From charlesreid1


I have rewritten bits that were too obviously wrong, careless or bad. I should have worked harder, but it was quite hard work getting all this stuff together (photocopying back numbers of journals can be a real struggle, what with the weight of the bound volumes and that Xerox flap tangling you up and getting in the way). And it was hard work writing it all in the first place. Journalists have two ways of expending energy: in preparation and in performance. Some exhaust themselves in securing the right contacts, the intimate audits, the disclosures. I am no good at any of that. I skimp it, and so everything has to happen on the typewriter. I find journalism only marginally easier than fiction, and book-reviewing slightly harder.

The hack and the whore have much in common: late nights, venal gregariousness, social drinking, a desire to please, simulated liveliness, dissimulated exhaustion — you keep on having to do it when you don't feel like it.

As I was collating The Moronic Inferno (in August 1985, during the Hiroshima remembrances), I was struck by a disquieting thought. Perhaps the title phrase is more resonant, and more prescient, than I imagined. It exactly describes a possible future, one in which the moronic inferno will cease to be a metaphor and will become a reality: the only reality.

British critics tend to regard the American predilection for Big Novels as a vulgar neurosis — like the American predilection for big cars or big hamburgers. Oh God, we think: here comes another sweating, free-dreaming maniac with another thousand-pager; here comes another Big Mac.

You have to get life right before you start going on about its meaning.

In Herzog, Herzog relives a marriage while putting on his tie. In Humboldt, Citrine reviews a literary career while meditating on his sofa. Albert Corde has his own 'restless ecstasy' to contend with: but the Dean's December, like The Dean's December, is caught up in more public matters.

Corde's troubles emerge slowly, piecemeal. Humboldt's Citrine came out of his Chicago apartment block one morning to find that his Mercedes had been beaten up with baseball bats: 'Now the moronic inferno had caught up with me.'

Chicago is repeatedly described as a jungle populated exclusively by rats. In Bucharest, the city rodents have been 'rolled flat by trucks and cars'; they are 'as two-dimensional as weather vanes', just like everything else. In Bucharest, a communist dog barks in the street, 'a protest against the limits of dog experience (for God's sake, open the universe a little more!)'.

The twentieth century has been called an ironic age, as opposed to a heroic, tragic or romantic one; even realism, rock-bottom realism, is felt to be a bit grand for the twentieth century. Nowadays, our protagonists are a good deal lower down the human scale than their creators: they are anti-heroes, non-heroes, sub-heroes.

for all its marvels, Augie March, like Henderson the Rain King, often resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois.

City cops moonlight for the Mob as hired executioners. Meanwhile, 'We Care' stickers are gummed to the walls of supermarkets and loan corporations. Meanwhile, a woman consults a lawyer to ask whether she should describe herself as a person of 'high integrity' or 'known integrity' as she prepares to swindle a medical school. Meanwhile, 'a good American makes propaganda for whatever existence has forced him to become'.

1. Murder in America 'It looked like a straight verbal mugging. The kid points the gun and says: "Gimme all your money." The guy hands over $90, credit cards, watch, links, everything. Then as the kid walks off he turns around, real casual, and shoots him anyway. These days, man, it's your money and your life.’

Conversation about murder in America is as stoical and routine as talk about the weather. A New Yorker will tell you about some lurid atrocity in his own flatblock with no more animation than if he were complaining about the rent. Terrible things happen all the time. This is the terrible thing.

On one of the early clue-sweeps,, police entered a recently abandoned house. They found an axe, a hatchet, a shovel, and some children's clothing. They also found two Bibles — nailed to the wall. The Bibles were open, one on Isaiah 1:14 to 3:15, the other on Jeremiah 15:4 to 18:4. Back at the Atlanta America Hotel, I picked up the complimentary Gideon and read through the passages: 'Bring 'no more vain offerings — your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves — /I have brought against the mothers of young men/a destroyer at noonday;/I have made anguish and terror/fall upon them suddenly.’

