Several months ago, around the time we launched this new site, I began to draft a post about a book that influenced me in my youth, as the saying goes. It was summer, I was 21 years old, and I was working in a restaurant by day and spending my nights drinking in a rather aimless manner, drifting along in a rather aimless relationship. I’d dropped out of college the year before. Bored and restless, a friend and I headed west to Seattle, planning to hitch-hike along the Alaskan Highway and land jobs in the canneries on Kodiak Island. That plan fell through, for various reasons, and my friend went back to Bloomington. I kicked around Seattle for several days, looking for work; it turned out that most of the boats had already left for the season, and most places were no longer hiring. An inveterate reader, I purchased several books to help pass the time, including a beat-up paperback copy of Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself priced at 75 cents, at Seattle’s Left Bank Books (which I’m happy to see appears to have survived Seattle’s boom years).
I nearly went back to Bloomington myself, but on the afternoon of my last day in the city, I found a job with a company called Mystic Way. (No evidence I can find on the web that they survived the Seattle boom years.) After flying north on two different planes to join the crew at sea, I spent the next four months on a 300-foot-long boat, often working 18-hour days, sometimes having two or three days off in a row, spending my time drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and reading. The crew included other college students and dropouts, long-term loners, and people who were AWOL from the army, AWOL from probation officers, and AWOL from most semblances of hope. The guys I bunked with were mostly my own age, working-class kids from Seattle who listened to lots of heavy metal and rap, and who thought my tendency to spend hours immersed in books strange. One of the books I had was on Zen Buddhism–either by D.T. Suzuki or Alan Watts, I don’t remember now–and as a result my nickname became “Zen” for the rest of the fishing season.
So it was a very Beat chapter in my life (I even had a copy of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans along for the trip, a book that would lead, many years later, to a Night Lights program). The book that intrigued me the most, however, was the Mailer. Billing itself on the cover as “An autobiographical narrative, perhaps the most unusual ever written, which is startling in the candor of its confession” (and in some ways it is a cockier, extended riff on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up), it offered the following litany on the back:
The Negro…the Jew…Marxism…marijuana…psychoanalysis…war…contemporary American writers…murder…hip…orgasm
Well, what more could a bohemian kid working on a salmon processor ask for? I wasn’t close to any of those subjects that summer, save possibly for murder (provoked by close quarters, infrequent trips to port, social dysfunction, and a lack of any kind of chemical substances whatsoever, a psychotic rage did build up among some of the crew members), and it was fantastic to read Mailer’s takes on all of these subjects. Advertisements is a compendium of essays, short stories, novel-in-progress excerpts, Village Voice columns, and other creative odds-and-ends. Sometimes Mailer said things that struck me as arrogant and foolish, but many times I found myself also struck by his courage, his willingness to take risks, and his pitiless compassion. It may sound strange to talk about something like “pitiless compassion,” but that’s the phrase that pops into my mind when I think about Mailer’s writing. He is cutting and competitive in his assessment of his fellow writers–”Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room” was one of the pieces that drew the most attention when the book was published, with Mailer delivering zingers like “J.D. Salinger is everyone’s favorite…I seem to be alone in finding him to be the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.” And yet I think there’s empathy in Mailer’s voice, a basic sympathy for what it’s like to be alive from many different perspectives–a quality sometimes missing in some of our most celebrated authors (and Mailer himself could certainly be excessively preoccupied with matters of self-involvement… I mean, look at the title of the book!). It was a lesson I could take to heart that summer as I forged friendships and learned to get along with a wide variety of people in a very tight living situation.
Norman Mailer, of course, passed away last week. I was so busy working on the Night Lights Willis Conover program for the past few days that I didn’t have time to resurrect and finish this post until now. The verdicts have been rolling in, many of them laudatory, most agreeing that he never did quite write the Great American Novel that he pursued in his younger days ( and Advertisements is an early admission of that failure, and a clearing-ground for the work that followed). But as musicologist and blogger Phil Ford pointed out to me in a conversation not long ago, Advertisements for Myself is practically a manual of 1950s intellectual hipsterism… a viewpoint with which I agree, and one reason why I’ve long included it in the Night Lights suggested-reading list. Like many other writers, Mailer had things both good and silly to say about jazz, but there’s no doubt that his writing from the late 1950s captures the kind of electrical charge that was prevalent in certain artistic circles of the time. Of its time and beyond, Advertisements for Myself will hold up as part of the enduring Mailer canon.