Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tough Guys Don't Die

(Mailer's death cab. Thanks to MP in P-town.)

Norman Mailer died yesterday and with him, a great chunk of literary machismo. And I mean that in the most fawning way possible. Even into his 80s he was taking on the likes of God and NYTimes book deity Michiko Kakutani. After my recent trip to Utah, I'm currently re-reading Executioner's Song, which is simply badass. Tough Guys Don't Dance is my favorite though--a noir novel set in Provincetown, where Mailer lived in a pretty brick box on the Bay. I lived there too, for a little while after college, and used to run into Mailer at Michael Shays, the restaurant where I waitressed and barkept. A couple of line cooks there talked about the crazy parties Mailer's son used to throw at the house. About how they used to break in when they were underage specifically to raid Mailer's impressive liquor cabinet. If I'm remembering correctly, the cooks were fascinated by the amount of naked-lady art in Mailer's house and were almost caught by him once, as they stood with bottles of his stolen tequila stuffed into their backpacks, transfixed by a titillating sculpture in his front hall.

Here's the AP article from the Eastern Iowa Gazette, with some extra local flavor in the last few paragraphs. My reporter friend Adam called yesterday, remembering something I'd told him once about Mailer and quoted me on it for the paper. It's pretty awesome and hilarious that, after all the famous writers and intellectuals they talk to about Mailer, in the local version of the story, I get the final word. I'm glad. The way a man tips says a lot about that man, which is why Mailer will always be A-OK in my book.

Author Norman Mailer dies at 84
NEW YORK (AP) — Norman Mailer, the pugnacious prince of American letters who for decades reigned as the country’s literary conscience and provocateur with such books as “The Naked and the Dead” and “The Executioner’s Song,” has died at the age of 84.
Mailer died Saturday of acute renal failure at Mount Sinai Hospital, J. Michael Lennon, the author’s literary executor and biographer, said.
“He was a great American voice,” said a tearful Joan Didion, author of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and other works, struggling for words upon learning of Mailer’s death.
From his classic debut novel to such masterworks of literary journalism as “The Armies of the Night,” the twotime Pulitzer Prize winner always got credit for insight, passion and originality.
Some of his works were highly praised, some panned, but none was pronounced the Great American Novel that seemed to be his life quest from the time he soared to the top as a brash 25-year-old “enfant terrible.” Mailer built and nurtured an image over the years as bellicose, street-wise and high-living. He drank, fought, smoked pot, married six times and stabbed his second wife, almost fatally, during a drunken party.
He had nine children, made a quixotic bid to become mayor of New York City on a “left conservative” platform, produced five forgettable films, dabbled in journalism, flew gliders, challenged professional boxers, was banned from a Manhattan YWHA for reciting obscene poetry, feuded publicly with writer Gore Vidal and crusaded against women’s liberation.
Mailer had numerous minor run-ins with the law, usually for being drunk or disorderly, but was also jailed briefly during the Pentagon protests in the late 1960s. While directing the film “Maidstone” in 1968, the self-described “old club fighter” punched actor Lane Smith, breaking his jaw, and bit actor Rip Torn’s ear in another scuffle.
But as Newsweek reviewer Raymond Sokolov said in 1968, “In the end, it is the writing that will count.” Mailer, he wrote, possessed “a superb natural style that does not crack under the pressures he puts upon it, a talent for narrative and characters with real blood streams and nervous systems, a great openness and eagerness for experience, a sense of urgency about the need to test thought and character in the crucible of a difficult era.” Norman Mailer was born Jan. 31, 1923, in Long Branch, N.J. His father, Isaac, a South Africa-born accountant, and mother, Fanny, who ran a housekeeping and nursing agency, soon moved to Brooklyn.
Mailer earned an engineering science degree in 1943 from Harvard University, where he decided to become a writer, and was soon drafted into the Army. Sent to the Philippines as an infantryman, he saw enough of soldiering to provide a basis for his first book, “The Naked and the Dead,” published in 1948 while he was a postgraduate student in Paris.
The book became a best seller, and Mailer returned home to find himself anointed the new Hemingway, Dos Passos and Melville.
Buoyed by instant literary celebrity, Mailer embraced the early 1950s counterculture, defining “hip” in his essay “The White Negro,” allying himself with Beat Generation gurus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and writing social and political commentary for the Village Voice, which he helped found. He also churned out two more novels, “Barbary Shore” (1951) and “Deer Park” (1955), neither embraced kindly by readers or critics.
Mailer turned reporter to cover the 1960 Democratic Party convention for Esquire and later claimed, with typical hubris, that his piece, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” had made the difference in John Kennedy’s razor-thin margin of victory over Republican Richard Nixon.
While Life magazine called his next book, “An American Dream” (1965), “the big comeback of Norman Mailer,” the author-journalist was chronicling major events of the day: an anti-war march on Washington, the 1968 political conventions, the Ali-Patterson fight, an Apollo moon shot.
His 1968 account of the peace march on the Pentagon, “The Armies of the Night,” won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and was listed in the top 20 on a 1999 New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century.
When he covered the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago for Harper’s Magazine, Mailer was torn between keeping to a tight deadline or joining the anti-war protests that led to a violent police crackdown. “I was in a moral quandary. I didn’t know if I was being scared or being professional,” he later testified in the trial of the so-called Chicago Seven.
Jorge Herralde, editor of Mailer’s Spanish publishers, Anagrama, said Saturday that Mailer was a titan of literature who, like Kafka, was never awarded a Nobel Prize. “He surely had too excessive a profile for that award,” Herralde said.
Mailer’s personal life was as turbulent as the times in which he lived. In 1960, at a party at his Brooklyn Heights home, he stabbed his second wife, Adele Morales, with a knife. She declined to press charges, and it was not until 1997 that she revealed in her memoir how close she had come to dying.
His other wives were: Beatrice Silverman, Lady Jeanne Campbell, Beverly Bentley, Carol Stevens and Norris Church. He had five daughters, three sons and a stepson.
“He had such a compendious vision of what it meant to be alive. He had serious opinions on everything there was to have an opinion on, and everything he had was so original,” friend William Kennedy, author of “Ironweed,” said.
Mailer spoke in Iowa City at least twice in the 1990s, both times at events sponsored by the UI Writer’s Workshop.
Susan McCarty, a 30-yearold Iowa City native who now works for a publishing company in town, regularly waited on Mailer at a restaurant on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where she lived after she graduated from college.
“Every Friday he would come in for the prime rib special and I’d serve him a whisky sour and a prime rib,” she said.
People at the restaurant left him alone, but everyone recognized him. “You couldn’t help — when he walked down the street or walked into the restaurant — but look at him,” McCarty said. “He commanded everyone’s attention.” She said they didn’t have any long chats while she was taking his orders or bringing his drinks, but he was quiet, unassuming and kind to her.
“He was a great tipper,” she said.
In “Advertisements for Myself” (1959), Mailer promised to write the greatest novel yet, but later conceded he had not. Among other notable works: “Cannibals and Christians” (1966); “Why Are We in Vietnam?” (1967); and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” (1968).
“The Executioner’s Song” (1979), an epic account of the life and death of petty criminal Gary Gilmore, won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
“Ancient Evenings” (1983), a novel of ancient Egypt that took 11 years to complete, was critically panned.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

