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Tough guys don’t dance 
by Norman Mailer.
Joseph, 231 pp., £8.95, October 1984, 0 7181 2454 5
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Someone has it in for Timothy Madden. Warned by a cop that the cops may be about to take an interest in his stashed cache of marijuana, Madden goes to exhume it. He finds instead a head. Blond, it doesn’t bear gazing upon, but it does have some resemblance both to Madden’s wife Patty, who recently upped and left him, and to Jessica Pond, a new consolatory excitement of his. The next time Madden turns to the scene of the crime (is it his crime? his drink-bludgeoned immemory is not the least of his worries), things have monstrously reverted to normalcy. ‘The head was gone. Just the footlocker with its jars of marijuana remained.’ This has its affinities not only with the world of a Chandler (which Mailer burns at both ends), but also with Romantic Gothic. The inhumed human head, the herb: Isabella, or the Pot of Pot. Some Keatsian byplay is kept up by the heroine’s being called Madeleine (almost right); and Madeleine Falco is an Italian not a Maltese Falco. Nomen est omen. The plot against Madden is on purpose laid to make the taker mad. Before long the revenger has decided that two heads are better than one.

As with the Jacobean tragedy of blood, there is a trembling of plurals. The Revenger’s Tragedy, or the Revengers’? In this swift and sickening story, Mailer once again shows how much his being a diversely unconventional writer stands to gain from his working within popularly acknowledged conventions. Such a thriller, of drugs and divorce and murder, knows its own strength. The strength is essentially dramatic, but decanted. T.S. Eliot envied the Jacobean dramatists:

The ideal condition is that under which everything, except what only the individual genius can supply, is provided for the poet. A framework is provided. We do not mean ‘plot’; a poet may incorporate, adapt or invent as he prefers or as occasion suggests. But a dramatic poet needs to have some kind of dramatic form given to him as the condition of his time, a form which in itself is neither good nor bad but which permits an artist to fashion it into a work of art. And by a ‘kind of dramatic form’ one means almost the temper of the age (not the temper of a few intellectuals): a preparedness, a habit, on the part of the public, to respond in a predictable way, however crudely, to certain stimuli.

Mailer, an intellectual who resists arrest by a few intellectuals, is prepared to shoulder the words ‘however crudely’. But his upshot is often subtle, especially in its extension of the Jacobean hero-villain, the teller of it all, Timothy Madden. Like Webster’s Bosola or Flamineo, Madden has long been in complicity with evil. Like them, he has wit and humour and courage, and a little grain of conscience keeps him sour. In the end he is not a villain, for the good reason that he falls so far short of the bad company he keeps. He is a writer manqué, something doubly difficult to substantiate but which Mailer brings off. Mailer, like the very unlike T.S. Eliot who is nevertheless another radical conservative, has no patience with egalitarian sentimentality in the face of violent death. The last of the forgivenesses extended to Eliot is likely to be for his flat-tongued uncowed contemplation of violent death in Hamlet: ‘But even Hamlet, who has made a pretty considerable mess of things, and occasioned the death of at least three innocent people, and two more insignificant ones, dies fairly well pleased with himself.’ This novel embodies, with its severed head, what Eliot said with cool audacity in pondering the severed hand in The Duchess of Malfi:

Here the play itself got through, magnificently, unique. And the ‘tragedy of blood’ was vindicated. I mean that the horrors were vindicated; and as for the general assassination – that is merely a convention (as much a convention as the Nuntius or the Confidante). It is a convention which even a modern audience could be brought to accept, if the modern actor understood that a violent death need not invariably be represented as an important event. The only deaths which are essential to the tragedy are those of the Duchess and Cariola; the rest are a form of Exit. They no more indicate an appetite for blood than the Nuntius and the Confidante indicate a strong interest in the servant class.

Mailer has picked up much from such plays, and his postponed epigraph, there at the very end of the book, is a Jacobean list of what makes comedy and what tragedy, from Martin Opitz von Boberfeld, 1597-1639. There are the names, crackling – like that of Vindice, say – with caricatural significance and the brutality of puppetry. There are the ethnic antagonisms, which in the old days were anti-Catholic and anti-Italian, and are now anti-WASP (the half-Irish narrator’s scornful resentful term). There is revenge, the old mole of all inhuming and exhuming. ‘What an air of vengeance was about!’ Is Madden the perpetrator of revenge against his defaulting helpmeet? Or she against a rival conspiratrix? Or was this last victim done to death by the glum gay whom she had spurned? Or is it that Madden’s wife ought to have kept an eye open for that previous husband of hers, Meeks Wardley Hilby III, whom she had made pay through the nose and elsewhere? And Madeleine: does she still hunger for revenge against Madden, whose angry uncontrol at the wheel had once smashed her womb into barrenness? It is Madeleine who has written down, and tucked into the corner of her bedroom mirror as if it were a reminder to buy facial tissues, the words ‘Revenge is a dish which people of taste eat cold – old Italian saying.’ And looming over it all is her husband the policeman, Alvin Luther Regency, with his male bonding, his dutiful oppression, and his macho machete. Regency is a wonderfully credible picture of a larger lunatic, and the mere thought of him moves Mailer to some quickfire exchanges. As when Madden quizzes Madeleine about him:

‘Why would he lie to me?’

‘He’s a liar,’ Madeleine said. ‘What’s the big news? Most cops are.’

