George, born sign of Libra, fashioned his day to rid the yard, the gutters of the old house from the leavings of the giant sumac–a weed by any other name!–rooted in his neighbor’s yard, but spreading its seasonal detritus well into the realm of George’s, David’s and Sarah’s little kingdom, the other side of the six-foot fence. The fence: a separation, a determinable line between the updated, upscale but otherwise dowdy duplex of the ’30s, and that of George’s painted lady; the one-hundred-fourteen-year-old Victorian, original to the small plot upon which it stands, effusing the charm and the made-to-last sturdiness of an era long lost.
It was Saturday, November 10th, and George had, at 6:08 a.m. seen the “News Alert” from the New York Times reporting that Norman Mailer was dead.
George, born of Libra, (ever balancing, ever giving due credence to one thought and its obverse), began reading Mailer at the same time he began reading William F. Buckley, Jr. Yin and Yang. Black and white. Day and night.
Rake in hand, electric sucker (and blower) plugged-in, George began the scrape across the sandstone in the backyard where the shriveled, dry, dead, green-black discards from above reposed. (Perhaps the last glory for the leaves, their last hurrah, their last link to the lifeblood of spring, of summer was the waft of breeze that carried them down, down to their irrefutable end, there on the sandstone.) And, with each pull of the rake, with each supplement to the pile that would be electrically sucked into a bag, George gave thought to the death of Mailer.
In “Of A Fire on the Moon,” Mailer began his first chapter with a quote from Ernest Hemingway: “Now sleeps he with that old whore death… Do thee take this old whore death for thy lawful wedded wife?” Mailer then went on to note–eight years after Hemingway stuck that shotgun in his mouth in his bedroom in Idaho–that he
“…had been in Mexico when the news came about Hemingway. He [Mailer] had gone through the New York Times to read the well-turned remarks of notables who for the most part had never card about Papa [Hemingway], not that much! and had one full heart-clot of outraged vanity that the Times never thought to ask his opinion. In fact, he was not certain he could have given it. He was sick in that miasmal and not quite discoverable region between the liver and the soul. Hemingway’s suicide left him wedded to horror. It is possible that in the eight years since, he never had a day which was completely free of thoughts of death.
Of course, he finally gave a statement. His fury that the world was not run so well as he could run it encouraged him to speak. the world could always learn from what he had to say–his confidence was built on just so hard a diamond. Besides, a British lady columnist passing through Mexico with him thought it would be appropriate to get his remarks on the demise. This, after all, was special stuff–the reactions of on of America’s best-known young novelists would certainly be appropriate to the tragic finale of America’s greatest living writer. So with thoughts of Hemingway’s brain scattered now in every atmosphere–what a curse to put upon his followers!–Norman coughed up what was in effect a political statement. He had no taste in such matters, and a pedagogic voice for public remarks; leave it that he inveighed gracelessly on how the death would put secret cheer in every bureaucrat’s heart for they would be stronger now. He had, of course, been thinking that Hemingway constituted the walls of the fort: Hemingway had given the power to believe you could still shout down the corridor of the hospital, live next to the breath of the beast, accept your portion of dread each day. Now the greatest living romantic was dead. Dread was loose. The giant had not paid his dues, and something awful was in the air. Technology would fill the pause. Into the silences static would enter. It was conceivable that man was no longer ready to share the dread of the Lord.”
George, in his own way, had discovered a sort of dread within the realm of the writer’s craft when attending critique sessions sponsored by a regional writer’s organization. Soon realizing that the mindset of those local writers was not the writing itself but, rather, the passion to publish, George reckoned the portion of dread engendered by that mindset. Indeed, George learned the lesson that “popular” fiction–genres of fantasy, occult, chic-lit, suspense–churned the juice of the muse from creative to templates; patterns that would “sell,” rather than engage some modicum of the intellect. George discovered that six out of ten of these writers honed their patterns to accommodate the perambulations of vampires. (Who doesn’t ravish the opportunity to read a blood-sucker every now and then?) Those left, those four of the ten were divided equally by those who yearned to retell J.K. Rowlings’ success with a little twist or a tweak to make it their own. The others, the mere leftovers, the remaining two dared “literary” jaunts outside the publishable patterns; dared write of the old or new west or of irony or of love or of death or of, yes, dealing with their portion of dread in a world without predictable patterns, templates, blood suckers or wizards.
George concluded critique was stifling; a kind of suffocation of the demiurgic.
George, last Saturday morning, raked into piles the droppings of the sumac. Sucked the piles into a bag. Emptied the bag into plastic sacks. And, he remembered one of his favorite Mailer meanderings from the “Armies of the Night.” The chord struck by Mailer was familiar to George; a familiarity born of a shared past..that of the U.S. Army.
“…He was off into obscenity. It gave a heartiness like the blood of beef tea to his associations. There was no villainy in obscenity for him, just–paradoxically, characteristically–his love for America: he had first come to love America when he served in the U.S. Army, not the America of course of the flag, the patriotic unendurable fix of the television programs and the newspapers, no, long before he was ever aware of the institutional oleo of the most suffocating American ideas he had come to love what editorial writers were fond of calling the democratic principle with its faith in the common man. He found that principle and that man in the Army, but what none of the editorial writers ever mentioned was that that noble common man was obscene as an old goat, and his obscenity was what saved him. The sanity of said common democratic man was in his humor, his humor was in his obscenity. And his philosophy as well–a reductive philosophy which looked to restore the hard edge of proportion to the overblown values overhanging each small military existence–viz: being forced to salute an overconscientious officer with your back stiffened into an exaggerated posture. ‘That Lieutenant is chicken-shit,’ would be the platoon verdict, and a blow had somehow been struck for democracy and the sanity of good temper. Mailer once heard a private end an argument about the merits of a general by saying, ‘his spit don’t smell like ice cream either,’ only the private was not speaking of spit. Mailer thought enough of the line to put it into The Naked and the Dead, along with a good may other such lines the characters in his mind and his memory of the Army had begun to offer him. The common discovery of American was probably that Americans were the first people on earth to live for their humor; nothing was so important to Americans as humor. In Brooklyn, he had taken this for granted, at Harvard he had thought it was a by-product of being at Harvard, but in the Army he discovered that the humor was probably in the veins and the roots of the local history of every state and county in America–the truth of the way it really felt over the years passed on a river of obscenity from small-town storyteller to storyteller there down below the bankers and the books and the educators and the legislators–so Mailer never felt more like an American than when he was naturally obscene–all the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity upon concept, which enable one to go back to concept again. What was magnificent about the word shit is that it enabled you to use the word noble: a skinny Southern cracker with a beatific smile on his face saying in the dawn in a Filipino rice paddy, ‘Man, I just managed to take me a noble shit.’ Yeah, that was Mailer’s America. If he was going to love something in the country, he would love that…”
George tied the tops of the plastic bags within which he had placed the mulched stew of sumac leaves and pods and the fine, thin end-limbs that fell too when the nights turned to freeze. George carried the bags to the dumpster, gorged the voracious gut of that surely utilitarian presence in the alley. He returned to the backyard, locked the gate, stowed his equipment. He sat down in a lawn chair, stroked Sarah’s Yoda ears, thought about Mailer, about Hemingway, about writing.
Thought, too, about losses. Irretrievable losses.