#100: Let's Start It Off With A Positive Jam

So I guess this is the 100th post on my blog which just makes me feel old. I mean, the whole thing started with the Republican National Convention in 2003. Jesus.

The point is: I complain a lot on this blog, which can be a downer and is certainly annoying. That’s why I’d like to take this time out tonight, while I’m spectacularly drunk--but STILL not smoking cigarettes thank you--to appreciate a group of people I do love dearly: my local video rental store guys.

Let’s start with the basics: My local video rental store is three blocks from my house. And it’s independent. And, even besides the fact that some of the employees seem to be making a zombie horror movie trilogy (who isn’t these days? Also: hot.), I love the staff of the local video rental place (LVRP) because, for one, they are just so doggone cute. It’s as if they were all cast to play the same role in the same movie--local video rental place guy (of course)--but they all got different casting sheets. One says, “Smart and nerdy antisocial Tarantino type,” and another: “adorably chubby film-geek reprise of Jack Black in High Fidelity,” yet another ‘Twee leading-man role in romantic comedy about cool girls who don’t get laid much.” Seriously, it is almost frightening how movie-hot all the LVRP guys are. I mean, they could make a calendar. The best part is they have no idea how cute they are and yet, for some reason, they all seem to follow proper hygiene and grooming techniques. Let me not beat around the bush when I say: this is a first in LVRP staffing across the country.

Also: they’re nice. It would be so so easy for them to play to type here. All my LVRP guys are already cute. Do they really need to be kind too? Probably they should be having hour-long conversations about the best “Blade Runner” re-cut (10 or 15 years? Analogue or digital?) at any given moment including the ones where perfectly nice people who couldn’t give less of a shit about Ridley Scott are trying to rent movies. But for some reason, they don’t. I swear--try to rent three seasons worth of Sex and the City episodes, and some adorable LVRPer is more likely to tell you which of the four friends is his favorite rather than dead-eye you into embarrassed consumer submission. Ask what the difference is between “Catch and Release” and “The Last Kiss” and the LVRPers will tell you in terms fair yet slightly breathless, as if they were finally able to divulge to you a Hollywood secret after years of unbearable silence.

