Ben Loory's Reviews > An American Dream

An American Dream by Norman Mailer
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May 07, 2011

really liked it

should be subtitled a book of smells. never read so many smells in my life. all of them bad. seriously, either mailer has the most sensitive nose on the planet, like a bloodhound-level smeller, or this is some really weird experimental thing where all the emotional interactions are couched in terms of theoretical odors given off by people on a second-to-second basis? does this exist? (i don't have much of a sense of smell, and after reading this, am very happy about it.)

anyway. yeah, so, this book: well, norman mailer's a genius. i've resisted it for a long time now but there's no denying it after this book. he reminds me a lot of james ellroy here; same kind of manic all-embracing love-and-hate driven will to macho power, only he's much much much much much smarter than ellroy (who's already pretty fuckin' smart), sees more clearly into human behavior and culture and every sentence is brilliantly cut (if often on the verge of incomprehensible). on the other hand, this book is laughably dated and, well, trash (even more trash than early ellroy), and after about the halfway point it just dissolves into a bunch of incredibly boring dialogues about god knows what, spades with shivs and mobster molls with hearts of gold and evil incest-driven millionaires out to rule the world yammering on and on and on and on... GET BACK TO THE MOON TELLING THE GUY TO DO THINGS my brain kept yelling but the book didn't listen... anyway, i don't know what the fuck was going on through most of it, but man was it electrifying! i mean when it wasn't dull as shit. american psycho thirty years earlier would be a pretty good description. only somehow this book is for real. this isn't a joke (though it's often ridiculous).

jesus christ, what a loon! i had no idea. must read more.

"Son of a bitch," I said, "so that's what it's all about."
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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message 1: by D.R. (last edited May 14, 2011 02:36AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

D.R. Haney I'm amazed, for some reason, that you read this book, Ben.

As you know, I'm a huge fan of Mailer -- I think he's extremely misunderstood, and unfairly tarred as a misogynist, which anyone with a brain can see if they'll only read him, as opposed to going by misquotes or quotes taken out of context or somebody else's opinion of him, and that's likely somebody who's never read him -- but I don't think this is a very good book. It's probably my least favorite of the books by Mailer I've read.

What's interesting about it, though, is that in this book we get, for the first time, some of Mailer's mature ideas -- that is, ideas that he's hinting at and building to in his prior work. After this book, he fine-tunes his ideas, but the basics are present in An American Dream. He's, as someone else once said (I forget whom), an anti-rationalist, with a belief in telepathy, in karma, in magic -- but he believes in those things in his own highly idiosyncratic way, without subscribing to the usual hack notions of them. Yes, I do think Mailer was a genius -- a genius with a touch of the fool, and the fool comes into play because anyone as daring as Mailer, as willing to go as far as he does, is inevitably going to fall and rise with pie on his face. But I love the chances he takes; and if, for example, you read The Prisoner of Sex, you'll encounter ideas that are bandied about everywhere these days -- I mean, you'll hear them on fucking Oprah! -- that sounded just plain weird in 1971, when The Prisoner of Sex appeared. He was well ahead of the pack in many other important respects. I constantly think of how accurately Mailer saw the world we now inhabit when that world was still gestating; yet, in one of his last interviews, he said, "Everything I was against has won," or words to that effect, and laughed about it. I think that shows the kind of guy he was, much more so than opinions based on misunderstandings, hearsay, and ignorance.

Anyway, it's a hoot that you read An American Dream. I'll shut up now.

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Loory oh, i don't think it's a very good book either; i mean, the story's totally ridiculous and vast swathes of it are just plain boring as hell. but man, that voice!! i always took mailer for a rationalist, which i why i never went past those first two i read (naked and the dead and executioner's song); this guy here is out of his mind! it's a beautiful thing! it kinda reminds me of kerouac, or what kerouac always seemed to be aiming for... poetry and boundless life, the tragic-heroic spirit of adventure... but it seems much realer; kerouac always read to me as kind of sad and forced. (or maybe that's just another way of saying that this guy's just gone completely over the wall...)

message 3: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon shit, now i have to read this again. i read this at least fifteen years ago and i remember it seized my interest -- i remember thinking that some parts of it just plain didn't make sense -- that thing where he seduces a maid or someone just after murdering his wife? -- but it somehow held together. and, like ben, i liked the voice at the heart of it. to be quite honest, i think some elements of this book found their way into "the art of losing," thought i couldn't pinpoint exactly what...

message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Loory it has a similar madly-rushing-forward feeling; all you have to do is go back and splice in some tiresome negro dialog!

message 5: by Unbridled (new)

Unbridled excellent review

message 6: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon now i'm all up in this again, about 20 pages in, and it's really hooked me. d.r. curious to know what his best work is -- i read the naked and the dead, of course, in high school and didn't get it, but i don't really know what else of his is worthwhile.

message 7: by D.R. (last edited May 18, 2011 09:38AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

D.R. Haney Hey, Keith, call me Duke, if you will.

Ben and I once discussed The Executioner's Song, and he thinks it's too long. I don't. I think it's a masterpiece, but I haven't had great luck in pressing it on others. Even so, that's probably my favorite Mailer, though, stylistically, it's out of character.

Mailer was very well known for his political journalism. The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 march on the Pentagon by the antiwar movement, used to be one of his most famous books -- indeed, I think it's one of the few that remains in print -- and I like it quite a bit, but I'm probably more partial to Miami and the Siege of Chicago, which is about the 1968 presidential race (and specifically the Republican and (violent) Democratic conventions). It doesn't feel, as with Armies, that Mailer is trying so hard to write a masterpiece, and it contains some of Mailer's extraordinary sketches of real-life people. He really knew how to probe character through externals. I've never read anyone else who comes close in that regard. But you might have to be already interested in the sixties to find Miami or Armies compelling.

Mailer wrote great essays, but I think, unfortunately, all of his collections are now out of print, except possibly for the first and best-known, Advertisements for Myself. It's spotty, but it does contain "The White Negro" ("Anatomy of a Hipster" might also have been an apt title), which some people find ridiculous or offensive or overrated, and so on. I'm on the pro side; I think that essay was a big breakthrough for Mailer, intellectually and, probably, career-wise also. It certainly got people talking about him again after his reputation had suffered through the fifties.

Also, Of a Fire on the Moon is pretty remarkable. It's about the Apollo 11 mission, and parts of it are tough going, but Mailer really went all the way with that book. I mean, where other writers would have just reported on the mission, Mailer is out there talking about machinery and technology and our relation to them, and the far-ranging effects of the mission on the soul, and so on. And you know what? If you, or Ben, or both, should want to read that book, I'll read it again alongside you. We could have, like, a three-man (or two-man) book club. Which may not be a very appealing idea. But there it is anyway.

message 8: by Keith (new)

Keith Dixon thanks! i'm definitely going to pick up one of these, have a look. you see the big bursts of talent in "american dream" and feel his talent...i was curious to know if he had a book in which he put it all together.

maybe i'll try out "executioner's song"...

message 9: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Loory i think you will like executioner's song. it's definitely a helluva book. my problem with it wasn't so much the length (though it was REALLY LONG) as it was that it's divided into two sections, the first of which was about characters i found really interesting, and the second which was about... different characters. both sections were good but while reading the second i just wished that the first would come back. (i'm not as interested in lawyers and journalists as i am in crazy young people on the edge...)

message 10: by Kirk (new)

Kirk Smells AND touch. It's a very sensory book, though I don't always buy his extensive sensory perceptions (nor those thought arrows he shot from time to time).

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