Alex Wright

A Week in Mailer Country

June 28, 2011

Norman Mailer once described Provincetown as "the wild west of the east." And while the town has doubtless changed much in the sixty years since Mailer first roamed the dunes - drinking, brawling and screwing his way around town, while completing some of his best work along the way - the place still retains some of the loose, wild energy that has long attracted artists, writers and other misfits to its looping shores.

This was my first time here, so I felt particularly fortunate that my introduction should come by way of the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony, where I've spent the past week participating in a workshop on historical narrative with the brilliant and gregarious Charles Strozier.

Having admired Mailer (warts and all) for many years, I enjoyed spending a week in his old living room in the company of other writers, working out our various kinks while sitting caddycorner from the bar where he used to drink his single-malt scotch looking out over the panoramic views of the bay.

In the workshop we explored how to weave historical context into a story, with Mailer himself providing the context for the week (grounding our discussion in Armies of the Night).

It's been four years since Mailer passed away, but the man's presence felt as pervasive as the sea air drifting in through the windows. Mailer's biographer Mike Lennon joined us on the first afternoon to share stories of his 40 year friendship with Mailer, walking us around the house where his books were still on the shelves, his paintings on the walls, and his piles of notes sitting on his desk just as he left them.

Mailer distrusted technology, and his attic study reflects that conviction: with no sign of a computer or even a typewriter (though he did have a perfunctory fax machine in the back of the room). Nor did he allow himself an air conditioner even in the sweltering summer heat (Lennon explained that Mailer disliked air conditioners as much as he disliked word processors, preferring to "sweat it out" while he wrote everything out in longhand).

On the last night we gathered for a cocktail party on the deck overlooking the bay, followed by a late dinner at Shay's, one of Mailer's longtime haunts. Over beer and lobster we had the good fortune of meeting a server who had waited on Mailer's table for some two decades. She shared her recollections of the man, who in his later years apparently developed a rabid fondness for oysters, as a tonic for the once-Priapic novelist's shrinking member. She told us how Mailer and his wife Norris would pore over the oyster shells after they ate them, as though reading tea leaves, looking for the likeness of faces in the shells. When they found an auspicious shell, they would take them home and collect them in a glass vase back at the house, where they sit to this day.

The waitress also told us how Mailer got crankier as the years went by, in the way that old men do. One had the sense of someone describing a beloved but cantankerous old uncle: a man she clearly admired and yet often found exasperating. Which, come to think of it, is about how I feel about Mailer too. The man was a near-genius capable of prophetic revelation. Yet, like Henry Miller, he was also capable of incredibly bad writing and susceptible to moral lapses. His greatest successes were often followed by painful personal failures. As Lennon put it, he lived in close contact with his contradictions, always in touch with what he called "the minority within."

Perhaps this why I have always felt so drawn to Mailer. For me, he provides the context of a writer who embraced his imperfections, sometimes transcending them, sometimes flaming out in spectacular fashion, but always persevering, sweating it out to the end.

Previously: 84000

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