Do you remember Norman Mailer? He had big ears and used to bully people, especially women, at parties and on TV. You might have mistaken him for an elephant seal. He wrote novels in which bigmouthed guys bullied people, especially women. Having begun as the sort of writer who gets your attention by throwing up in your lap and then running away, his career ended badly, with novels like Ancient Evenings, in which we got to hear what sex was like 6000 years ago. His insecurities were astonishing; he wanted to be reincarnated as ‘a black athlete.’ Maybe the Egyptology helped with that?
Have you heard of William F. Buckley, Jr? Maybe. He was an arch conservative and a television wunderkind. He had a show, ‘Firing Line’, on which he debated the great and the good of the Sixties, Henry Kissinger and Hugh Hefner and Gore Vidal (who was Buckley’s real nemesis, not Mailer, and who, weirdly, gets barely a mention here). Buckley was the pet of impressionists, especially David Frye, who used to roll his eyes up into his head and flash his tongue in and out like a lizard, hissing out pretentious Yalie phrases out like ‘ex officio’. Schultz is a bit better on Buckley than Mailer (who comes across as almost indescribable): “Buckley … seemed like a breath of fresh air for America’s conservatives. Finally someone was fighting the good fight – and doing it without looking like a hate-filled kook.” Different times.
Buckley and Mailer are both long dead and, on the strength of this history, not very interesting. Surprisingly, Buckley is the one whose ‘legacy’, to use a word beloved of ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers, is the one that may be actually be a legacy. Meaning that he left some thought around. Mailer was a novelist, admittedly a prize winner and, with the lack of anyone else around, ‘the most important writer in America’, according to Schultz and himself, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone reads him today. The ‘lyrical’ passages we’re treated to are more than enough – what a goofball.
What develops pretty rapidly is that the two did not have a ‘friendship’. It was more of a nodding acquaintance punctuated by infrequent public debates. By the time you read the very small amount of correspondence between them that Schultz deigns to quote, which consists of deep thoughts like ‘Hope to see you’ and ‘Glad to have you back’, you will be wondering how the author can claim it was a friendship at all, let alone how it could ‘shape’ something. The Sixties weren’t shaped by anything.
There is some entertainment value, at least as regards Mailer (Buckley was sort of a wit, though he wasn’t funny.) It’s amusing to read about Norman’s miniature city, which he built in his flat out of Lego bricks. This began when he decided to run for mayor of New York City. Mailer seems actually to have believed that he was studying architecture and urban planning in doing this: “Each Lego brick represents an apartment. There’d be something like twelve thousand apartments. The philosophers would live at the top. The call girls would live in the white bricks, and the corporate executives would live in the black.” Nice vision of society. So maybe it’s good that he didn’t get elected.
Schultz fails to provide any quotations which justify the two men’s reputations for rhetoric. It’s strange, but the only passages in this book that seem useful or memorable are the words of others. As regards the general pickle that Sixties America was in, here is Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society: “What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values – and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?” Neither Buckley nor Mailer ever said anything remotely this accurate, stirring and demanding, or, if they did, it is not quoted here.
Buckley and Mailer does remind us that there used to be a being known as the ‘public intellectual’. These folk no longer exist. Their brief existences were subsumed and then snuffed out by celebrity culture, the loss of any serious broadcasting, and, by now, the internet. Schultz does a good job in demonstrating how this happened, and how fragile and misunderstood was their notoriety. People began to be horrified by Mailer, who, incredibly, conceived a kind of lurching respect for Richard Nixon; Buckley ultimately demonstrated that he was a very unenlightened kind of conservative (constantly insisting that whites were indeed a more developed race), though he didn’t have the chops for what became today’s ultra-right brainless rodomontade.
One gets the feeling that the strongest connection between Buckley and Mailer was that they both roomed in the same hotel in Chicago during the notorious, violent Democratic Party convention in 1968, and watched the riots unfold mostly from the safety of their windows. For all their talk about ‘morals’, these two never really had any, as is demonstrated by this over-long book. The heck with ’em.
(This review was first published in the Herald on July 11, 2015.)