Tough Guys Don’t Dance: Norman Mailer vs. the People’s Prick

Reading Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance reminds me of a stint I did once as a custodian at a mental hospital. Occasionally, I had to clean up something on the admitting ward, where the schizophrenics and manic depressives had just been pulled off the street in full psychosis, before they’d been drugged into the sad, silent state that is the primary goal of mental health facilities.

What the patients on this ward all had in common was a tendency to stand around talking to themselves. Loudly. I don’t think they saw it as talking to themselves—they were talking to the aliens hovering just outside the barred window, or the demon lurking in the corner, or the little mice scurrying up the leg of the nurse who didn’t like psych patients (and was mean to all of them).

Whenever I had the time to actually stop and listen to any of them, however, it would always turn out that what they were saying made perfect sense, in a poetic, metaphoric kind of way. Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be talking with the patients. I was supposed to be sweeping or cleaning a restroom, or wiping up puke, or whatever. But I remember a conversation I had with one guy shouting at a demon.

Me: “You sound scared.”

Him: “Of course I’m scared. Look at him!”

Me: “I can’t see him. What does he look like?”

Him: “It’s my father. He just won’t leave me alone.”

In no time, I was standing there having a perfectly lucid conversation with this guy about his father. I agreed his father was scary. I didn’t like his father any more than he did. What was most illuminating to me about this exchange, however, was that he wasn’t just ranting and raving about nothing. He really did have something to say, but his method of communication—spouting off loudly into the void—wasn’t going to get him any listeners.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance is a lot like that. There’s a lot of loud crazy talk, and the feeling I get is that behind all the ranting and raving, Mailer’s trying to get something out about the struggle he’s in. And if you take your time to understand Mailer’s surrogate in the novel, narrator Tim Madden (and it isn’t easy because of his braggadocio), you get to see deeper into Mailer’s psyche than in any of his previous books.

Norman Mailer was one of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed authors. He started his writing career at the age of twenty-five with The Naked and the Dead, considered by many one of the greatest war novels of all time. In 1968, he gave us The Armies of the Night, his “novelized” account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, a protest where Mailer himself was arrested. The book won not only a Pulitzer Prize, but the National Book Award. Then, twelve years later, his novel The Executioner’s Song won him a second Pulitzer Prize.

Five years after that, in 1984, Mailer gave us Tough Guys Don’t Dance, a novel that purports to be some kind of murder mystery. The book does have a plot and may even follow the standard mystery format (I haven’t read all that much in the genre). The main character and narrator, Tim Madden, keeps finding severed human heads in his marijuana stash. And since he has no recollection of his prior inebriated weekend, he fears that he may be the one who’s been cutting off the heads.  All of the characters in this book are caricatures of desperate kinky people, most of them drunks or druggies, any of whom seem crazy enough to have been the head chopper. So, it probably does meet the minimum requirements for a mystery. But it’s not a murder mystery, though Mailer was skewered by some of the critics who reviewed it as if it were.

In his New York Times review, Denis Donoghue said that Mailer was attempting to imitate Dashiell Hammett, and went on:

“Hammett was far more equably in possession of his genre than Mailer is, so he engaged his narrative without fuss. Mailer has let his obsessions dominate the narrative, to the extent of confounding main roads with side issues, highways with detours. Where Hammett was cool, Mailer is loose, his self-indulgence all too assertively a matter of putting his obsessions yet again on show… what I mostly feel, reading ”Tough Guys Don’t Dance,” is the wretched inadequacy of the novel to the intention it clearly enough avows.”

As usual, the New York Times gets it wrong. Mailer treats the murder mystery in his book in such a cursory fashion that it’s clear he has no interest in the genre. He throws in a couple severed heads at the beginning, then has the villains come out and explain the whole thing at the end. So much for the mystery. Tough Guys Don’t Dance is clearly a book Mailer wrote to describe his own history as a writer, using thinly disguised imagery that the critics didn’t seem to recognize.

For example, Mailer has Tim Madden put forward his “discovery” that the Provincetown Monument, built in 1910 to commemorate the landing of the pilgrims in Massachusetts, has become a meeting place for male homosexuals. According to Madden, gay men know that phallic edifices, like towers and monuments, are great places to cruise, as these shapes in and of themselves attract gay men. As Madden puts it:

Yes, was it not true that every place renowned for its colony of homosexuals invariably had such a monument? I thought of the men and boys who cruised the obelisk in Central Park, and the invitations with phallic measurements listed next to many a telephone number inscribed on the partitions of the public toilets at the foot of Washington Monument.

This phallic symbol is central to the book (as is the homophobia), as Madden has also been traumatized by a drunken attempt one night to climb the monument—not via the stairway inside, but via the bricks outside (see photo). He gets stuck up on the head of the big prick, can’t get down, and finds himself hanging onto the glans for dear life and screaming for help.