They just know. Sometimes I walk in wanting nothing more than a shitty straight-to-DVD romantic comedy and I am always treated with the utmost respect from the cutie behind the counter. Sometimes, like tonight, I walk in drunk, practically cross-eyed, and I throw “Disturbia” on the check-out counter, and say something stupid and boozy like “I give up,” and the LVRP guy totally gets me and laughs and rings me up for less than the charge of a new rental, late fees forgiven, just because.

Dude, you guys are the fucking best.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Politics, as Usual (Or, What I'm Doing With My Sunday Morning To Take My Mind Off The Cigarettes I Really Want to be Smoking Right Now)

Yeah, so I quit last week with the help of Chantix. It's at once easier and harder than I thought it would be. Harder in the abstract (unless I'm actively reading something that really interests me, cigarettes are basically all I've been thinking about for the past week), easier in practice (when I'm hanging out with smokers, I have no problem declining a smoke--this is because Chantix works by blocking the pleasure-receptors in the brain that nicotine hooks on to. Basically, smoking right now gives me absolutely no pleasure or rush. It's just mechanical--inhaling smoke and blowing it out, which, when you get right down to it, is a gross waste of time, no? But don't get me wrong. I'm incredibly annoyed at this drug for working.) So, I'm going to write a little about politics right now, something I've been avoiding since moving to Iowa; the air has bascially been thick with it since last spring. The Eastern Iowa Gazette, where I had my brief but wonderful obituary-writing stint this summer, had a huge front page story last week headlined (I'm paraphrasing) "Okay, Everyone Is Really Sick of Politics Right Now."

I don't know what the campaigns are like in the rest of the country (or even in the rest of Iowa--there seem to be a lot of Ron Paul supporters in Des Moines. WTF, Des Moines?) but blue Johnson County is and has been for awhile, in the grips of campaign madness, mostly of the Democrats variety. And though John Edwards seems to be around all the time (here again on Monday to talk about foreign policy) the race locally and nationally is undoubtedly Clinton v. Obama. In fact, with our human love of binary opposites, I really could not envision the race for the Dem. candidate to boil down to any but these two. They are, of course, superfically opposites: a black man, a white woman; an urban community organizer, a wealthy suburban commuter. And certainly of all the Dem. candidates, they have already become iconic--more than the sum of their political parts in the public eye. I would venture to say that even Giuliani, the most iconic of the Rep. candidates, does not have the cult-of-personality pull of these two. Even in the politcally irrelevent University of Iowa homecoming parade, the Clinton and Obama parade blocks were the largest and most vocal.

But back to binaries: Clinton and Obama have risen to this status perhaps precisely because they've had each other to play off and answer to in debates. While they are surface opposites, they are also ideological opposites (or at least that's what the media would have us believe, and because it's the media asking the questions and writing the stories, this opposition is what's come to pass--certainly Obama and Clinton have similar opinions about most political issues, compared to, say, either one of them vs. Kucinich). In the NYTimes Magazine today, there is an interesting article, written mostly from the Obama side, that supports the simplification of these ideological differences and comes up with this:

Clinton = old school
Obama = new school
Clinton = cynicism
Obama = idealism
Clinton = experience
Obama = inexperience
and, perhaps the simplest of all:
Clinton = fear
Obama = hope.

I mean HOPE is literally one of Obama's campaign posters. But fear...fear rings of Bush and Cheyney. Is Clinton riding our post-9/11 fear? I don't think so. The NYT Mag article points out that she answers questions about war and terrorism in the ways that you'd expect most seasoned campaigning politicians to: with acceptable test-driven rhetoric and careful fence-sitting. Obama, however, is exciting because he dares to say Yes and No. No, I wouldn't use nuclear weapons on Pakistan. Yes, I would meet with leaders of unfriendly nations in the first year of my presidency.

Anyway, I'm rambling (too much coffee this morning) and probably stating the obvious (as I try to keep my fingers typing to distract me from pulling a smoke from the pack a neighbor left sitting on our porch last night) but I really think what this race for the Dem. contender will come down to is not whether people would rather vote for a white woman or a black man, but whether people will vote for someone who is saying the reassuring politician-type things they've been hearing all their lives, or take a chance on someone who seems to have a different outlook. I don't want to overstate this or make it sound so dramatic, but it will, ultimately, be a race about the ideological future of this country, possibly for generations to come. With civilians making no sacrifices during the Iraq War, we're never going to see an organized effort to influence the government through protest or grass roots organizing--there just isn't an incentive for most people, sad as that is to say. Therefore, unfortunately, a change in foreign and domestic policy will have to come from the top, and will only happen if someone is elected who has no stake in the old wars, isn't tied to old financial scandals and lobbies contrary to their stated political beliefs, someone whose "inexperience" may be the only hope for a nation that seems to be slipping day-by-day into an economic and diplomatic abyss.

