I wasn’t entirely certain when or why I bought An American Dream by Norman Mailer, however I had a distinct memory – from some point in the last couple of years – of reading about it and deciding it was a novel I should get myself a copy of. I think I came across it in Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, though I am not at all certain of that. I was particularly confused by my strong sense of wanting to read this, despite having very mixed feelings about the only previous Mailer book I’d read, which is The Fight, his non fiction gonzo journalism type piece on the Rumble In the Jungle. That book is racist and deeply homosocial. This book, An American Dream, isn’t necessarily either of those, but it is very much of that worldview.
Mailer’s novel is more an American daydream, and the impression I had of Mailer as probably-a-bit-of-a-shit was confirmed by the fact that this novel is nothing more nor less than a very male mid-life crisis novel written – unsurprisingly – in the author’s early 40s. This is not an especially well-crafted novel, it feels phoned in at best, and the idea that Mailer is a paragon of 20th century American literature shocks me. This is a pulp novel, maybe written with more literary skill than the average pulp novel, but Mailer’s use of language, characterisation, imagery and narrative do nothing that Raymond Chandler wasn’t doing at his best. Like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch many years after it, An American Dream is a thriller masquerading as fine literature. Just because paragraphs and sentences are long and the author may have been able to defend his priapic nihilistic alcoholic [anti] hero using philosophical arguments tied to (then en vogue) existentialism, doesn’t detract from this book being nothing more nor less than the mad, aggressive, misogynist, fantasies of an unhappy and problematically unashamed man.
Here’s the plot, because it seems that is what I do when I write about novels now:
Steven Rojack is a popular and acclaimed academic with a thriving TV career, he’s living life to the full in swingin’ New York. The book opens with him being asked to leave a party after throwing food and cutlery off a balcony. It is then revealed he is trapped in the endgame of a terrible marriage to an arrogant heirress – separated but not yet divorced – and, drunk out of his mind, he heads over to her penthouse to give her a piece of his mind. Or, just because he missed her. One thing leads to another and he strangles her to death, goes and has prolonged anal (and vaginal) sex with his wife’s housemaid, then goes and wipes clean the poo his wife evacuated as she died, then throws her body out the window, calls the police and claims she jumped. From this heinous opening, Mailer drags the reader behind Rojack as he buddies up to the police and the other criminals in the overfilled bullpen, as he meets and has sex with a gorgeous nightclub singer with serious mob ties (giving her the only vaginal orgasm of her life, obviously), then is dragged in by the police again but unexpectedly let go, he goes back to the nightclub singer, beats up almost to the point of death the nightclub singer’s previous boyfriend, who is a much younger, much better looking, bigger soul singer whose near-national success was scuppered by Rojack’s vindictive wife after he snubbed her. Rojack then goes to meet his dead wife’s father, who turns out to be the major mobster who used to date the nightclub singer, he also reveals he had an incestuous relationship with his daughter, that he pulled strings to get Rojack released by the police, then tries to push Rojack off the balcony of HIS penthouse. Rojack throws a lucky punch – he’s a lucky guy – and escapes, but on arrival at the nightclub singer’s secret sex flat she inherited the lease of (after her sister killed herself after the soul singer – who she was in love with – started fucking her sister) he finds her dead, police everywhere and he learns – while getting ratarsed with his favourite cop from the earlier interrogation – that the soul singer has also been found dead. Rojack, relieved of all criminal responsibility due to his father-in-law’s corrupt connections and relieved of all moral responsibility because he’s like an antihero dammit, drives off West, earns a shitload in Vegas (he’s a lucky guy), then decides to head to fucking Mexico to keep the party going. That is the end.
It is the mid-life crisis novel to end all mid-life crisis novels (and oh if only it had). It is such an unoriginal premise from a bored middle-aged male mind: I wish I could kill my wife and get away with it, I wish I could bang (and Mailer does use the word “bang”, which felt very modern for the 1960s) sexy younger women (and obviously give at least one of them the only vaginal orgasm of her life), get involved with the Mob but come out fine, find out your ex was like into incest and thus deserved to die or something(?), win big in Vegas then head to ol’ Yucatan with a pocket full of Vegas dinero to spend on drugs, booze, prostitutes, food, lodging and petrol.
I’ve been feeling a little guilty about, effectively, having gradually abandoned “the canon” over the last few years, and in some ways I do want to hit up the major writers and novels that I somehow avoided during my literary development. I am sure, yes, that there is greatness I haven’t touched; I am sure, yes, that amongst the piles of books that I’ve carried around since I was an undergraduate there are truly life-changing books. I’ve never read George Eliot, I’ve never read Edgar Allen Poe, I’ve never read Stendhal, and there are countless other “classics” I am sure I possess unread.
An American Dream is a silly, overblown, trashy picaresque adventure-y thriller. To market this as fine literature is to emphasise the bleak patriarchal reality of culture. Yes, it is well written, but this is no more an exercise in old-school-un-PC-male-fantasy than Mills and Boones sought to be self-conscious exercises in old-school-repressed-female-fantasy. Basically, this is a fun book to read if you’re a middle class white man who is or has ever been in a bad relationship, and I can thus understand why, in my past, the idea of reading it chimed with me. I’m not certain, though, that it was a healthy impulse, and I think had I read An American Dream at my lowest points it could probably have made things worse: in a “me or her” decision, I know I am no murderer.
To defend it, gently, what saves the book from being truly reprehensible is that Mailer does at least not sexualise violence. Though sex is written of in a ludicrous way, the male fantasy characters are barely more complex and believable than the female characters. But this pulp, fantasy mid-life crisis novel is very Guy in Your MFA, is very undergraduate man, is very “guilty pleasure”.
So, yeah, what I’m skirting around here is that I enjoyed An American Dream. I don’t hold with current attempts to denormalise the phrase “guilty pleasure”, as this is a perfect example of why that’s appropriate. I can give hundreds of reasons why I shouldn’t have liked An American Dream, and only one reason why I did: I thought it was fun. I don’t necessarily like my ability to take pleasure from art I find politically and intellectually problematic. I am flawed, like all of us. Only I wear my flaws – and very little else – writ fucking large.
Something for the dads, as they say.
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