Mailer on 1968

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Don't skim.

You'll be tempted to do just that, of course, because his sentences tend to stretch out sinuously like cats in the sun, and because a culture more at home with the rhythms of blogs—quick hits, short takes, lists and nuggets—than with the time-lapse beauty of a printed page whose meanings unfold gradually and gracefully may find Norman Mailer a hard go.

But if you dash your way through "Miami and the Siege of Chicago," Mailer's masterful account of the upheaval that occurred 40 years ago when Republicans and Democrats met in those two cities, there to select their presidential nominees, you'll miss a lot. First published in 1968, and reissued earlier this month by New York Review Books, Mailer's report glows with descriptions of the people and the places whose permanent identities were forged in the hot furnace of that tragic, fateful year. To understand 1968, you must read Mailer; but to read Mailer, you might have to undergo a patience implant, lest your restless eyes skitter right over chunks of type such as this one:

"Yes, Chicago was a town where no one could forget how the money was made. It was picked up from floors still slippery with blood, and if one did not protest and take a vow of vegetables, one knew at least that life was hard, life was in the flesh and in the massacre of the flesh—one breathed the last agonies of beasts. So something of the entrails and the secrets of the guts got into the faces of native Chicagoans. A great city, a strong city with faces tough as leather hide and pavement. ... But in Chicago, they did it straight, they cut the animals right out of their hearts—which is why it was the last of the great American cities, and people had great faces, carnal as blood, greedy, direct, too impatient for hypocrisy, in love with honest plunder." Chicago, Mailer writes later on the same page—a page that seems to last as long as an all-day sucker—knows "the beauties of a dirty buck."

What, you ask, does such a paragraph tell you about 1968, year of sorrow and change? Not enough, apparently, because Mailer, who died last year after a prolific literary career, surrounds it with similarly overstuffed hunks of prose about the likes of Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson and Mayor Richard J. Daley: a who's-who of 1968, of men torn asunder by a terrible war, by rage over racial injustice, by a sense that the country had somehow jumped the track and was heading down, down, down.

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