Photo by Sixtyeightfeet.
Tonight I watched Charlie Rose interview Norman Mailer.
Mailer is eighty-something years old. He sat back in his chair wearing a half-smile, his ears sticking widely out from his head. He needed a haircut. He talked at length about writing and his life, emphasizing select phrases with a raised hand.
I wrote a paper on Mailer’s Executioner's Song for English class, back in high school. Much of my semester grade depended on the paper, and because of that, and because I was young, I chose to write about the longest book I could find. Then I kept putting it off and it wasn't until a week before it was due that I finally started reading the book.
Mailer’s novel is over a thousand pages long. It's about a man named Gary Gilmore and what was going on in his head during and after the murders he committed. The story just kept going on in painful detail about things I didn’t find interesting. Egad.
I was expecting to be mesmerized by the psychology of this killer, but the narrative wore my patience down to a nub. I skimmed through, trying to make the deadline, trying to get a general idea of what the book was about.
For several nights, I sat on the floor of my bedroom closet, wrapped in a blanket with the overhead light on. I took Sudafed to keep myself awake. I churned out a poorly written paper about how poorly I felt Mailer’s book was written. Fortunately, my English teacher was merciful.
Tonight I surprised myself by hanging onto every word Mailer had to say. Here was this man who was saying he might have another three years of good writing left. Here was this man plotting the three next years of his life, how he would spend them, and which story he would tell. It will probably be the last major story he will ever tell. I thought Mailer was brave to speak about such things. It was as if he were planning his own funeral, and it was going to be a gigantic party.
Why was I so interested in what this man had to say, when I so disliked what he’d written? I suppose because he’s been through a lot. He’s lived life. He’s written books. People spend money to buy his books, wanting to read what he has to say.
Mailer’s enthusiasm tonight was infectious. It’s hard to explain what I felt, listening to him. I was fixated. It was like being a kid and sitting up late, soaking up the stories the camp counselors had from past. The crazy car ride at night. The near escape. The overturned boat. The jubilant, ecstatic summer that no one thought would ever end.