A Southern siren among Manhatten’s literati
In A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir (978-1-4000-6794-7, $26), Norris Church Mailer gives an account of her marriage to Norman Mailer. Originally from Arkansas, and formerly married with one child, Norris met Mailer when she was in her mid-20s and Mailer was in his 50s, a writer at his prime who was nearly twice her age. They fell in love in a single night, and after Mailer had acquired a divorce from his fifth wife, were married and remained together, through good times and bad, for nearly 33 years.
A Ticket to the Circus offers fine insights into Mailer’s home life, into his thoughts and emotions, and into the New York society in which he thrived. Whether Mailer’s reputation will diminish with the passage of time remains to be seen, but we nevertheless come away from these pages impressed by his dedication to his writing — even in his later years he frequently carried a notebook for recording his impressions of the world around him, and he was of the school that believed writers should write each day no matter what sort of accidents befell them (at one point, when Mailer nearly lost his thumb and his life by cutting himself in a shower stall, he was still at his work desk the next day).
Here, too, we meet the Norman Mailer who so often captured headlines for various wild exploits and statements, and find that he was much the same in his private life. He really was a man of great energy and zest — Norris writes that he instigated arguments sometimes to see, with a novelist’s eye, where the argument might lead and what the consequences might be — who “came alive at the table much like he did onstage, and for years we were invited everywhere just for the entertainment value.”
Mailer loved to throw his own parties as well, and was well known for those given in his Manhattan apartment, which, according to Norris, “could comfortably hold about 50 people, but I know there were times when we had 200 or more.” Through her descriptions of these parties and the many glitterati who attended them, she imparts to us a sense both of their excitement and of the somewhat inbred society that was literary Manhattan at the time.
At one point, for example, she describes being seated for dinner next to Sam Walton, the owner of Wal-Mart, whose stores were just beginning their expansion into the enormous conglomerate of the early 21st century. They both enjoyed a laugh at the provincial nature of the New Yorker:
“I told him of talking to the headmaster of a private school for fifteen minutes about my work as an art teacher, the problems of education and whatever, until finally the headmaster asked me where I’d taught, and I’d said “Arkansas.” “They have art in Arkansas?” He’d been incredulous. Sam laughed.”
Norris is guileless in her writing about Mailer and about herself, which adds to its honesty but at times makes her seem like a bubble-headed model (she was, in fact, a professional model). Once, asked by Ethel Kennedy whether she would “be with him if he weren’t Norman Mailer,” she thinks to herself that Norman would not have been with her had she weighed 300 pounds or “had looked like Groucho Marx.” True enough, but she approached the question from an odd angle, and seems unable to confront the idea that Mailer just might have been attracted her because she was a model who was half his age, a circumstance that might explain the attraction of many an older man with prestige and money.
In another passage, writing of her precocious son (are there any children living among these people who aren’t precocious?) drawing pictures of German soldiers with insignia on their uniforms, Norris adds off-handedly that “I always believed he had been either a German soldier or a Jew in the last war; sometimes he had nightmares about things he would or should never have known about.”
Despite these somewhat silly outbursts, or indeed, perhaps because of them, A Ticket to the Circus is worth a quick read. It gives us a portrait of the writer and of the pond in which he swam, and tells as well the story of an ambitious girl from the South who by her own lights made a success of herself.
Stephen Hunter, creator of the legendary sniper Bob Lee Swagger, has written yet another novel about this aging hero. In Dead Zero (ISBN 978-1-4391-3856-6, $26), Swagger is once again summoned from his Idaho ranch to rescue the federal government. This time a sniper is on the loose who has the apparent intention of assassinating an Afghan warlord named Zarzi, a murderous villain who has suddenly become a valuable asset to the efforts of the United States in that region.
Despite its hokey ending — the conclusion seems about as likely as permanent peace in the Middle East — Dead Zero will appeal to long-time fans of Swagger and to all other readers who enjoy strong suspense novels. Hunter’s careful research into his subject — the weapons and tactics of the sniper, Afghan politics and warfare, and our domestic agencies which fight terrorism — is as always impressive, and his storytelling abilities will keep the reader turning the pages.
A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir by Norris Church Mailer. Random House, 2010. 416 pages