Ancient Evening

Andrew Hultkrans on Norman Mailer at the Paris Review Spring Revel

New York

Left: Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch with Norman Mailer. Right: Stacey McDonell with Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen. (All photos: Willy Somma)

“What goes on in there?” an exasperated woman wondered aloud as she passed the neoclassical slab of prime real estate that is the Puck Building, in Soho. On Monday evening, the question was more pertinent than usual, as members of the Hungry March Band blurted and blatted their Balkan stomp music outside the front door. Having been dispatched to cover the Paris Review’s Spring Revel, a benefit dinner with guest of honor Norman Mailer, I was positively atwitter about gaining admission to this most inscrutable of downtown venues. My gratification, however, was delayed. Arriving at 7 PM for cocktails, I was officiously rebuffed by a clipboard-wielding gatekeeper, who, when I said, “Press,” a word that clearly dripped icicles in her mind’s eye, said, “You’ll have to come back at nine for the event.” “Oh,” I said, deciding not to get all up in her grill. It’s so stressful being a party planner.

After some sake with a friend in the East Village, I returned to claim my rightful place. Making my way into the Grand Ballroom, where dessert was being served, I scanned the broad expanse of festive wear for familiar faces. Seeing none, not even Mailer, I retreated into the anteroom, where the free booze flowed and my friend the novelist Gary Shteyngart passed through. A “writer host” for the evening, it was Gary’s job to amuse the uptown swells who had ponied up five hundred dollars a person for their evening with Norm. Finally, there was action on the makeshift stage, as the famously pugnacious Mailer was escorted to his honorary seat above the crowd. Philip Gourevitch, the current editor of the Paris Review, ascended to the dais and grunted into the mic to check the sound.

Gourevitch welcomed the patrons and introduced E. L. Doctorow, who was to toast Mailer. Doctorow was there “to give Norman the bird,” he deadpanned, a somewhat strained double entendre. Mailer was receiving the Review’s Hadada Award, an annual honor bestowed on “a distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to the literary arts,” and so named after George Plimpton’s favorite bird, an ibis. Plimpton himself resembled a graying ibis in his later years, so the icon preserves the absent figurehead’s spirit. Doctorow described Mailer as a writer who came out of World War II “with his dukes up” and how “he’s been fighting ever since.” He mentioned Norman’s tangles with feminists, his pioneering sense of self-promotion, his machismo, his parallels with Jack London. He called Mailer a “prince of truculence” and his corpus “the most comprehensive reportage on the second half of the twentieth century.” Claiming that this would be the “strangest award” Norman would ever receive, Doctorow asked Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen to stand and deliver the cry of the hadada, a rare song that the famous nature writer has ostensibly heard. Matthiessen ululated convincingly, to mild applause.

Left: Author E. L. Doctorow. Right: Author Joan Didion.

After pleas from Mailer to turn down the spotlights, Gourevitch settled in for a brief interview. “What is a novel?” he asked. Mailer called it “a Cadillac question,” demanding 2 percent effort from the asker, 98 percent from the answerer, but cleared his throat and took a swing. “A novel is history,” he said. Actual history books are biased and inadequate. “Histories are made of rotten bricks,” he said, “novels lay straw in the mortar.” Asked to dilate on his statement, in a 1964 Paris Review interview, “Style is character,” Mailer said: “Style covers the waterfront. Style is charm, but it limits the writer’s ability.” This is a bit oblique, even for an old man. Then, as nervous laughter rose from the crowd, I swear I heard Mailer say, “If you have a small penis and a mean character, you can write a two-hundred page book and get away with it.” (I was later assured by Gourevitch and others that he actually said, “If you have a small mean spirit . . .” but really, this was Norman Mailer.)

Mailer said that he was most influenced by Picasso—the artist’s many different approaches to capturing reality. He then compared novelists to athletes, but grew impatient, saying, “But this is so lugubrious, what else?” Turning to Mailer’s latest novel, The Castle in the Forest, about the young Hitler’s grooming by an assistant to the devil, Gourevitch tried to land a jab on the old pugilist, asking Mailer whether it doesn’t let the historical Hitler off the hook to ascribe his actions to Satan’s influence. “No, it doesn’t,” Mailer answered. But this got his dander up, and he launched into a provocative spiel that the paying punters were no doubt expecting: “There’s a bit of Hitler in all of us. I have 5 percent of Hitler in me. When someone does something that pisses you off, you want to kill them. That’s the Hitler in us.”

With that, the Hungry March Band, now inside, kicked off a raucous set that emptied the ballroom of bankers and blue-hairs but quick. One aging matron, plugging her ears, said to me, “It’s like they’re trying to drive us out of here!” It was rather rackety. Perhaps the band was supposed to conjure the carnivalesque vibe of Plimpton’s legendary parties on East Seventy-second Street, but it felt forced. It was Monday night, and those who could afford a thousand dollars for a pair of tickets most likely had to work the next day, moving sectors of the stock market around to suit their whims. After all, there’s 5 percent of Hitler in each of us.