A review of Mailer’s Last Days by Robert Begiebing.
The title essay of J. Michael Lennon’s new book is a diaristic recounting of Mailer’s final illnesses, beginning in 2005, until his death in 2007, written by the man who eventually became Mailer’s closest literary colleague and confidante. How Lennon became close to Mailer is one tensile truss that binds the book and raises it beyond mere gallimaufry. The book is an artful amalgam of personal memoirs, critical essays on Mailer and his literary contemporaries, and interviews with and about Mailer.
Memoir is essential to the theme Lennon announces in his Prologue. “The essays attempt to explain why and how I became Mailer’s putative son, and how I became, for a time, less of a son to my actual father. Now, however, I feel closer to Dad than at any other time since he died of alcoholism in 1975.” Writing about one’s life, especially one’s early life with one’s extended family, is a process, Lennon discovered, of taking stock, of seeking meaning that before the writing process eluded the writer—the process elicited meaning. The book in fact begins, for three chapters, by taking us into Lennon’s boyhood until he left Fall River, Massachusetts, for college. Mailer is not mentioned in these early chapters. Those chapters were written from 2017-18, but unlike the critical essays, not previously published.
The memoir essays about his boyhood take us into the heart of Lennon’s family life. Those who know Mike Lennon will find here many revelations about what shaped him as a man and scholar. Each reader will be able to identify, perhaps, with some formative experiences. For me it was his family’s working class Catholic roots, his World War II (Pacific theater) veteran father, his father’s alcoholism and natural brilliance (uninformed by higher education), Lennon’s long stint as an altar boy who left the church after leaving home, his relationship to his brother Peter (five years younger), his learning to smoke at a young age, his biking around town with pals in the pre-helicopter-parent era, his Quebecois DNA by way of a grandmother whose family, like mine, came south to work in the mills, mills his Irish ancestors labored in as well. These are all elements similar to my own boyhood and family life, as depicted in A Berkshire Boyhood, a book Lennon credits with planting “the seed” of the boyhood memoirs in his own book. As the saying goes, it’s as if we went to different schools together.
Most of the rest of the memoir essays collected here focus on how Lennon in graduate school found his way, not without difficulty, to Norman Mailer. How he met Mailer and Mailer’s friend and biographer Robert Lucid. And how under Lucid’s mentorship (and after Lucid’s death in 2006) Lennon became Mailer’s archivist, biographer, collaborator, and “adopted son.”
It is in the critical essays on Mailer’s literary contemporaries that Lennon’s erudition shines. Among others, Tom Wolfe, Shirley Hazzard (on Graham Greene), James Jones, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Don DeLillo, and Robert Stone are given astute analysis, opening a wide window on the post-war American literary scene. Lennon is nothing if not a man who does his homework, relentlessly. One might pick any of these essays as exemplars of Lennon’s capacity as a critic. I’ll pick two.
The chapter on Robert Stone examines The Library of America’s release in 2020 of a volume, edited by Stone’s friend and biographer Madison Smart Bell, that includes three of Stone’s great novels, all connected to “A Mistake 10,000 Miles Long,” a phrase from Stone that Lennon picks as his title. That title refers to the distance required for the USA to Vietnam military supply chain that also returned the bodies of 50,000 American corpses, to say nothing of the thousands more of wounded returning that distance home. Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and Outerbridge Reach are the novels under analysis. All these novels have main characters deeply affected, even damaged, by their experience in the war.
Whether it be Ray Hicks of Dog Soldiers, whose last hours we follow and who is not unlike the holy Cheyenne warriors of that name who were expected to fight their enemies as if the Cheyenne were already dead, or Owen Browne of Outebridge Reach, or the characters of A Flag for Sunrise, they are all on a pilgrim’s journey, “always getting little glints of what may or may not be God,” as Stone put it. “All of them are pursuing something beyond themselves.” The comparisons to Graham Greene, whom Lennon examines in an earlier chapter by way of Shirley Hazzards’s memoir of her friendship with Greene, might seem obvious, but Lennon makes fine distinctions here.
In their creation of memorable characters receptive to the numinous, susceptible to God glints, their novels are damnably congruent. Both explore the same kind of existential sinkhole in deftly plotted character-driven action narratives set in a mixture of cosmopolitan and remote settings. Both suffered the same kind of bullying as adolescents, and both were congenial with the tenets of Catholic eschatology on the importance of the moments before death . . . . What distinguishes Stone’s work from Greene’s is his belief that American politics, at its best, has been a means of carrying out the moral ideals of the Enlightenment enshrined in the Constitution. This idealism, of course, was severely damaged by the nation’s Vietnam involvement . . . . Greene’s indictment of America’s blind arrogance in Vietnam, as displayed in his 1955 novel The Quiet American, was more unforgiving. He didn’t see anything exceptional about America’s politics or morality, far from it.
