Tough Guys Don't Dance
Norman Mailer has a considerable reputation for being the tough guy of American letters. Attacked by Kate Millet and others for his misogyny, he has come to seem, in many reviewers’ minds, the incarnation of male chauvinism. His writings are studded with analogies between boxing matches and literary performances, and his much-publicized personal life—including the stabbing of his second wife—has been conflated with novels such as An American Dream (1965), in which Steven Rojack gets away with murdering his spouse. Mailer’s often flamboyant and controversial public persona—most recently on view in his support of the murderer Jack Abbott—has further eroded, for many readers, the distinctions which might be made between the person and his prose.
Mailer’s latest novel, a murder mystery featuring two decapitated women, will do nothing to lessen feminist criticism of his work. The tough-guy strain in his writing, however, is almost always balanced by great tenderness and self-doubt—as it is in this first-person fiction of a faltering writer who is at least as tentative as he is tough. Like the Mailer of Advertisements for Myself (1959), Tim Madden questions his talent even as he tries to promote and cultivate it. He worries over a tendency toward timidity, connected in his mind with his defeat in the only Golden Gloves bout he ever fought. More or less kept by his prized wife, the apparently wealthy Patty Lareine, he cannot write when she deserts him.
As her name suggests, Lareine has been Madden’s imperious queen, and he seems at a loss when he is not in her service. At the same time, however, he has clearly chafed under her rule, for he regrets having broken his code of male self-sufficiency. As a result, the couple’s marriage has been alternately turbulent and harmonious; in the latter stages of their relationship, they share murderous inclinations toward each other.
Thus it is that Madden must confront the possibility that he has murdered his missing wife in a drunken spree which he can barely recall. As his name suggests, Tim Madden is a divided man—on the one hand subject to insane energies that he can hardly control, on the other hand inhibited by a timorousness that arouses self-contempt. The novel’s real mystery—aside from an intricate plot that should not be divulged for devotees of the genre—is Madden’s metaphysical concern about existence, about how thoroughly dualistic it is—right down to the creaturely level of his dog sensing the proximity of a severed human head: “his voice now raised in a mixture of elation and fright as if, like us, he could call upon two deep and divided halves of himself.”
The first two sentences of the novel emphasize the somber setting of winter in Provincetown, a fitting image for the waste of a life that Madden will redeem only by recovering the courage to accept his human vulnerability: “At dawn, if it was low tide on the flats, I would awaken to the chatter of gulls. On a bad morning, I used to feel as if I had died and the birds were feeding on my heart.” He remains throughout his story perilously poised between life and death and in desperate need of a new code by which he can be reborn, for he has reservations about the seemingly simpleminded macho injunction by which his father has lived. In pondering the anecdote to which the remark “tough guys don’t dance” refers, Madden comments:Surely my father had meant something finer than that you held your ground when there was trouble, something finer that doubtless he could not or would not express, but it was there, his code. It could be no less than a vow. Did I miss some elusive principle on which his philosophy must crystallize?
Madden never does offer a definition of his father’s remark, but given the behavior of both father and son, the key to what Madden calls his koan,...
(The entire section is 1590 words.)