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Monday, February 08, 2010

Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park" What a Painful Experience.

"The Deer Park" by Norman Mailer is not so much a disaster of a novel as it is (above all) dated. The several problems exhibited here are representative of the fact that this is NOT Mailer's best. One becomes accustomed to greatness and it is hard to believe the writer can do anything less than perfect time and again. The novel is highly dated. The back cover describes the novel as "The daring novel by the author of "The Naked and The Dead" which has something new to say about Hollywood, Love, Sin and Sex." Perhaps it was new to the audiences of 1955 (when the book was published), but what I found in this little novel was the work of an author deemed "great" a little too early. Of course, this is not the same Norman Mailer who wrote "The Executioner's Song," or "Harlot's Ghost," or even the highly praised "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery." This novel represents a Mailer just spreading his wings as an author. It is not hard to believe that this was his third published novel. (Although I have to say that "Tough Guys Don't Dance" which was published much later in his career was just as dull). I am not being harsh when I say these things because I believe NO ONE could make Mailer feel bad about anything at all. He was a man's man, a highly literary World War II combat veteran who joined the other bohemians in the Village to try and define (like the Lost Generation of the 1920s) a new American literature, as fresh as it was abrasive.

"The Deer Park" ended up being re-written as a play later on in Mailer's career, and I think (not from the experience of seeing it, but rather from the famous commentary by the author "The Merits of 'The Deer Park'" which you will find by clicking HERE. Mailer felt insecure about the novel once the high praise came from people such as Malcolm Cowley, not because he considered his writing bad, but for the mere reason that he rather felt early on it was not one of his best efforts.

The story is fast, characters many, and the narrator seems to disappear for chapters, only to appear later on with more knowledge of the other characters' lives than his own. The protagonist, an orphan turned World War II ace pilot, carries the name Sergius O'Shaugnessy. He wins $14,000 playing poker and decides to spend a relaxing time in a place called Desert D'Or. Like most places where people go to relax, the atmosphere is intense and quite rapid. Our hero ends up in a party by one Dorothea O'Faye which is packed by hundreds of people from "the capital" (a sub-name for Hollywood). There he meets Dorothea's son who turns out to be a philosopher pimp. Sergius also meets Charlie Eitel, a film director of some fame now involved in McCarthism (although not called by that name) hearings in Congress. He is a cross between Kazan and Liberace, although not as gay. What happens after the first few chapters is a roller coaster of relationships, false sex, promises of marriage here today and then long forgotten. The plot appears like the relationships in the sit-com "Friends," where everyone seems to sleep with everyone and still remain relatively, well, for lack of a better word, friends. Several women in the novel get passed around like hats; most of them within the protective circle of pimps, actors, directors, producers, wanna-bes and other associated birds of questionable provenance. I read this novel knowing that much of it was the reason why in the late 1960s and 1970s, the feminist movement targeted Mailer the way they did.

The novel ends flat with Sergius wanting to become a writer. I don't really know what else to say about a novel that never really got my attention, and it was like drinking a spoonful of castor oil on an empty stomach. Sorry, Norman... not your best.

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At 2:28 AM, Blogger 努力 said...

pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!! ........................................

At 6:39 AM, Blogger 氣氛 said...


At 8:31 PM, Blogger James Kness said...

I just finished The Deer Park. I don't agree with much of this review. Although I could pick at some aspects of the novel (the situation of a young aviator being accepted into a Hollywood circle has a whiff of contrivance about it), most of it is well-observed and trenchant.

Mailer is very good at revealing the psychological innards of the main characters, and this gives the novel its power. There is rummaging around in the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" here, territory that most of us would rather not consider, but that an writer who is an artist explores.

There are many memorable passages, along with scenes that may go on too long.

What work of art is...perfect?

At 8:31 PM, Blogger James Kness said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:31 PM, Blogger James Kness said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:44 PM, Blogger James Kness said...

P.S. The plot of The Deer Park is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, but without the violently tragic aspects. The New York Times review of The Deer Park which ran at the time of the novel's publication noted the phrase in the novel about "what little story I have to tell"; a similar criticism was made by H.L. Mencken about The Great Gatsby.


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