‘You sound as if you don’t like him.’

‘He’s a cruel, overbearing son of a bitch.’

‘I see.’

‘But I like him.’

‘Oh.’

The plot has its effrontery, and has the odd advantage of being unmemorable. Reading the book for the second time within a fortnight (aware too that much of it is about memory), I still couldn’t quite recall how the extrication was to be effected. It would not be fair to say that Mailer’s attitude to those attending his dénouement is Get knotted; but the book knows about knots. ‘I took one look, could not take another, closed the bag. I knew in that instant that I had a soul. I felt it turn in my heart even as my fingers retied the knot at the top of the bag.’

Mailer’s addictions (the book has plenty: to smoking, to women, to a wife, to the wrongs one has done, to revenge) are much in evidence, forensically even: cancer, and evil spirits, and existential acts of courage on the high lonely ledge, and scores settled by those who are annally retentive. ‘I may as well confess that my memory is damnable.’ None of this would be of merit if it weren’t that Mailer can still write like an angel, fallen and flaming. When the plump and lethal Meeks Wardley Hilby III tells the story of how he extorted the blackmailing materials from his father’s butler, and of what the butler exacted in return, his words are hideously pointed: ‘I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to regain property rights to my rectum.’ Get that straight. And as was said by Horne Tooke (nomen est omen again), recently revived by D.A.N. Jones in the London Review: ‘Right is no other than rectum.’

Some American reviewers, obsessed with Mailer’s alimony and with him as a quick buck, have deprecated the writing in this book. I can’t think that they were attending. To, for instance, Mailer’s feeling for the diabolically Miltonic oxymoron: ‘The foul plenitude of losing a wife was embracing me.’ Or to the animations of animosity, so that the striking of a match is an explosive blow (‘My reflexes lived in the place where the match used to strike’). Or to the simplicities of biding and boding, as when it is said by this ex-barkeeper, of trouble-makers in bars: ‘They never bothered you until they did.’ Or of the great house, moneyed and settled and aloof: ‘It is far removed from its gate.’

Mailer is a master of small surprises that may be precursors of seismic shocks. Of the father: ‘Everybody loved him but my mother.’ Of a scurrilous lout: ‘I knew as much physical uneasiness around him as if he kept a knife in his pocket to use below your ribs, and indeed he did keep a knife.’ Such syntax is perfect for the smiler with the knife under the cloak. Mailer has a memory for what lurks; if he speaks of ‘the cloistered heart of ghost stories’, he knows what cloisters are. If the word ‘cleaving’ flashes out, there is a prophetic and hideous sense of its two-edgedness: ‘Twenty-four days of being without a wife you love and hate and certainly fear is guaranteed to leave you cleaving to her like the butt end of addiction itself.’ Mailer has rhythm: better, he has not only a feeling for the mnemonic power of certain rhythms but also an understanding of how they are not only memorable but memory-charged. Like Dickens, with his spurts of feeling and of blood, he will lodge a blank-verse line where it is then full of a race-memory: ‘I removed the stone and felt into the hole in front of the footlocker, my fingers scraping and searching into this soft loam like field mice at the edge of food, and I felt something – it could be flesh or hair or some moist sponge – I didn’t know what, but my hands, fiercer than myself, cleared the debris to pull forward a plastic garbage bag through which I poked and saw enough at once to give one frightful moan, pure as the vertigo of a long fall itself. I was looking at the back of a head. The colour of its hair, despite all the stains of earth, was blond.’ There is an extraordinary sponge-like power, as soaked with Jacobean cadence as is ‘Gerontion’, in the line, unitalicised and rhythmically marked: ‘it could be flesh or hair or some moist sponge.’ And then at the end there is the tautology, at once deranged and clutching at fact however horrid, in ‘The colour of its hair, despite all the stains of earth, was blond.’ It would have been a false economy not to utter the gratuitous horror of the words ‘the colour of’.

Mailer has an ear and eye for these things which sound perfectly normal until you actually contemplate them. ‘He had tattoos of eagles and mermaids all over his arms, and straight black hair, a low brow, a dented nose, a moustache and a couple of missing teeth.’ One knows what is meant, but those missing teeth are very disconcertingly present: it is not just that the man had a couple of teeth missing, but that he had, positively and along with those tattoos and all, a couple of missing teeth. ‘Regency studied our furniture. “Degenerate faggot” was still smoking on his lips’: this not only gets the acridity of the policeman’s rage, and his addiction to it, and the gun-mouth of his murderous mouth, but it also smoulders with what the unhated hearthed faggot used to be. It is beautifully unsqueamish and burly. ‘He opened his window and hawked a throaty yield.’

This is writing which listens to non-committal clues.

’Do you mind if I sit down?’

I did. I didn’t. I made some gesture to indicate as much.

He sat down.

As much, and as little. But Mailer can use these turns not only for fatigued hauteur but for pathos, touchingly placed.

He must be on chemotherapy.

I guess he had become accustomed to the quick wipe from people’s eyes of the initial aversion, for he said: ‘Yeah, I got it.’

‘Where’s it situated?’

He made a gesture to indicate that was neither here nor there.

Such is stoicism.

Mailer’s style is largely to be trusted. His metaphysics can play the very devil with his reviewers. One American newspaper recently offered a reward of $25 to anyone who could find the meaning of the account of Tough guys don’t dance given by the Henry James Professor at New York University, author of The Arts without Mystery.

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