Lennon ranks Stone as one of the finest American writers on the Vietnam War, the equal of Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and Michael Herr. Stone himself believed Michael Herr’s Dispatches was the book that will “forever come closest to providing that answer eternally required of the chronicler: What was it like?” Lennon mentions in passing other remarkable books by Stone, including a collection of critical essays (I believe he is referring to Stone’s 2020 nonfiction collection entitled The Eye You See With,also edited by Bell and from which I derived the above quotation about Herr). However, Lennon’s role in this essay as a reviewer of the Library of America edition precludes him from an analysis of that remarkable piece of work.
Lennon’s thoughts on Stone’s own essay collection might make for an interesting conversation. Not only is Stone’s critical work on literature, culture, and politics collected in Eyes, the book, like Lennon’s, is also a revelatory amalgam of criticism and memoir, including Stone’s own Catholic boyhood. Editor Bell fills in a lot of biographical detail, as well, in his introductory essays. (Stone’s 1996 essay “The Morning After” on the Republican Convention in San Diego gives Mailer a good run for his money as The Champ of political convention coverage). Moreover, Lennon recounts some of his five years as a naval officer in Mailer’s Last Days, just as Stone does in his collection about his own stint in the US Navy as an enlisted man. “Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You” is Stone’s memoir piece describing his introduction to the realities of life aboard ship in the mid-1950s as a seventeen-year-old kid, or “tender gear,” as one predatory third-class boatswain’s mate calls him. The roughly enforced codes of the enlisted men below decks are, it seems, only partially apprehended by the ship’s officers. It would be illuminating to sit down with Lennon over a drink or two and compare Stone’s and Lennon’s service in the Navy aboard ship. Do the officers really know what goes on below decks? One is reminded, through Stone’s enlisted man’s account, of the rough usage prison inmates endure in the hierarchy of time served and brute strength. Are naval officers willing to let the enlisted men’s codes of rough usage help keep the unruly in line, reducing the potential for shipboard (institutional) pandemonium?
My second example of Lennon’s critical writing is Lennon’s chapter on Ezra Pound, introduced by way of William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop. To my mind it is Lennon’s most fascinating piece of literary analysis and detective work. What began as a project with his brother Peter to trace the personal connections (“handshakes”) among contemporary writers all the way back to William Shakespeare, evolved into an analysis of Pound by way of Bishop’s reports of her visits to Pound in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. The essay then morphs into a return to the Bard by way of a delightful analysis of the evidence for the true inspirational setting for The Tempest as Cuttyhunk, in the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts (not too far from Lennon’s hometown). Cuttyhunk, it turns out, is a setting of significance to Bishop’s personal life. Lennon’s compositional strategies here are risky—a veritable tightrope stretched between coherence and chaos—but the more intriguing for that. What stuck with me most, however, is the portrait of Pound. Our Crazy Old Fox, our Naughty Old Grandpaw, was awarded in 1948 by a committee of Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Leonine Adams, and others, the Bollingen Foundation’s poetry prize for The Pisan Cantos. Controversy ensued, of course. Congress then renounced the prize. Yale University stepped in to fill the future prize gap, but Lennon’s picture of Pound that comes into focus is an engaging, important complement to Donald Hall’s lengthy portrait of Pound in Old Poets.
Pound’s visitors are a Who’s Who of early modernism. As Lennon points out, Hugh Kenner in his study of Pound’s poetry said, “I suddenly knew I was in the presence of the center of modernism.” This center, as it reaches out through Hemingway, Dos Passos, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Farrell, and others reaches Mailer as well. I’d suggest that Mailer is a spark originally struck from the canon of modernism, although Lennon doesn’t argue that here. So Mailer, I now see, reaches back to Pound. And like Shakespeare and Dante, who wrote history into their poetry, Pound did as well and appreciated Shakespeare mostly for his history plays. The past is still with us, of course; past and present are linked by human nature. When Lennon quotes the lines from Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” on the unnecessary slaughter of young soldiers in World War I, Lennon and Pound offer up a perfect epigraph for Andrew Bacevich’s books on our decades-long American imperial debacle or, better, for Bacevich’s Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
There died a myriad,
And the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
That quotation and Lennon’s title essay bring me back to Mailer, or a conversation I had with him during a Mailer Society afterparty at Mailer’s house in 2006. Lennon’s essay begins in 2005 and runs for two years as diary entries chronicling Mailer’s physical decline, hospitalizations, and death. Anyone with an interest in Mailer as an author or friend will find here details of Mailer’s final illness and death previously out of the public eye. Mailer’s decline is visually represented in the first photo accompanying the diary entries: Mike Lennon bends over a seated Mailer like a merciful visiting nurse or angel—crutches propped behind the men—the discomforts of illness etched on Mailer’s face.
That conversation I had with Mailer seems relevant now. We talked about his bypass surgery’s success. I told him my father-in-law had the same operation, first time, over twenty years ago, but then again later.
