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Norman Mailer: Barbary Shore

In Advertisements for Myself and the introduction to later versions of the novel, Mailer says of this novel Yet, it could be that if my work is alive one hundred years from now, Barbary Shore will be considered the richest of my first three novels. It has in its high fevers, a kind of insane insight into the psychic mysteries of Stalinists, secret policemen, narcissists, children, Lesbians, hysterics, revolutionaries – it has an air which for me is the air of our time, authority and nihilism stalking one another in the orgiastic hollow of this century. This seems a more appropriate description of Secret Agent than Barbary Shore but passons.

The novel is set in a Brooklyn boarding house. The narrator, Mikey Lovett, has amnesia, because of wounds received in World War II and he is now trying to be a writer. The idea of a story revolving around the various inhabitants of the same house is not new (if you want to read the best version, try Georges Perec‘s La Vie – Mode d’Emploi (Life – A User’s Manual)). All the characters have what Mailer calls psychic mysteries, whether it is Lovett’s forgetting his past, McLeod’s communist affiliations or just the usual foibles like Mrs. Guinevere’s religious/sexual obsessions. But it just doesn’t work. Kooky characters are fine but they have to be sympathetic or have to be so kooky that we are fascinated by them. These ones are neither sympathetic – starting with Lovett – nor excessively kooky. The political line – right versus left – is always predictable and seems very much outdated. At the time, when McCarthy was doing his thing, this might have been interesting, even daring, but now it just looks antiquated and that is the problem with Norman. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, he just does not age well.

Publishing history

First published 1951 by Rinehart and Co.