Flying into Provincetown on an eight-seat prop plane, you see what Norman Mailer meant when he wrote the preface to Are We in Vietnam? — “In Provincetown, geography runs out, and you are surrounded by the sea. So it is a strange place.”
In the summer of 2009, I arrived at the end of geography, one of the inaugural Norman Mailer fellows — seven writers who spent a month in Provincetown and attended seminars in Mailer’s house, established as a writer’s colony after his death in 2007.
After settling into a condo a few houses down from Mailer’s, Larry Schiller — filmmaker, writer, and the colony’s enigmatic executive director — gave us the four-digit code that would allow us to enter the Mailer house for exactly 28 days, at which point the code would change and stragglers would have to return their condo keys through the door’s mail slot.
Mailer’s house is brick in a town of shingles, solid but not grand, sort of like the man himself — built squat but commanding an excellent view. Mailer’s biographer, J. Michael Lennon, gave us a tour.
The living room is separated from the porch with Plexiglas (it used to be glass but was replaced after a winter storm hurled porch chairs through the windows). Lennon said Mailer sat on the porch and stared at the water for hours, and it is easy to see why. At high tide, the strip of sand below the house disappears and water laps against the deck; at low tide, people walk out on what looks almost like a lunar landscape of sand and shallow water troughs.
Lennon told us that Mailer believed writing had to be done every day, otherwise “it was like leaving soldiers out in the rain.” He said you couldn’t tell yourself you were going to do it and then not do it, that it was a “disservice to the subconscious.”
We went from room to room, chasing Mailer’s ghost, all the way to the attic room, his writing room. Toward the end of his life, Mailer would drag himself up the narrow stairs with a cane in each hand. The room was small and stifling; thick brownish-purple drapes covered the window and kept out the sun and the view. Mailer sat at his desk facing the closed theatrical curtains; sometimes he took a quick nap on the narrow bed beside the desk.
I was struck by two things: first, the green Bellevue sign that had a prominent place on the shelf at the top of the stairs, Mailer’s reminder of the 17 days he spent in Bellevue after stabbing his second wife, Adele, with a penknife.
The second was the impact, the sheer life force, of a man who wrote more than 30 books, several of them in this room. It was the room where the work was done, evident in the shelves and shelves of books and papers. There were massive manuscripts that had been photocopied for research, including a complete Warren Commission Report, which took up an entire cabinet.
We were encouraged to write in Mailer’s house, but I found I couldn’t. Sitting in the living room, where Mailer kept dinner companions waiting while he finished writing in the attic, was like trying to write in a shrine. There were photos on the wall: Mailer with Vidal, Mailer with Plimpton, Mailer with Castro, Mailer with Vonnegut, Mailer with Jackie Kennedy.
Once, I wandered out to the porch and plopped down in a white rocking chair with faded pink cushions.
“That was Mailer’s chair,” someone said. “That’s where he sat to watch the water.”
I jumped up from the chair and went back to the wall of photos. The pictures of Mailer with the famous figures of his day underscored that Mailer wrote at a time when some novelists were also public intellectuals. It was an era when readers looked to fiction for political and ethical guidance. No matter your feelings on Mailer, the fact remains that no American fiction writers today are filling that void.
In part, intellectual influence has become the domain of nonfiction. People want first person “true” narratives of war or politics or adventure. And many fiction writers, like many Americans, feel politics is a degrading form of engagement. The irony is that we celebrate reality over fiction at a time when truth has never been more manipulated.
Of course, there are still many novelists who write about social and political issues. One of the finer of these commentators is Don DeLillo. He read at Mailer’s house one afternoon, then patiently answered our questions. Someone asked him when he knew he was a writer. “As a matter of fact,” he said. “I remember the day.” DeLillo said he was walking down Second Avenue in Manhattan and thought, “I can really do this.” The only thing I could think to ask was “Southbound or northbound?” But I couldn’t ask that so I asked something more stupid: “Do you ever get stuck?” Amazingly, he answered with seriousness. “Yes, absolutely.” And then what do you do, I asked, with a tinge of desperation. He said then he “calmed” himself and reread. He said in rereading it often became clear to him what he should do.
Though it’s difficult to imagine Mailer at a loss for words, I assume he, too, must have been stuck with his writing sometime. And I wondered if he reread his own work or if he turned instead to the empirical research he relied on for his fiction — the Warren Commission Report, the Gary Gilmore tapes, the voluminous material on Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Being in Mailer’s house was a harsh reminder that the “nonfiction novel” of The Executioner’s Song was still new in 1979 and not something I could graft onto a novel that I’d already been working on too long. But I continued to wonder, if the so-called New Journalism had given way to the current excellence in long-form reporting, then what was the evolution of the nonfiction novel?
I began to spend long stretches at the beach, cursing myself for not being able to write in Mailer’s house and obsessing over the passing days as if they were squandered gold. One afternoon as I sat in the sand watching my soldiers drown and disservicing my subconscious, I was distracted by two young boys playing soccer with their father. They ran ahead, screaming happily, and suddenly stopped to look at something in the sand. They were completely silent.
“Is it a dead fish?” the father asked from a distance.
“No,” the older boy said.
“It’s just the remains of a fish,” the father said as he approached, “the bones.”
“Can we bring it home?” the younger boy asked.
And they were off again, running and screaming after the ball on the beach. It was moving to watch them stop mid-sprint to acknowledge death, perhaps for the first time. And it was moving, too, to watch them take off again, just as suddenly.
I sat watching the spot where they had been standing. “The fish is dead,” I said to the empty beach. But fish have been dying since fish have been living. And there are always more fish. Something may kill off the sharks, the deep-water fish, but small fish can’t worry about that.
Somehow this glimpse of death — of its reliability, its anonymity — made me forget that I was sitting in the shadow of Mailer’s house and freed me to pick up the pen and search for the place where geography really runs out, where no houses exist, but where writers live, on the page. • 8 November 2010