So after I spent the first $35 (on a collection of essays by the late New Zealand writer Nigel Cox) of my $1000 prize as winner of the 2015 Unity Books Award – it entitles winners to a thousand bucks’ worth of books at the High St store in Auckland – I returned to the shop and blew $42.99 on Salinger, a biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno published in 2013, and $55 on Norman Mailer: A Double Life, by biographer J Michael Lennon, also from that year. Two of the greats of US literature, giants of the 20th century, their works were regarded with awe and wonder – now, though, hardly anyone talks about The Catcher in the Rye anymore, and almost all of Mailer’s fiction has been consigned to the ash heap of history.
Both were in possession of genius. They were contemporaries; both went to war, but Mailer more or less sat on his ass. Salinger’s war – and this is one of the most crucial and revealing parts of the biography – surely fucked him up.
It was unremitting. He was in the 12th Infantry. He fought in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. As the Americans advanced, each tree cost 100 men. One soldier commented, ‘The forest will stink with deadness long after the last body is removed.’ Even today, the German government contracts a company to do explosive ordnance disposal work in the forest. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, in snow and ice, and survived even greater carnage. And then he was among the first Americans to witness a concentration camp. Salinger helped to liberate Buchenwald. The SS tried to burn it to the ground. Salinger: ‘You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose entirely, no matter how long you live.’
But it wasn’t the totality of his war. He wrote all the time, in jeeps, in the foxhole – Salinger played the first notes of The Catcher in the Rye during World War II. He also managed to meet his hero, Hemingway. There’s great stuff in the biography about Salinger’s reading of Hemingway, and how he wanted to take the style further. Salinger develops the iceberg theory – only reveal the merest details, and keep the weight and density of the story underneath, out of sight.
His pursuit of art was the thing that mattered most. It was his grail. There was also the matter of little girls. God almighty. What to make of his desires, his overwhelming need for Lolitas? Was it a search for innocence after the horrors of war? Was he some kind of Humbert Humbert, a leering paedo with a fancy prose style? The book lays it all out, and it’s awful and disturbing and unhappy. Perhaps it’s not strictly paedophilia. It’s not simple or obvious: sex was the least of it. One girl tells the story of their strange courtship, the intense bond they felt for each other, the spell that it cast – which was immediately broken when they finally had sex. He never wanted to see her again.
The Life is told as oral biography by friends, family, lovers, and various passersby, which makes it fast and easy to read. I suppose it’s a cheat’s way of doing things – it’s just the presentation of transcripts – but the authors keep things in context with their own commentaries, and a measured portrait slowly emerges. I’s a patient and thorough job, and you’re left pondering a complex, perhaps deeply unpleasant character. His writing got worse and worse and worse as he got older and more horrible and spiritual. Essentially he ended up a religious crank.
So much for the singer; as for his song, the authors discuss Salinger’s work with all the earnestness demanded by academic convention, and seem to forget that he could be really, really funny. Holden Caulfield wants his headstone to read: FUCK YOU. The book doesn’t laugh at things like that. But the authors capture the fantastic excitement generated by Salinger at the exact moment when he was perfecting the delicate crystalline majesties of his short fiction in the New Yorker, and later collected in probably the world’s greatest-ever book of short stories, Nine Stories. Everyone was talking about his art. It was revolutionary, charming, elliptical. No one had read anything like it before. Everyone wondered where he was headed. He wrote Catcher, and that was it. He’d done enough. There was nothing left to give; he went in search of silence.
‘I seem to be alone in finding him no more than the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school,’ Mailer wrote of Salinger. Mailer always was a rotten critic. He read badly. He mistook idiots for savants, and was a sucker for windy polemic. J Michael Lennon – never trust a man who begins his name with an initial – credits him as an astute and shrewd reader, just as he purrs over just about every smudge of ink dropped from Mailer’s pen. His biography is reverential. Actually, there’s one instance when he turns septic on a Mailer book (‘ill-conceived”), and it’s something I desperately want to buy. It’s on Amazon, used from only $4.99 – The Bullfight, an essay from 1969, packaged together with a vinyl LP featuring a reading of a poem by Garcia Lorca. A book, and an album! Oh Norman.
Lennon has done the work. His book is nearly 800 pages long. It could have been twice that size; Mailer’s industry was fantastical, and so was his ambition. At his peak – and he seemed to stay on that peak for maybe 10 years – he couldn’t stop writing, and everything he wrote was unequal parts brilliant, audacious, ridiculous, crazy, transcendent.