Are the killers white or black? To begin with, of course, this was the crucial question. Several of the kids were picked up in areas where a white man would stick out like a pink elephant. The city population splits 60-40, but the street presence is much more one-sided than that, if the murderers and the victims turned out to be the same colour, the Killings in Atlanta would accord with the mainstream of American crime. Blacks make up an eighth of the US citizenry, and a half of its prison population. Most crime is still segregated. To a wildly disproportionate extent, violence in America is black on black.

In Chesterton's story, 'The Invisible Man', the detective Father Brown orders four people, two of them policemen, to keep watch on the only entrance to the flat of a potential murder victim. The murder takes place, the four men claim that 'no one' went through the door. Oh yes he did, says Father Brown — and he walked past you all with the body in his arms. 'The Invisible Man?' someone asks. Correct, in a sense. The murderer was the postman, and he carried the victim in his sack.

Perhaps, though, motive is the wrong thing, the irrelevant thing, to look for. It is possible that the twenty murders will break down into four or five weird clusters. What strikes you again and again is that the Killings in Atlanta have been so easy to do. Despite the propaganda, the campaigns, the fear, kids still go with strangers. Last month black and white plainclothes-policemen drove in unmarked cars round the housing projects, the vacant lots, the shanty houses with ripped car seats on their patios. There are no adults about, there is no authority, there is not even a memory of the survival instincts of the old ghetto. 'Hey, kid,' the decoys would call to the children they found, 'you want to earn ten bucks? Hop in.' They got a rider every time.

To the south-east lies Miami. Last May, four white policemen were acquitted there after the fatal beating of a black suspect, Arthur McDuffie. It happened on the street, after a chase. The medical examiner said that McDuffie's injuries were consistent with 'falling four storeys and landing between your eyes'. When the acquittal was announced there were three days of rioting: 16 dead, 400 injured, $ioo million worth of damage.

In Birmingham, Alabama, there is a Ku Klux Klan military training camp, called My Lai in honour of the war criminal William Galley. In Greensboro, North Carolina, last November, an all-white jury acquitted six Klansmen and Nazis of the murder of five black and white Communists. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, acquittals and dropped charges have released five Klansmen accused of killing five black women on the streets.

Are these things connected? Are the Killings in Atlanta connected, to these killings or to each other? It is very tempting to see patterns here, or simply a change in the emphasis of murder in America.

The trial raised all sorts of questions about the exertion of public — and media — pressure to effect a palliative outcome. It seemed to me weirdly characteristic that the first thing Williams did, on his arrest, was call a press conference.

The violent death of poor American blacks, unless given urgency by politics, has never much exercised the American judiciary; and some observers suggest, most depress-ingly, that the Atlanta murders continue, as they always have and always will. Perhaps, then, the Killings in Atlanta are over, while the killings in Atlanta go on.

Saul Bellow has a thousand ways of describing the human face; Truman Capote, in his fiction and journalism, is the litanist of habitats, furniture, surfaces, clothes, scents.

I had read somewhere that Capote's voice was thin and high. But nothing had prepared me for this quavering, asthmatic singsong, a mixture of Noel Coward and Lillian Carter. Turds, ee-bait, inner-stain and wide-ass, for instance, are his renderings of 'towards', 'about', 'understand' and 'White House'. Capote was born in New Orleans, and was then farmed out to rural relations; much of his childhood was spent as a resident of Monroeville, Alabama. There is still something of the erudite hillbilly about him, and this perhaps explains how his obsession with the beau monde co-exists so peacefully with an interest in the underworld of murder and madness. He gives new scope to the cliche about 'knowing everyone'. Capote knew Bob Kennedy, but he also knew Sirhan Sirhan.

During these years Capote became convinced that an unnoticed art form lay concealed within the conventions of journalism: the idea was that a true story could be told, faithfully, but so arranged as to suggest the amplitude of poetic fiction. That idea eventually became In Cold Blood (1966), the story of the apparently pointless murder of the Clutter family in Garden City, Kansas. Capote spent six years 'on and off — and mostly on' following the trail in 'this fantastically depressing Mid-West town, where, you know, there was nothing. The shaken townsfolk never took to Capote, and he had to withstand a good deal of local hostility. One day he sauntered into the courtroom and was confronted by a squad of glowering sheriffs. 'Oh, you don't look so tough to me,' said Capote in his highest voice. One of the men stood up and punched his fist through the courthouse wall. 'I'm beside myself, I'm beside myself!' cried Capote in a sarcastic wail. 'Those years were nerve-shattering,' says Capote now. 'I mean, I never knew whether I had a book or not.’

