Book Review

The Fight by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer writes energetically and racistly about boxing

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George Foreman is a man famous to people of my generation for a single thing: being the chief international sales rep for a glorified sandwich toaster known as ‘George Foreman’s Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine’. But in the distant past of an earlier age, Foreman had a different career. George Foreman used to be a boxer, and he was the guy who fought the still-famous-for-boxing Muhammed Ali in what is commonly referred to as “the rumble in the jungle”. The Fight is an in depth nonfiction piece about this event, a 4am bout co-organised by the dictator of the country formerly known as the Congo. The book offers a study of the boxers, their retinues, their training and fighting methods; an exploration of President Mobutu’s Zaire, and a huge amount of revealing detail about the writer, Norman Mailer, who’s a Pulitzer-winner of the butch/white/male old school, who discusses himself in the third person.

There are some glaring flaws within this text. Mailer is racist, for a start. He is voyeuristically interested in the skin tone of every individual he meets, ranking people’s “blackness” against each other and trying to extrapolate embarrassingly generalised thoughts on the inherent psychological make up of black people. Sorry, I mean “Black” people, because every time the word is used as a description of a person, it is capitalised. It is as if Mailer sees all black people, international-like, as members of one united foreign nation. They are grouped together as Other, with degrees of blackness and whiteness making them less or more alien, but always they are Black and he and the journalists he meets are “normal”. We are never told when a character is white, the reader is expected to presume everyone is. Mailer implies he has an exclusively white audience in a transparent way, a way that feels conspicuously old fashioned even for the mid-1970s. Ali was prominent and active in civil rights movement, which Mailer acknowledges and discusses, but Mailer doesn’t seem to see any forthcoming or achieved success in this field. I feel that Mailer, if trying to be forward-looking, would describe the civil rights movement in a variant of that old sexist joke: “we should treat them as if they are equal.”

Mailer finds race interesting – which is maybe a positive sign for who and when he was – and goes out of his way to engage with writings of African philosophers in an attempt to gain understanding of Ali and Foreman’s psyches. But this gross coagulation of all of a continent’s myriad cultures into one universal “Black” experience is something Mailer mocks when other people do it. Foreman, for example, names the continent instead of the country in a press conference, and we are encouraged to read him – portrayed throughout as an Uncle Tom, American flag-waving, race traitor – as corrupted for doing so. Mailer is guilty of something far worse, though (particularly as he portrays himself as an intellectual rather than a dumb thug), for he erases the slave trade, immigration and the lived experience of generations of black people in America. In Mailer’s eye, “Black” is an identity, a mentality, a nation. And it is a nation in opposition to national borders and cultural differences; it is a nation of skin colour and it – he implies (worryingly) belongs in Africa.

Ali comes across well, in spite of Mailer’s writing. There is an edge of condescension, the reader almost observing Ali like an animal. His body is described with awe – Mailer is impressed – but whenever Ali speaks and riffs and reads poetry (until he’s in the ring) we are almost expected to laugh at him. But it isn’t funny, it’s intriguing. Ali is fighting the bout for weeks before he’s entered the ring, his training consisting as much of dialogue as it does exercise. Mailer has impressive levels of access to Ali, and in one of the finest sections of the book (before the actual fight, which is stonking), he goes jogging with him at 3am after a journalistic night on the town. Mailer is 51, and though he’s keen to make it clear that he’s not an athlete, not like Foreman and Ali, he is still in pretty good shape. Subtle bits of sleaze and an unabashed aside about sharing a prostitute during a car ride emphasise further the blokey, conservative, self importance of the writer. He regularly mentions Hemingway’s death (relatively though not immediately fresh at the time) and questions whether or not it was suicide. There’s a conspicuous wish to absolve Hemingway of whatever slur being considered “a suicide” is, very much in a “real men don’t feel sad” kinda way. Mailer doesn’t come across as particularly likeable or mature, but the bio in the front of the book informs me that he had six wives, which means he must’ve been able to appear likeable for a bit, at least. Writing about himself in the third person is arrogant, too: the narratorial voice is strong and implicitly his, yet any actions he commits are narrated from a falsely external position. One feels that he liked writing his own name, and that he’s more comfortable recounting all the praise regularly heaped on him by everyone he meets, as the Mailer is the text is bloody famous for his literary merits and for recently signing a million dollar book contract. I’ve never read any Mailer before this and I can’t see myself doing so again: I wouldn’t want to give the smug bastard the satisfaction of helping to continue his reputation.

Mailer does write well, though. There’s a terseness to his prose that explains the discussion of Hemingway, and when we reach the actual fight it is – let’s be fair – fucking electric. Mailer captures the energy and strength of these two men, and emphasises the art and brutality of boxing. Again, this is Hemingwayesque, only with fists and men instead of horns, swords, bulls, horses and men. That, though, reveals more of Mailer’s racism: even though Foreman and Ali can speak, Mailer does almost present them as animals. Ali doesn’t feel dangerous, but that’s because: “At times Ali was like nothing so much as a white actor who had put on […] makeup” (p. 47), whilst Foreman is always presented as a brute who might kill Ali, or anyone else should he want to. There’s a conflict in this, because Ali is the guy whose side we’re on, because he’s the champion of his race, he goes out of his way to help up-and-coming black journalists by giving them preferential interviews, for example. But Ali is presented as biologically more white. Foreman, who is “Black” to extremes in Mailer’s eye, is the white man’s boy. These are contradictory and conflicting sentiments. Mailer is obsessed with race but in a very unrefined, non-thought-through way. Everything he writes here is grounded in confused racism, moments of respect parried by allegations of white heritage, fear justified by inherent otherness. Mailer is unashamed of being outrun by an athlete 15 years or so his junior, because the athlete is black. Y’know, everything is in race, everything.

The Fight is an interesting and enjoyable read because it’s about an important cultural event and is written with energy. It’s a time capsule-like window into the way liberal America (or what identified as liberal America) engaged with race in the ‘70s, and it’s a weird opportunity to understand how a totem of American letters thought about himself. For people sensitive to racism, it’s one to avoid, but I don’t think that includes many people with even a passing interest in a literary evocation of boxing. The fight section is wonderfully engaging, the rest is pretty evocative, too. But it’s very un-PC and Mailer comes across as a tool. Mixed feelings, but enjoyable, yeah.

1 comment on “The Fight by Norman Mailer

  1. Pingback: Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – Triumph of the Now

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