The Gospel According to Norman
Two new books wrestle with Mailer's myths and his legacy
A Double Life
by J. Michael Lennon
Simon & Schuster
$40.00 List Price
In July at the Manchester International Festival, I saw a preview of Matthew Barney’s seven-part film opera River of Fundament. Barney explained that Norman Mailer, before he died, challenged him to adapt his 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, which he felt to be his most misunderstood and unjustly loathed work (“a muddle of incest and strange oaths,” James Wolcott wrote in Harper’s, “reducing everything to lewd, godly bestial grunts”). Barney admitted that it was a book he both loved and hated. In 1999 Mailer had acted in Barney’s Cremaster 2 as Harry Houdini, by family legend the grandfather of Gary Gilmore, the double murderer and subject of The Executioner’s Song (1979), Mailer’s last great success. Among the scenes Barney showed in Manchester were a staged wake for Mailer, filmed in the author’s Brooklyn apartment, attended by Paul Giamatti, whose head and feet are massaged by ghastly spirits, and presided over by Elaine Stritch; the melting down of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial—representing Osiris—at a Detroit steel mill shot to the accompaniment of a brassy orchestra performing in the rain; and a soliloquy delivered by Maggie Gyllenhaal as two slimy ghouls stimulate each other’s posterior apertures (to use Mailer’s preferred phrase). Here was the appropriately bizarre second coming of Norman Mailer: celebrity laden, anally fixated, overlong (it’s said that the film will be five hours in full when it premieres in February at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and very expensive (the Detroit performance alone had a budget of $5 million).
Neither Matthew Barney nor Cremaster 2 are
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