass of shape-shifting particles that dance and spin and twist and bend our sense of reality. They merge, fly apart and reform and we grab hold and give them names, only to see them vanish right before our eyes, and then begin the process all over again.
Alienation did not arrive in America with talkies and Valentino, despite Mailer’s self-reflexive liberal claims to the contrary. The Pequod, a floating ghetto of America’s mass of immigrants fails and catastrophe is the result. God or god’s press agent, the whale, triumphs and vanishes. Be thee principle or be thee agent, says Ahab I shall seek thee out, but the whale has other ideas. And in the end Ishmael alone is survived to tell thee but when rescued, when found floating on a coffin he is saved by the Rachel who is adrift on an existential ocean in search of orphans without hope of salvation; she is neither defeated nor victorious, but she endures.
This is a vision then of a permanent condition that does not arrive with Brando or Hemingway, as Mailer’s examples of the contemporary avatar and the hero though both are that exactly. This is a dilemma that has existed since Lancelot failed to remain faithful, and since the pagan tribes of the ancient world told themselves stories that reflected a terrifying state of anxiety. Heroes came and went, and so did villains and twists of fate and chance, and the split between the desired and the leaden reality were at war with each other. Bloody were the stages of Athens’ theaters. Dead children, fallen kings, sin and redemption, betrayal and conspiracies within conspiracies, mad capricious gods and everywhere, a blood dimmed tide.
And then Mailer doubles down on the chicanery. Whereas his LBJ had been originally dismissed as a rube, or worse yet, a bad imitation of a rube, he now reappears as a dangerous shadow, a way to differentiate Jack from the heard. Here Mailer’s Jack is lithe, graceful, a boxer quick with a verbal jab and then, courtesy of that Harvard refinement, done with propping up dull witted reporters who are allowed to slide off the ropes to the canvass, as this Jack nimby dances back to his corner.
To highlight this accurate fiction we get a new LBJ; ponderous and politically elephantine. This LBJ has a hint of the beast to come but only so we can contrast him with Mailer’s and the liberal’s cutout of Jack. For that Jack was indeed a nimble, verbal boxer, elegant in evasion, seductive in answering without answering, as if to say – see that Bobby, the viga wins out every time. And so the critics say, well then Mailer is right! Except he is at best right for all the wrong reasons. His nimble Jack is successful because he is fake. We posit a Jack who is successful because he is genuine. And he is genuine because History has made him what it needed.
This facile exchange of identities works to both make Mailer right and wrong in the same instant. Like shadow puppets projected onto a screen, leaders are both actual and illusion, and Mailer is correct to say so. But if he is certain each description is genuine and is announced without reference to the one that came before, he is guilty not only of bad reporting (a deliberate disregard for the facts) but far worse, he is guilty of bad writing (a deliberate disregard for the truth which of course may have precious little to do with the facts).
Ironically Mailer manages to mention or reference nearly every one of the greater artists he insults. He brings up Hemingway as avatar of heroism but then belittles him, brings up Faulkner but then drops him when his mighty whiskey soaked honesty becomes too much of a burden, and then he finishes with a flourish by invoking Fitzgerald by way of highlighting the inherent Madison Avenue bullshit of the Kennedy machine, all without mentioning that those three while lethal in their portraits of the broken and the false, were in the end generous to a fault in their empathy for the eternal struggle that defines us all.
But that long view is at odds with the requirements of Mailer’s Jack. The long view is opposed to the requirement of Jack as smooth conman, half hero half joke. Mailer’s Jack is a calling card to the tribes of Manhattan as much as it is a shot across the bow of Americana. This is Mailer like Roth in American Fiction, demanding entrance to the elite clubs of literary New York. This is Mailer saying New York may be Faustian but at least it’s got history, soul and spice; the spice of culture unlike the rest of the country which is all cheap candy, false eyelashes and emotional cul de sacs. Thus the purpose of the short view is to use that Jack as a battering ram against the parochial tribal blood feuds of the moment, but disguised as the log book of Valhalla.
Mailer is too good to be written off as nothing but a hack. Describing the republican convention as the apocalyptic hour of Uriah Heap is not the stuff of amateurs, but is a 100 mile an hour fast ball that buzzes the batter’s head, like an advertisement for death. It is a lethal stab that speaks an important truth.
The problem with it then is not that it’s wrong but rather, that it’s too good and in the service of a greater falsehood.
The liberal recoils at the criticism and says you cannot seriously be suggesting that Nixon and the republicans were not a harbinger of the dread to come, and of course the answer is no, certainly not. Nixon is Nixon. He remains both himself and the monster about whom Hunter S. Thompson was right to say – he was so crooked that every morning after he got out of bed, he required a team to screw him into his pants. But that argument is not the point, though it is the point Mailer wants you to pay attention to while he runs off with your wallet.
What’s wrong with the high heat Mailer throws is not that Nixon wasn’t a monster, waiting in the wings for his moment to slouch towards Bethlehem, but that Mailer’s Jack was not in truth, as Mailer would have you believe, a shallow invention borne of some relatively recent cultural fever.
He was something ancient. He is Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy, a prisoner and a hero within the vast within of the thing we call Ireland and the Irish in America. He was a high water mark in the great ethnic tribal gang wars of the 19th century. Had it not been an Irish Catholic prince then it would have been an Italian Catholic prince. His battle to gain recognition, not as a Catholic running for the office of president but a man running for the office of president, who happened to be a Catholic, is too easily forgotten or turned into an ossified historical sideshow; too easily dismissed by Mailer who was too eager himself to be accepted and assimilated. That this struggle took a recognizable form is neither an accident nor unimportant.
