I got my start in journalism-for-pay writing book reviews for the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix. My editor at the Phoenix in those days (the early ’80s), Kit Rachlis, believed in giving young writers challenges — bless him. So one day I found myself staring at the forbidding 700-page mass of a new book by Norman Mailer titled Ancient Evenings — the celebrated novelist’s self-declared bid for literary immortality.
Somebody had to review it, and it really helped if that somebody didn’t have a day job.
The novel, set in ancient Egypt, is widely considered unreadable today — typically, by people who have not read it. And, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d have finished it had I not been paid to do so. But I was glad I did. The book, for all its mad excess, constituted a remarkable act of imaginative ambition — and even if Mailer only made good on a fraction of his self-dare, to see if he could get inside the world-view of a distant age, that was…something.
So — after immersing myself in Mailer’s voluminous body of work, reading his best, from The Naked and the Dead to Advertisements for Myself to Armies of the Night to The Executioner’s Song, along with a smattering of his not-best, of which there was plenty — I gave the book one of its few mixed reviews. And one day, in my infrequently-visited freelance writer’s mailbox, I found a little note from the author — thanking me, graciously, not for whatever praise I might have offered, but for what must have been my evident effort to approach the book on its own terms.
Now, on the one hand, for Mailer to have sent such a note violated what I, in my morally prescriptive youth, thought of as the impenetrable barricade that must always separate Artist from Critic. On the other hand, I was an aspiring little nobody just out of college, and he was Norman Mailer. I let pride win out over any sense of impropriety, and took the note as a rare sign of encouragement from the universe that my decision to set forth on the road of a writing career had not been entirely foolhardy.
At the moment of Mailer’s passing it’s worth remembering how much of his work centered on the moment of death. Ancient Evenings begins at the moment immediately following its narrator’s death, and its story is told from the perspective of this post-mortem residue, a “Ka” in the Egyptian nomenclature. “In the disorienting lightning flash of the book’s first page,” I wrote back in 1983, “the reader has no idea who the narrator is, but the narrator’s worse off — he has no idea what he is.”
Ancient Evenings also turns out to be a sequel to Mailer’s last big book. Another death-haunted story, full of musings about reincarnation, The Executioner’s Song built up slowly to full volume at Gary Gilmore’s execution, then dropped into silence. Ancient Evenings picks up at the very next moment. Although the two books’ material couldn’t be more different (one is a collation of the mundane, the other a heap of the spectacular), they’re both written in blunt, hard monosyllables that show the author off more humbly and impressively than the assertive baroque extravagance he used to employ. The sentences of Ancient Evenings are like blocks of stone heaved laboriously into place, and if the strain occasionally shows, the sight almost always elicits awe.
Here’s to Mailer’s Ka, wherever it may be.
[tags]norman mailer, criticism, ancient evenings, obituaries[/tags]
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