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Norman Mailer: An American Dream

This is Mailer’s best novel, not least because of its dream-like qualities. The story is Stephen Rojack’s but we should not necessarily see it as Rojack giving an accurate account of events but more an account filtered through dreams. Of course, Mailer leads with his dick (I met Jack Kennedy in November, 1946….We went out on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.) But he then takes Rojack down into the dark side, showing us clearly that there is the surface that most of us see and a dark layer underneath, right beneath our eyes, which we glimpse only spasmodically. Rojack is on the surface, double-dating with JFK, a congressman and marrying the well-connected Deborah Kelly. But it is the moon that controls Stephen Rojack – the full moon that night on patrol in Italy, and when he met that girl and… and it is the moon that takes him down to the dark side, resulting in his murdering Deborah (and making it look like suicide). He is now really underground, fighting hoodlums, having an affair with Cherry, a singer, who is, in her turn, brutally murdered, and then, at the end, heading off to the jungles of Guatemala by way of Las Vegas.

What Mailer has done so effectively in this novel is to show the other side and how you (or, rather, Rojack) get there. His marriage to Deborah is stormy. They fight – physically, as Mailer did with his various wives – and her family comes from a world which believed in the New York Times. But Mailer is not too much interested in her world (he is not really interested in women except as sexual objects) and we soon move on down to the underworld. And this is where he excels, showing us the seamy underbelly of New York, with Cherry, Shago Martin, with whom Rojack fights and who is later killed in Harlem, the mob and the hoodlums. But the surface has a way of re-emerging and Deborah’s father reappears, seeking an explanation for the death of his daughter. Rojack is not about to give him one and that is when he takes off to Guatemala via Vegas.

Rojack (and Mailer) is aware not only of the influence of the moon but also of God and the Devil, both of whom hover around this novel, driving things in their own way. Mailer does not come down on either side and that is what helps to make this novel his best one, particularly as it is all a dream – Mailer’s and ours.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Dial Press