Again like Forster, Capote has also been known to hanker for representatives of the less privileged orders. He once squired an ex-prison guard to a dinner-party thrown by Princess Grace at her palace in Monaco. 'At dinner a man sitting next to him said, "Is this your first time in Europe?" And he said, "Yes it is, except for that time in Vietnam."‘

Now it is true that Capote (and Mailer) expends a good deal of imagination and artistry in the non-fiction form. What is missing, though, is moral imagination, moral artistry. The facts cannot be arranged to give them moral point. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder — and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death.

Let us leave Capote, for now, in one of his more triumphant moments, displaying a characteristic mix of fearlessness, spite, and, no doubt, self-flattering embellishment: I was sitting there with Tennessee. And this woman came over to [our] table ... and she pulled up her shirt and handed me an eyebrow pencil. And she said, 'I want you to autograph my navel' ... So I wrote my name: T-R-U-M-A-N C-A-P-O-T-E. Right round her navel, like a clock ... Her husband was in a rage. He was drunk as all get-out ... He looked at me with this infinite hatred, handed me the eyebrow pencil, unzipped his fly, and hauled out his equipment ... Everybody was looking. And he said, 'Since you're autographing everything, how'd you like to autograph this? There was a pause ... and I said, 'Well, I don't know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I could initial it.’

Paradoxically, too, Roth seems in this novel to have moved beyond autobiography. He no longer looks at life with the selective eye of the novelist: he looks at his own past with the fastidious frown of the literary critic, grading, evaluating, trying to separate the serious from the unserious. (I have always wondered why Roth's 'bookish-ness' relies on translated works — Chekhov, Gogol, Kafka, Dostoevsky — for its points of reference. I suspect that Roth now regards novels as how-to books about life, and he prefers to get their tips on living without the distractions and evasions of a responsive verbal surface.)

The Professor of Desire is by far the most exotic in its locations of all Roth's novels — the East and West coasts, London, France, Italy, Prague, Hong Kong — and yet the changing landscapes remain blissfully unobserved (a derisory 'Sorry, Yank, 'e seems a bit sleepy tonight', for instance, is the extent to which Roth captures the texture of life in our own country).

'The whole damn thing could have taken place in Cincinnati!' says Kepesh after his Far East debacle — and indeed it could have done.

Roth's novelistic ear, arguably his greatest gift as a writer, has evidently been well cauliflowered by recent events: only the Jewish-American characters retain their own voices, while everyone else joins the stilted and lachrymose debate on the hero's despair.

It is an awkward and recent truth that most contemporary novelists are deeply influenced by their own lives, and not least by the amount of praise, fame and money their work attracts. A few unpierceable geniuses may smile at the thousandth rejection-slip, may yawn at that staggering cheque, but such things tend to affect the confidence — and the writing. This doesn't matter so much in England, where the boundaries between success and its opposite are often hard to establish. (J. Cowper Powys is the obvious example, a monument of neglect far more renowned for his obscurity than many of his rivals were famed for their fame.) Over in America, though, you can't help knowing where you stand.

At this stage in the obsequies, a genuinely 'shocking' book about Elvis Presley would disclose that the King secretly gave away vast sums to charity, that he was actually very slim and healthy, and spent much of his free time working with handicapped children. But it is not to be. Following the slanderous testimonies of every hanger-on in the entourage, we are now offered a definitive summation of the grossness, egomania and barbaric vulgarity that was, apparently, Elvis.

'There is', he warns, 'absolutely no poignance in this history.’

It quickly becomes clear — does it not? — that Goldman isn't to be trusted. In his palpable eagerness to explode the Presley Myth, he has erected an anti-myth to replace it — which, in turn, is already being whittled away at by transatlantic commentators. It may indeed be the case that Elvis was no more than a horrible, and horribly uncomplicated, embodiment of American Success; but Elvis leaves us none the wiser.