“How long did he get between surgeries?” Mailer asked, leaning forward, ears cocked, on alert.
“Ten years,” I told him.
He almost smiled as he settled back in his chair while I encapsulated for him my father-in-law’s own World War II story: a man who went in on Utah Beach (after the first wave) as a infantry platoon leader with the 29th Division and fought the war all the way through France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, coming out a highly decorated, twice wounded GI.
“He saw a hell of a lot more action than I ever did!” Mailer said. Then he laughed and mumbled something about “but probably not a hell of a lot more booze afterwards.”
Much as I wanted to, I didn’t have time to tell Mailer that the wounded and decorated veteran, Bradford Adams, was an old Yankee conservative, with DNA roots all the way back to those religious separatists on the Mayflower. That as a war-hero and conservative he nonetheless had been, as Mailer was, against the Vietnam War and against George W. Bush’s prancing-empty-flight-suit escapades in the Middle East. I wanted to tell him that Bradford Adams had refused even to hear Bush speak at the 60th reunion of D-Day; in fact, he got off the tour bus headed to Bush’s speech and filled with the old GIs and their wives because he couldn’t stand listening to anymore of Bush’s “bar-room bluster,” as he put it. Mailer was dead before I got a chance someday to get into that side of my father-in-law’s story, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It’s a story Andrew Bacevich would understand as a career army officer, Princeton Ph.D., and Professor Emeritus, who’s research exposes the heart of darkness behind America’s going abroad, after World War II, “in search of monsters,” as John Quincy Adams put it roughly two centuries ago, warning us away from such imperialistic hubris.
Lennon’s final chapter, “Fathers and Sons,” brings together the two fathers (genetic and adopted), John C. Lennon and Norman Mailer. Appropriately for balance at this point in the book, about three quarters of the chapter is devoted to Lennon’s biological father, to the emotional gap between father and son, and the probable causes of it.
The first quarter of the chapter tells the story of Mike and Donna Lennon going to see Mailer at the Mailer family’s summer retreat in Sorrento, Maine, near Mt. Desert Island, where among other things, Mike and Donna learn that Mailer has been sneaking out behind the back of his wife Carol Stevens for trysts with his soon-to-be final (sixth) wife Norris, “stashed away in a nearby motel.” But soon, Mike Lennon’s real father has an alcoholic relapse and is hospitalized. Comparatively briefly, we see a drama played out in the final chapter not dissimilar to the one we already witnessed of Mailer’s hospitalizations and death thirty years later. John C. Lennon dies in 1975 two weeks before his 58th birthday.
This experience leads Lennon on another detective journey to learn more about his grandfather and his father, especially his polymath father’s refusal to attend college after the war and to resent or even envy his son for doing so, one source of that emotional gap. Another source is no doubt the human phenomenon Mailer described in his 1950s affidavit to the Loyalty Board of the Civil Service Commission at the height of the HUAC investigations, to help exonerate his father from any disloyalty to America through his “communist” son: “disagreements between fathers and sons is a human phenomenon which has been long remarked.” The full story of the father-son gap in Lennon’s own life is, however, too complex to summarize in a review, but it is an engaging story.
In this final chapter Lennon draws a portrait of a father who is vital, talented in music and languages, a sort of bon vivant charmer who loves to drink and play piano and sing from the American songbook, at one point in duet with Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah, an actress in summer stock nearby. The reader begins to wonder whether there are hints of philandering as John gads about town. One black and white photo in this final chapter is suggestive, if not conclusive. John and wife Mary are standing at an outdoor gathering as if dressed for church. John, beaming, is charming an attractive lady in dark clothing he is speaking to while wife Mary in white (pastel?) suit and matching hat and pearls looks on. The expression on her face is dour. Mary looks rather like Queen Elizabeth disapproving of circumstances in which she suddenly finds herself. One might be forgiven for seeing it as a “What is that sonofabitch up to now?” sort of candid photo.
A final note in closing. Lennon tells us that Norman Mailer at one time began researching and note gathering for a full biography of one of his own literary fathers—Ernest Hemingway. But Mailer finally abandoned the project. Too bad. What a hell of a book that might have been! I’d trade Barbary Shore and The Deer Park to read Mailer’s completed book on Hemingway’s life and work. Mailer never forgave Hemingway for not leaving a suicide note. “It was like your own father killing himself,” Mailer told Lennon. So, come to think of it, maybe the Hemingway project was too close to Mailer’s heart, soul, and talent—too much like writing a biography of your own father.
Yes, from Norman Mailer’s Final Days, I learned things I never knew about Norman Mailer after tracking Mailer off and on for over forty years. And I learned even more about Mailer’s authorial contemporaries. All worth the price of the book. But I also learned a lot about my old colleague J. Michael Lennon. I think for me that was the chief delight of his fine collection.