Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History

Norman Mailer at PodiumArmies of the Night
Norman Mailer

Pulitzer Prize winner, Norman Mailer. I’m reading through this book with much difficulty, straining to see the brilliance in it others have seen, and of course how it justifies its prize winning hype. Okay, it’s the same conundrum I faced in art school when they tried to convince me Jackson Pollock was an artistic genius. The very same!  In fact, Mailer seems to be the Jackson Pollock of writing; the difference being instead of throwing paint on canvas, he’s thrown words on a page.

After posing the question to our class last week, “Why all the Pulitzer Prize hype?” One reply was Mailer wrote about what was ground breaking at the time, however, you can say that for just about anything because the times themselves were actually ground breaking for that time, and “The times they are a-changin’.” Many of the names Mailer drops throughout the book were writing about the times intertwined with their experiences. They’re especially speaking about them, including Mailer. In fact, speech was the new medium. It had farther reach, and reel to reel tape, 8 track’s precursor, was widely accessible, even preferable in the absence of video. Where we see Mailer trying to establish himself as an iconoclast among “the new journalists,” I’d argue that Armies of the Night, along with other works we’ve read under the genre, creative nonfiction, are nothing more than autobiographical or chronicles in the life and times of ____, fill in the blank. In fact Mailer rides the tide of his success with Advertisements for Myself, The White Negro, and The Naked and the Dead,” right into Armies of the Night, using for each, the same meandering pontifications and shock n’awe in his “prose.”

Anecdote: In high school, 1975, my teacher invited a fellow teacher from the same school to speak to us students about…I don’t remember exactly (roughly something to do with social studies and activism). The speaker’s point became unimportant because he force fed it to us so heavily peppered with profanity and racial epithets that it had been choked to death long before it could be made. To add insult to injury, we, fifteen/sixteen year olds, were asked our opinion of the speech after he left. Most teens I know don’t have enough personal history to form opinions, nor have they the words to express them even if they did—instead, feelings were abound (lots of them) and few words—that’s why teens infamously act out. But there I was, bated to be teen spokesperson for oratorical decency (and my race) and feeling ticked off about being put in this position by dozens of eyes focused in my direction.

“He shouldn’t have used nigger and that other “language” to get his point across. Relying on this stuff to keep our attention made him a weak speaker, not to mention he lost me—lost his audience.”

I had little to say other than this and that I thought he should be confronted. Two of my Chicana classmates chimed in with equal sentiment but were somehow able to stand clear of the heat emanating from our facilitator’s discussion, I mean interrogation lamps. Inside, I was more than angry—I was outraged—but not in the way the speaker had intended, and not only at the speaker. It was an epic fail to see teachers unleash on us an unvetted idiot with an agenda. Maybe he was also drunk, like Mailer. Anyway, My reward for speaking up was that the teacher responsible for the invitational asked me if I was political. She blasted her eyes suggesting I should go confront him.

Okay, root problem revealed. There was more than one teacher that needed to be confronted; exactly why I have zero nostalgia for the 1960s\70s.

Fast forward forty years, and to my dismay, Mailer triggers my PTSD…

“Thursday Evening: Toward a Theatre of Ideas — dragging through approximately twelve pages beginning with his urge to micturate, satisfying his urge (against the dark restroom’s wall), then fomenting on how he might share it, peppered with four letter folly, in front of an audience. Mailer does.

…’I’m trying to say the middle class plus shit, I mean plus revolution, is equal to one big collective dead ass.’ Some yells of approval, but much shocked curious rather stricken silence. He had broken the shank of his oratorical charge. Now he would have to sweep the audience together again…1

’I had an experience as I came to the theatre to speak to all of you, which is that before appearing on this stage, I went upstairs to the men’s room as a prelude to beginning this oratory so beneficial to all…’and it was dark, so—ahem—I missed the bowl’…”2

Mailer’s crudity, obscenities, insecurities, megalomania, vacillations, obsessions and what not are a constant distraction from his book’s topic, the 1967 march on Washington. He invests a lot of time in these distractions too—page after page, in fact. We only truly see his commitment to be an all-in Washington marcher half-way through the book by the chapter, “The Rhetoric,” where Mailer decides…

“’Yes, we have to get arrested today. No alternative for it.’ If technology land had built Global Village, well shank it up technology land, let Global Village hear today that America’s best poet? And best novelist?? And best critic???? had been arrested in a protest of Uncle Sam’s Whorehouse War. And if Paul Goodman had been here, Mailer supposed he could have been ranked as America’s best inspiration to the young??????”3

I think Mailer is referring to himself as best novelist, question marks included, to which my response is, Really!?!, infinitely more question marks included.

1 pg. 37
2 pg. 49
3 pg. 97


4 thoughts on “Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History

    • Thanks Peggy! I will add it to my Goodreads, “to read list.” I remember seeing him on TV talk shows in the ’70s, and I remember his firebrand attitude, but I never read anything of his until, well, now.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, you don’t have to read it. There are plenty of better books to read. Was just saying it was his best work. Overall, Mailer is overrated. And the thing about ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is that the US is so overrun with executions and mass murderers, the topic is no longer ‘novel’. Gary Gilmore, central figure of the book, was the first person in the US to be executed after the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Yeah, the U.S. has either been on a downward trajectory, or it’s just that the lights are now on and we can see the roaches that were resident in the cupboard all along. I’m hoping we have a collective epiphany before the November 2016 elections, and vote in some gun control the same as Australia. As for the rest of the insanity, you can’t legislate away ignoramuses, but funding schools would be a good start here. Heaven help us.

    Liked by 2 people

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