Isn’t this the perfect analogy for Mailer’s career as a writer? He started out hip, as hip as hip could be. He was one of the founders of the Village Voice in Greenwich Village in 1955, the forerunner of all the “underground” presses in the U.S. He was hanging with the beatniks. A few years later, as a staunch critic of the Vietnam War, he signed a pledge to pay no Federal taxes until the war ended. He was right there with Allen Ginsberg and all the rock groups and hippies and civil rights demonstrators.

In 1970, however, both Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch were published and Mailer suddenly found himself enemy number one of the new feminist movement. Both Millet and Greer targeted Mailer for alleged chauvinism in his writings. Never one to back down from a fight, in 1971 Mailer published his own book on sexual politics, The Prisoner of Sex, written from what the feminists were sure to see as a chauvinist pig perspective, and the lines in the sand had been drawn. All of the liberals, the progressives, and the “hip” were embracing feminism, and Mailer was on the other side. He’d gone from being the hippest of the hip to the enemy of the hip overnight. He was Tim Madden, a drunken fool who’d climbed this big dick and found himself unable to get down.

It’s impossible that a writer of Mailer’s powers did not see the implications of Tim Madden climbing up a big dick, then hanging there screaming for help.

Then there’s the part in the middle of the novel where Mailer’s surrogate, the manly Tim Madden, starts ranting about John Updike. For no logical reason, Madden delivers a soliloquy about a long quote from an Updike short story, “One’s Neighbor’s Wife,” describing it as “the best description of pussy I ever came across.” (Note Mailer’s double entendre—ha!) I’m not going to reproduce the entire Updike quote, but it’s supposedly a female describing her vagina, using poetic forest-like imagery (remember back when women had pubic hair?). It starts with the words “each hair is precious and individual,” and eventually gets to the line: “the kisses of fur on the inside of my thighs, the lambent fuzz that ornaments the cleavage of my fundament,” and goes on from there for a few more lines that make you cringe. Let’s face it, as writers go, John Updike has to be one of the wimpiest ever to put paper into typewriter.

Mailer (Madden) comments ironically on this drivel: “I realized I had never looked at a pussy properly until I read Updike.” Then Mailer, as Madden, takes his own stab at the new feminist fad of preposterous descriptions of pussy, using a tree as an analogy: “The velveteen of moss in the ingathered crotch of my limbs, the investiture of algae on the terraces of my bark … ” It’s hilarious. Mailer is basically saying, “Updike, you’re whipped!”

I saw Mailer speak once. It was shortly after he’d become “the enemy,” in ’73 or ’74, in Zellerbach Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. A day before the speech, a poster on Telegraph Avenue appeared announcing a “Men’s Protest” that was being organized for Mailer’s talk, so I went to the meeting, thinking I might get an article out of it for the Berkeley Barb or one of the other alternative press papers in the Bay Area back then. The meeting turned out to be some kind of men’s liberation group. A lot of the guys in attendance already knew each other, and I was a fish out of water. The first part of the meeting was some sort of group rap therapy session, with guys taking turns complaining about how awful it was that men weren’t allowed to show emotions, or even hug each other. A few guys cried.

Then, the group leader and various impromptu speakers attacked Norman Mailer for being such a terrible role model for men with his outmoded, paternalistic views. The group leader urged us all to bring a picket sign to the protest. Slogans were suggested. We would be meeting outside Zellerbach an hour before the scheduled talk by Mailer, and we would be going into Zellerbach to see his talk and disrupt it. Then he said, “Wait until Mailer sees the People’s Prick!”  But he refused to answer questions about whatever the hell the People’s Prick was.

The next day, I went to Zellerbach, but I didn’t carry a sign. I just wanted to see Norman Mailer and whatever the People’s Prick might turn out to be—as it happens, a six-foot-tall blue furry penis (a guy in a blue penis suit) who went boinging across the stage to the podium where Mailer was about to begin his talk. (You gotta love Berkeley.) The place was packed and the crowd went wild. Mailer seemed perplexed by the intrusion, but quickly regained his composure and tried to engage the Big Dick in conversation, at least until a couple of stage hands escorted the People’s Prick from the stage. I don’t remember a single thing from Mailer’s talk, other than that he was interrupted many times by protestors, mostly women, who shouted things about sexism and inequality.

I suspect few writers of Mailer’s stature have had to endure the public vitriol he encountered regularly. His drinking didn’t help much, as it was not unlike him to show up drunk for public appearances.

Mailer was 61 when he wrote Tough Guys Don’t Dance. I suspect he was less than sober when he wrote much of it. It rambles beautifully, much like Henry Miller’s writing, and very unlike Dashiell Hammett. Even more unlike John Updike.


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