The one thing he didn’t write in those years was fiction, for which we must be grateful. His first novel was excellent. It was also immensely popular, and Mailer greeted fame like an opponent. It boxed his ears and drove him senseless. His next few novels were among the most boring and pretentious of the 20th century. Fortunately, he stropped, and created a revolutionary form of non-fiction before returning to the novel as an older, stupider man. There were novels about ancient Egypt and young Hitler. He may as well have written about ancient Hitler and young Egypt. They will forever remain unreadable.
But the non-fiction – nothing approaches the intellectual daring, the vision, the clarity. Or the sentences. Sentence for sentence, The Fight – his 1975 book on the Ali-Foreman heavyweight bout – may be the best book of non-fiction ever published. You can run a pencil to the stub if you want to circle all the moments of genius in this slim volume.
‘Go electric!’, my friend Anthony McCarten inscribed in his gift copy of Mailer’s classic, Armies of the Night. He was invoking Dylan’s decision to play electric rock’n’roll in 1966; the Mailer book, from 1968, is scarcely less thrilling. It’s a momentous work. I was too conservative and strait-laced to have the guts to open it for about three or four years. I like my journalism and non-fiction to play by the rules. Mailer’s book looked like the work of a crazy man howling at the moon and lighting bonfires on a distant, wild coast.
It read like that, too, when I finally plucked up the courage to read it. The book was a revolutionary act. He sent journalism packing; it wasn’t up to the task at hand, which was writing honestly about the chaos of American life. He states his intent in the first two pages. He quotes a long story in Time magazine, which sneers at Mailer’s drunken behaviour at a political rally. When it’s finished, Mailer squares his shoulders, clears his throat, and announces: ‘Now we may leave Time in order to find out what happened.’
Electrifying. I took some of the more easily accessible elements of Mailer’s high style – the exuberance, the fun, things like that – when I came to write my political campaign diary last year, published in Madmen: Inside the Weirdest Election Campaign Ever. I couldn’t reach the metaphors he created on that distant, wild coast of his imagination. No one could. He was an original, impossible to copy.
You can feel Lennon’s pulse racing when he writes about Mailer’s peak years as an artist. Mailer was just as industrious in his erotic life. He slung it all over town. He married nine times and cheated on all of them. He cheated on his mistresses. In old age, he married Norris, a beauty much taller and about 100 years younger; it made no difference. He was short and ugly, but his charisma was noted by Germaine Greer – she declares she appeared on that famous women’s liberation panel with Mailer in 1971 because she wanted to fuck him. He ran for his life.
Salinger would have been a drag and a nightmare to meet. The chances were it would have been joy to hang with Mailer, at least until the booze boiled his blood and he turned into an angry sonofabitch. He loved life. He loved writing. He loved pot and booze and jazz. Above all, perhaps, he loved his mum. He was lucky. His mother believed in him totally and absolutely, backed him to the hilt his whole life. When he stabbed his wife, Mailer’s mother fretted about the blood on her son’s shirt.
The book ends in sadness. You don’t want to see him go, even though he wrote nothing worth reading in the last 10 years of his life. Salinger’s book ends in a kind of quiet horror. You’re glad to see the old ghost make his final wail, and leave. And yet, and yet…Forget the human being. Consider the art. The dreadful conclusion about Mailer is that he failed as an artist. His fiction stank. His non-fiction sang, over-reached, qualified as art – it will always be amazing. But what he wanted to do was write a great novel. That was the point, that was his sense of purpose. ‘The purpose of an artist,’ as Cyril Connolly famously put it, ‘is to create a masterpiece.’ Salinger created exactly that with The Catcher in the Rye. Yes, it’s gone out of fashion; yes, it’s more or less disappeared from the Western canons; but its strange power, its psychic connection with readers, as though Salinger, or Holden Caulfield, was directly addressing the reader, was in the same room, understood them, read their mind – all that still exists, but not where you might expect to find it.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi is a prisoner at Guantanamo. The US consider him as a terrorist. A new edition of his 2005 memoir Guantanamo Diary was reviewed in the London Review of Books in February. The review notes that Slahi shares a kind of hut with an Egyptian man; they keep a garden, play video games, read. Slahi writes, ‘I still remember one book called The Catcher in the Rye that made me laugh until my stomach hurt…It was my first unofficial laughter in the ocean of tears.’
Salinger (Simon & Schuster, $42.99) by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Norman Mailer: A Double Life (Simon & Schuster, $50) by J Michael Lennon are available at Unity Books.