So anyway, I guess you know who I'm voting for now in the caucuses. Read that NYT article! It's good.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Your Kids Are Not Cute, Interesting or Important

(With apologies and exceptions to Jack, Henry and Aiden, whose mommies and daddies would not behave like this in the first place.)

So, I'm going to yoga class this morning. Ah yoga class on Saturday mornings how I love you. Time to chill out and stretch and recharge my batteries. I walk into the enormous classroom with maybe 5 minutes to go before class starts. My plan is to stretch a bit and lay there like the dead, enjoying the silence for a minute. Not this morning. No, this morning, for some inexplicable reason, there are three children running around this enormous room at full speed and someone has cranked up a Roxette song ("Dangerous") full blast on the classroom stereo and those children are fucking flying. Flying and screaming. Okay. Fine. So no relaxation before class for me. I pass a couple of my classmates who are standing in a corner talking and pick my way to my usual spot in the northwest corner of the room and set about rolling out my mat and pulling off my sweatshirt, when I hear a voice, barely audible over the incredible din.

"Do you mind? They're just going to run around for a few more minutes," a woman near the front of the room asked me.

"No, it's fine," I said. Really, it was fucking annoying, but what was I supposed to do--tell the woman to get her kids out of the yoga studio? That this wasn't a playground but a place where adults come to escape things like children and Roxette? I'm a relatively nice person, so I let it go.

"No," said the woman. "I mean, DO YOU MIND. They need to run right there for a few more minutes," and she made a little sweep sweep gesture with her hand to illustrate that she'd like me to clear out for her kids. I looked at the kids who were now tagging each other, collapsing to the ground and roaring like lions about 25 feet away from my yoga mat.

"Are you serious?" I said. I didn't know what to say after that. "I just paid for this yoga class. It's about to start," I said. What I really meant was: I'm an adult who pays to have a quiet relaxing experience here. Who the fuck are you and why are your devil spawn galloping across the floor like a heard of elephants with hyperactivity disorder? And who the fuck listens to Roxette? You know the guitar player used to be in a white power band? Nice one, you racist self-important midwestern housefrau. Not to mention it's an absolutely gorgeous day outside--perhaps I could interest your children in a park or a busy intersection?

Her face clouded over and she scowled, "Well, if it's a big problem for you, I guess you can stay where you are."

(Oh can I? Gee thanks!)

So ignored her and started stretching, keeping my hard-to-rile-but-once-riled-a-wrecking-ball temper from flaring right before my supposedly relaxing yoga class by imagining roundhousing her right into the stereo which would then explode in a shower of sparks and go silent. I did a downward dog and could see in the back mirror that she was staring daggers at me, doubtless having similar thoughts ("I wish Roxette was here to pound that child-hating heartless yoga fuck into a small bloody pulp on the stinky yoga carpet").

"Dangerous" ended. I sighed and sat up to stretch out the old hips. She was still staring.

"Come on kids!" she yelled over their screeching, never taking her eyes from me. "Let's go!" She rounded up the banshees and as they all duck-walked to the door she passed by me and practically screamed, "There, wasn't that fun! See what happens when you do something NICE FOR SOMEONE ELSE!!??!? GOOD KARMA KIDS, GOOD KARMA WHEN YOU ARE NICE TO OTHER PEOPLE!!" I'm not sure, but I think the youngest kid started to cry. And they filed out the door of the studio.

It's obvious I've been in Iowa for awhile. If this scenario had played out in New York (which, by the way, it never would have because New Yorkers understand that you don't want to play with their kids, or watch their kids play, or at all have anything to do with their stupid fucking kids; but out here in Breederland, we're all supposed to be thrilled to spend time with other people's teenage mistakes), my parting words would have been something along the lines of "Fuck you, lady," a good, strong, New York standby appropriate in almost any sort of unpleasant situation involving a lady, or suspected lady. I've made good use of it before. When you live in New York, no matter how patient or normal or kind you are, at some point some crazy motherfucker is going to force you to have a terse, nasty confrontation in public. That's just how it goes. But I didn't expect it in Iowa, where people are generally polite to a fault (except when it comes to their kids though, I guess), so I didn't have my armor on. I said nothing as the icky woman walked past me screeching about karma to her terrified children. What would, in past years, have been an automatic response on my part (Fuck you, lady) was silence instead. Although I was seething, I just didn't feel like escalating it, and what could I say to her that would make her look like more of an idiot anyway?

So I didn't say anything. And although it was kind of annoying, holding my tongue, it was also kind of nice not having a screaming argument in public with a total stranger. So thanks, Iowa for chilling me out. But please, keep your hatchlings out of my adult playhouse. Namaste.