In biography, displays of such inordinate aggression leave one wondering about the personal problems of the author rather than the subject. I read Elf is under the impression that Goldman was a surly young iconoclast of the Rolling Stone school of New Journalism. On the back flap I am confronted by a middle-aged chipmunk who used to be Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. As should by now be evident, the book is a prodigy of bad writing, excitable, sarcastic and barely literate.

I quickly re-identified the kind of unease that a woman like Diana Trilling is always liable to provoke. You have to watch what you say when she's around. I mean this in the best sense. Mrs Trilling is not touchy or snobbish or over-sensitive; she is just intellectually vigilant, snake-eyed. In her company you are obliged to move up a gear — you must weed out your lazier, sloppier thoughts (like the one that had briefly incensed her in the Connaught). No, she isn't the most soothing of companions; but you end up chastened and braced, and there is much laughter and enlightenment to be had on the way.

'Growing old is hard. Growing old alone is harder,' she said. 'You become more sensitive with your friends. You wonder whether you are being asked out because of pity. There is an increased dependence on routine. I won't leave the bed unmade in the morning. I won't stand by the refrigerator and eat a boiled egg. I want to, but I don't.' She talks of her husband without self-drama but with palpable regret. 'I feel the usual things ... I wish now that I had worshipped him a bit more.’

This reminded me of another sacrifice Mailer has been forced to make. He has always argued that any act of sex is invalid, corrupt, soul-endangering, etc., if the chance of conception has been ruled out. 'I've got eight kids,' said Mailer. 'I can't afford to believe that any more — My hopes and expectations have changed. I no longer feel prepared to go to the wall for any big ideas.’

Well, it has been a long haul. This is the man - and here headlines and half-impressions flash past - who stabbed his wife, who ran for mayor, who butted Gore Vidal, who 'won the election for Kennedy', who went on TV in his boxing trunks, who told novelist Alan Lelchuck that when he got through with him 'there'd be nothing left but a hank of hair and some fillings'. This is the Existential Hero, the Philosopher of Hip, the Chauvinist Pig, the Psychic Investigator, the Prisoner of Sex. For thirty years Mailer has been the cosseted superbrat of American letters. It has taken him quite a while to grow up. But the process has made for a fascinating spettacle.

Reading The Naked and the Dead today, one is astounded by Mailer's precocious sense of human variety, by the way he goes a step further into the extremities of exhaustion, yearning and terror, and, above all, by his ability to listen intensely to the ordinary voices of America. The novel was impossibly adult: the immaturity was all to come.

The reception of Mailer's second novel, Barbary Shore (1951), was hysterical too, but the nature of the hysteria had changed. 'It is relatively rare to discover a novel', wrote one of the more temperate reviewers, 'whose obvious intention is to debauch as many readers as possible, mentally, morally, physically and politically.' A murky, paceless tale of spies and subversives, predators and impotents, the new novel had little of the style and control of The Naked and the Dead. The prose gurgles with cliches, tautologies and uneasy mandarinisms.

Having rendered the book major (whew!), and even more powerful, Mailer waited anxiously for publication. On a mescaline trip, he rewrote the last six lines. Confident for a while, he lost his nerve again and sent out copies of the book to various bigwigs with fawning inscriptions ('if you do not answer,' he wrote to Hemingway, '... then fuck you, and I will never attempt to communicate with you again.' Hemingway didn't answer).

'It seems that people want my ideas,' Mailer had said bewilderedly in mid-campaign. Mailer's ideas: they were coming in a torrent by now. The essays 'Reflections on Hip', 'The White Negro' and 'The Existential Hero' are the keys to how Mailer was regarding himself in those days. Attracted by Hemingway's idea of 'the Good' ('what makes me feel good is the Good') and Lawrence's idea of 'blood' (ditto), Mailer cobbled together a philosophy grounded on drugs and jazz, mighty orgasms, frequent fistfights, and doing what he liked all the time. This credo resembles the usual rag-bag of Sixties sophistries, but it was imbued with Mailer's own kind of extremism.