In that sense Mailer is again close to a truth when he says Jack was a movie star, and that having a movie star enter into politics was a shock to the system. But what he missed, and what has been missed, is that the hero is always a star but wears the costume of his moment. This is Tolstoy contra Carlyle – saying that the stage summons the hero not the other way around. He stands before the crowd and hurls Caesar’s bloody clothes at them breaking tradition, and speaking as one of them rather than as one of the elite ossified by formal etiquette. Thi is Ray chandler and the hero who possesses a rude wit; who has what we would today call, street cred. He remains cool, and an honorable man but, if you insult him, the next time you see him, you better run. But because he is the hero, even as he goes among the crowd he elevates himself above the crowd. This is part of his magic. Later he changes his attire again and he wears armor and carries a lance and again trickster that he is, he changes yet again. This is the moment of Lincoln’s death and the solemn funeral oration: now he belongs to the ages.
He is not shallow. He is old, ancient, and he has a thousand names.
In this story, we call him John and he is not only the hero, however flawed, however brutal and brutalizing, however corrupt, but he is also our appointment with fate.
(2) Rechy’s novel, City of Night was not published in full until, ironically, 1963. Earlier excerpts were available in a few magazines including, Big Table.
(3) Mailer mentions in passing that there was an odd tension between some of the press and JFK because they were roughly the same age.
(4) For the Nazis of course it was the stab in the back. For the reactionary collaborationists of the Reagan years people like Stallone in Rambo turned it into “this time they’ll let us win.” But the atavistic psychosis of blaming shadowy elites for previous failures remains the same.
(5) In Book X of The Republic, Plato, generating cred at the agora, proposes that in the idea; city state, the artists would be banished. Thus, plato as the first proto-fascist.
(6) One could make the case that the Hemingway quote makes Mailer’s point. We suggest it undermines it because it proves the paradox. The stultifying Midwest produces the genius who by being a genius both rebels against and is a celebration of the cauldron of Midwestern conformity.
(7) Another example of the previous point is made in the beginning of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This too has been one of the dark places of the earth, intones Marlow and he means that the horror, the horror, can find a nest anywhere.
(8) The scene from The Sun also Rises is a classic bit of laconic existential cool by Hemingway. Too easily dismissed or ignored it speaks to a universal quality of life albeit one described with an american accent.
(9) “Old” is of course a conditional idea; a kind of moving target as old in Los angeles would hardly count in, for example, Rome. But it is useful to remember that Chandler went to school in London (and lived at Marlow House) and was well versed in the idea of antiquities both architectural and human.
(10) There is some debate but it seems likely the egg roll as it is thought of in the US was invented sometime in the 1930s, in New York.
(11) Hitchens holds forth in a round table during the uproar over Oliver Stone’s film, JFK. As always he seeks both to verbally dominate and charm – in a British iteration of classic Mailer.The discussion can be found via a youtube search.
(12) When young, Joyce was unable to pronounce “aunti” which he said as, “Dante” and which, later still, he used as a literary piece of magic. See, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Also note that we are aware that it is Michael Fury who stands with the shades but we mean to suggest Conroy among them as a metaphor for the gestalt of Irish memory.
(13) See, again, Joyce’s, The Dead. And we take note that while this anchors RFK to the past, he clearly came to display the capacity for growth which then, points him towards the future.
(14) The liberals have over the years made an effort to reclaim the right to express their own version of “patriotism” a vague hobgoblin of an idea usually reserved for self-righteous conservatives. However, the liberals have also on occasion reclaimed the templates of reactionary atavism. For example see, White Jazz. Aaron Sorkin and the Romantic Liberals:
(15) While different stylistically Roth and and Mailer appear to be working the same side of the street in that they were both trying to get accepted to branches of the same club. For a look at the writerly sins of Roth see the following:
(16) Reagen (in)famously tried to use Springsteen at a rally and the mention fell flat. It failed for two reasons. First because Reagan and his corporate junta were spiritually tone deaf, and Springsteen’s audience were and remain mostly the left-wing side of the disenfranchised white working class. Repeating the process, or polishing the same turd twice, Reagan attempted to invoke the high end version of the JFK myth machine and as one would expect it rang hollow. The devil may be able to quote scripture but usually he does so while in costume and not while the lights are flashing off the tip’s of his horns.
*It is no accident that Mailer quotes Rovere. Rovere was a refined leftist. A graduate of Bard he split with the Stalinists over the pact with Germany – what Victor Serge called the midnight of the century. Rovere then became an “anti communist” liberal which is a baggy suit of a term as it could and does contain a wide swath of opinions from the genuinely liberal to the political mocking birds who sound liberal but when you read the fine print are clearly waiting for brown shirts to go on sale.
*Ironically Mailer, for all his self-proclaimed street cred as a radical, is initially in agreement with Eisenhower about JFK. In An Unfinished Life, Robert Dallek’s problematic biography of JFK, he offers Eisenhower’s view of the then president-elect: “Ike saw the Kennedy’s as arrivistes* and Jack as more celebrity than serious public servant…” However, following a meeting at the White House Eisenhower changed his tune finding Kennedy more serious than he had previously thought. Writing to Clark Clifford, JFK’s transition chief, Eisenhower said: “I was misinformed and mistaken about this young man. He’s one of the ablest, brightest minds I’ve come across.” One assumes either Kennedy fooled the old general or Mailer at his meeting with Kennedy at the convention managed to fool himself. Of course one should not discount the possibility that both versions are correct.
*Eisenhower’s class snobbery is a crucial key into both the mindset of the protestant ruling class and the Catholics as they not only struggled to gain acceptance but it helps to contextualize an under examined aspect of the Kennedy narrative – namely that it contained as a major theme the continuation of the 19th century gang wars between the Irish and italian branches of the faith. JFK may have been a smooth operator but he was also still a gangster. A facet of the narrative to which we will return in detail in a later post.