Peter Siskind: Paradoxes Upon Complexities ... Mailer's Urban Vision

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[A native New Yorker, Peter Siskind lives in Fairmount and is a professor of history at Arcadia University in Glenside. You can email directly with him]

"Only a great city provides honest spectacle, for that is the salvation of the schizophrenic soul," says Norman Mailer in Miami and the Siege of Chicago. If Mailer, who died last week at the age of 84, was only occasionally a writer of cities, his urban religion infused everything he did and wrote. This shouldn't be surprising. After all Mailer was a Brooklyn man most of his life, a Village Voice founder, and a New York City mayoral candidate.

But this isn't the place for Mailer biography or overview. For those things, check out THIS serviceable New York Times obituary and THIS fun Times slide show of his life. And you can't go wrong with THIS hour from the Charlie Rose Show last week -- an edited montage of nearly a dozen interviews he gave in the last fifteen or so years of his life that provide a glimpse of him at his best -- his calmer and I think notably wiser years. Rather this is the place to consider Norman Mailer's urban vision, and on that subject the place to start is certainly that same Miami and the Siege of Chicago, his on-the-ground reportorial account of the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

At the beginning of the masterful Chicago section, Mailer sets the scene. It's a familiar vision:

"The reporter was sentimental about the town. Since he had grown up in Brooklyn, it took him no time to recognize, whenever he was in Chicago again, that the urbanites here were like the good people of Brooklyn -- they were simple, strong, warm-spirited, sly, rough, compassionate, jostling, tricky and extraordinarily good-natured because they had sex in their pockets, muscles on their backs, hot eats around the corner, neighborhoods which dripped with the sauce of local legend, and real city architecture, brownstones with different windows on every floor, vistas for miles of red-brick and two-family wood-frame houses with balconies and porches, runty stunted trees rich as farmland in their promise of tenderness the first city evenings of spring, streets where kids played stick-ball and roller-hockey, lots of smoke and iron twilight. The clangor of the late nineteenth century, the very hope of greed, was in these streets."

In the following handful of pages before launching into an epic narrative account of the Democratic crack-up, Mailer traverses the physical and social landscape of Chicago, and contained in that description is the essence not just of Chicago but of urban America itself -- all that fascinates, amuses, appalls and inspires us. There are immigrants and the affluent, universities and untouchables. Of course there's the El, with "iron screeching against iron about a turn, and caverns of shadow on the pavement beneath." And then there are the slaughterhouses with their death and entrails and odors, which Mailer's expansive prose reincarnates into much larger metaphors about the city ("Chicago was a town where nobody could ever forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood.") and life ("Watching the animals be slaughtered, one knows the human case -- no matter how close to angel we may come, the butcher is equally there.") Mailer embraces it all -- the comforts, contrasts and contradictions, the unexpected and the unknown.

Back home in New York City in the early 1970s, Mailer wrote the essay "The Faith of Graffiti," where he again takes on the over-flowing stuff sack that is American urban life. Here is New York in a very low time -- angry, dirty, unsafe and nearly broke. And graffiti is everywhere -- on buildings and subways, windows and walls, on cars and trees and benches and fences. To most New Yorkers this graffiti represented disrespect and the uncontrollability of a sour, restive generation ("New York citizenry saw all the children as mad . . . ."). But Mailer was always a challenger of conventions and unexamined assumptions, and he takes his reporter's notebook to the South Bronx and Washington Heights to talk to and hang out with a collection of locally-renown, mostly black and Puerto Rican graffiti-producing kids. He empathizes with their spirit and is impressed by their work ethic -- the persistent effort it takes to get your graffiti name sprayed on sites around the city. Mailer muses out loud about these kids. Weren't they providing arousing visual levity in an era of drab, lifeless architecture full of flat-topped skyscrapers, blank walls and sterile, empty plazas? Might they be the important aesthetic innovators of their times, the rightful heirs of Picasso and Miró and Pollock? Might their use of a subversive urban canvass be the sly, trenchant revealer of American dreams lost and found?

Mailer's famous and infamous ego saw kindred spirits here: "Sufficient in the graffiti-proliferating years of the early Seventies to paint the front door of every subway car they could find. The ecstasy of the roller coaster would dive down their chests if they were ever waiting in a station when a twelve car train came stampeding in and their name, HONDO, WILDCAT, SABU or LOLLIPOP was on the front!" But if Mailer was sometimes an urban sentimentalist, so too was he also simultaneously an urban realist and cynic; he understood that these kids are just doing their best playing a bad hand dealt from a stacked deck: "In the ghetto it is almost impossible to find some quiet location for your identity. No, in the environment of the slum, the courage to display yourself is your only capital, and crime is the productive process which converts such capital to the modern powers of the world, ego and money." And his urban vision was endlessly complex. He inserts the tragedy, too -- a story about a locally famous graffiti artist running from the cops, flipping a stolen van into a furniture store window, and having doctors spend seven hours removing part of his damaged brain. So too is there the trip to Grace Mansion to talk to Mayor John Lindsay in the final weeks of his tumultuous eight years in office. Lindsay hated the graffiti; "insecure cowards," he called the kids doing it. Of course Mailer disagreed with Lindsay, but he respected and admired and felt sorry for him too, this smart, ambitious, hard-working, well-intentioned, pragmatic urban liberal with the movie-star good looks but the terrible misfortune of coming to power during the chaos of the 1960s ("The question may have been whether an ambitious man had ever come to power at a time less promising for himself."). Here was Mayor Lindsay leaving office widely hated by white New Yorkers "for every intolerable reason, first of which was his defense of the ghettos" who also "had been the first and most implacable enemy of subway graffiti" because he saw the damage to the city's spirit when the new, expensive, hard-fought-for subway cars (finally air conditioned!) were instantly defaced with multi-hued spray paint.

Paradoxes, upon complexities, upon tragedies, upon sentimentality -- that was Mailer's urban vision. And form followed function: reading Mailer's most ebullient prose about cities is itself a kind of urban experience -- so full of life it possesses a tactile quality not dissimilar to city walking, where the range of senses are stimulated up to and then sometimes beyond the point of over-load. Of course cities proper were only a small part of Mailer's literary terrain. His impossible ambition was to explore and reveal all of America, and he wanted subjects the bigger the better -- World War II and Vietnam, the C.I.A., murderers and Marilyn Monroe and Muhammad Ali. But Mailer knew as well as anyone that our cities are one of those big subjects -- no matter how hard our ever-more-suburbanizing culture may try to forget it -- and he knew as well that it was the urban sensibility within us all that incubates so many of our greatest creative energies.

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