Like many another vain, empty, and bullying body of our time, I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am less close now than when I began. Defeat has left my nature divided, my sense of timing is eccentric, and I contain within myself the bitter exhaustions of an old man, and the cocky arguments of a bright boy. So I am everything by my proper age of thirty-six, and anger has brought me to the edge of the brutal.
So begins Norman Mailer in his Advertisements for Myself.
Gotta watch what you say about Norman Mailer, or, for that matter, Bob Dylan. Say the wrong thing and you'll find both these adepts have a karma that'll just come down the blogsphere and getcha. So what I have to say next will come through a prism of candles and fasting.
Like many a young fool, I have been absolutely fascinated by the workings of Mailer's mind, so fascinated that I almost felt that his journalistic (and novelistic) work was my own. I began to emulate, copy, admire. But Mailer, like God, is doing his own thing, oblivious to your anthropological or creative makeup.
But hold. Norman Mailer has the Second World War behind him. So do I. And that makes all the difference.
Any serious novelist who has the Second World War behind him usually makes it, and makes it big, Gore Vidal, Herman Wouk, Terry Southern, Jerzy Kosinski, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.--the list is nearly endless with the aristocracy of war. I guess I'm um, broken-down aristocracy.
So with an eye half out to Mr. Mailer's Advertisments for Myself, I began my own novel, and here is how my lead-in went:
So I quit my job, leave my wife and son, get myself set up in this Spadina Road loft and tell myself I'm going to write the Great Canadian Novel.
And on the second day, i get up, stare at the debauched Slavic face in the cracked mirror, and it tells me...You're wrong. Go back. Go back over your life.
And when your return, be jealous of no man's accomplishment. Love your wife; enjoy your fatherhood...because each breath that you take has been purchased at great expense.
Here is Chapter One of The Black Icon.
Bright July sunlight etched out the shapes of dun and green fields stretching eastward from the gloomy Carpathians. The Prut River wound through rectangles of wheat that skipped checker-fashion across squares of yellow-tufted potato fields. Above, the sun shone in summer heat.
Below, in a potato tract, Sophia Podolska, nine months pregnant, looked up at the sky and wiped her face with the tails of her babushka. Not a cloud in sight. Another hot one.
With a sigh, she bent back towards her work. Work kept her busy, kept her from thinking of the loss of two infant boys before the arrival of Katerina, a healthy, bright girl child now six years of age.
"Dear God, if you could only make his baby inside me just as whole and healthy."
Sophia's prayer was suddenly cut off. A dizziness seized her and she found it hard to catch her breath. A sharp pain came into her abdomen, causing her to drip the hoe and clutch her middle. "It's coming, Sophia's brain warned.
She hurried off in the direction of her home. The pain and the swimming sensation told her shoe would be lucky to make the house, let alone the midwife who was a good mile away.
She stumbled on, now approaching the woodshed some paces from the house.
A sudden wet leakage running down her thighs told her the woodshed would be the place. She opened the leather-hinged door and sank down heavily on the chip-littered floor.
"Michael," she called her husband's name as the pain increased to a pitch she could no bear. "Michael...Help...The ensuing blackness was the last thing she remembered.
* * * * * * * *
She awoke to find the baby's head protruding from her groins. Without a second thought, she grasped the head with her open palms and gave a yank that sent a fresh spasm of pain through her, causing her to faint once more just as the infant was drawn clear.
Consciousness. But now a strange, high-pitched sound came from a red, appendaged creature beside Sophia. A thrashing entrail snaked around its neck. Again, by some Neolithic instinct, the pinched the umbilical cord with her nails, tied it and began wiping the baby off with the upper part of her shirt, the only part not soaked by the birth fluids. The infant, by this time, made a shrill, breathless sound.
"Cry, my little one," she thought, cry for both of us."
Having cleaned the child and herself as well as she could, Sophia held the infant to her, giving him her breast, which the boy bit impulsively with his toothless gums, but apparently without success. The cry again. She, realizing what was happening, took her other breast between her teeth until the blood and milk ran free. She then offered the breast to the grasping baby. No sooner had she done this, than a brilliant shaft of sunlight caused her to squint as someone opened the shed door. Michael's suntanned face appeared through the crack, bright brown eyes focusing on the mother and child.
"Sophia," he rasped as he came down on one linen-clad knee to stoop over the woman and infant.
Sophia said nothing as she cuddled the suckling child.
Well, that's how The Black Icon started. I had some success with the book in the United States, but precious little in Canada. Perhaps in my lead-in I shouldn't have mentioned that I had set myself up in a Spadina Avenue loft to write my book. Seems the Canadian publisher I first sent the book to me was doing just that, House of Anansi setting itself up on a Spadina Road loft. In my lead in, I showed superiority to Sixties Canadian literature. I was unhip. Or too hip. They were into modernism, I was into myself and my family’s trek through Europe, shelled and bombed, starving and abject. My American success came when I won two tuition scholarships with a satellite campus of the University of California in Mexico. This was in the days of great philanthropy for writers from rich Americans. No Canadian success in hardcover, or even softcover. I had to serialize the book in a provincial magazine.
Well. The Black Icon is hardly The Naked and the Dead.
But Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead fascinated me long before I wrote The Black Icon, fascinated me because it had echoes of Tolstoy, Gogol, James T. Farrell, Hemingway.
Fascinated me because it was American, and what immigrant kid didn't want to be an American. I had to be an American at once, especially after reading The Naked and the Dead. "Carlos, now you make love to your hand. When you grow a little, you will make love to a girl."-- or something like that in one of the flashbacks out of Mailer's terrific atoll war scene.
And then came Advertisements for Myself and I was hooked. What immigrant kid in his twenties hadn't felt rejection, failure, pain? It happened to Norman Mailer at the height of his incredible success. But it seemed to happen to me before it actually happened.
Yet there was Mailer's transcendence. Where Norman Mailer "failed" with The Deer Park, he succeeded--wildly succeeded with his Advertisments for Myself. He did it. Broke the Big Bitch. And went on to the Pulitzer Prize and more. But, as you get older, the critical faculty tends to set in, and he never again (to my mind) wrote a satisfactory novel.
So I guess what I'm setting down here is my own Advertisements for Myself. The approach worked for near-genius Norman Mailer. Imitation is flattery. I am no genius.
But I can write. Can always write. Or try.
Hope you didn't find all this mawkish, Mr. Mailer.
But then you did try to court Hemingway once.