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If you read one book by Mailer...make it this one
on 6 November 1999
Despite the outwardly satirical connotations behind the title of An American Dream, this novel is far less a political or intellectual attack on his homeland as it is a foray into the existential limits of Mailer's own mind.
The core of the book is a simple tale of the battle between the good and bad forces within a man's soul. The lead character and narrator of the story, Stephen Rojack, is not for the most part a bad person, and yet his actions are occasionally very bad indeed. By the end of the very first chapter, Rojack has already committed a single brutal act which will propel him forward into a life of deceit and fear and eventual tragedy.
From that moment onwards he becomes a victim of his own defiant temerity before his nation's laws and the morality of a culture he does not particularly value. His lack of conformity and his intelligence combine to destroy him, and at the end of the book it his only his primitive courage, the quintessence of his being as a man, that he is expected to rely on. The fates, angered by his gall, are left to exact their revenge via another to whom he has grown close during the whole ordeal. Thus eventually he receives his comeuppance, albeit indirectly.
Here we see Mailer depicting with great enthusiasm and earnestness the criminal elements of New York, and combining this grim setting with the inner thoughts and meditations of a man open to new interpretations of the world. The influence of writers such as Burroughs and Henry Miller are clearly visible in the incredible wealth of metaphors and the very obliqueness of the perspective which he takes on so many subjects.
It is here that the author excels, producing an extraordinarily rich prose, absolutely overflowing with ideas and confirming Mailer as one of the most resourceful and perspicacious voices in literature. But, unlike many of the novel's most patently obvious influences, An American Dream is written with such skill as to enable the philosophical, moral, and spiritual dimensions to run quite seamlessly alongside a thriller; a story with strong, believable characters.
An American Dream is not perfect. Against it can be levelled accusations of misogyny (two major female characters are murdered), dadaism (particularly in one rather dated and ill-conceived section involving anal intercourse) and, most significantly, it can be argued that the ending is perhaps a little too contrived, a little too symmetrical in relation to the novel's start.
One can imagine the author, after 200 pages of genius - after writing chapters which he might not have believed himself capable of writing - alone before his unfinished manuscript and utterly at a loss as to how to complete the work. I cannot say with conviction if there is any truth to this, but the book certainly reads like a final loss of courage. To be made to find an ending for a book like An American Dream is an unenviable task. It is so strong, it is so unmanageable in its scope.... Perhaps it should have been a longer novel. Perhaps if any of Mailer's novels needed to be 500 words-plus to be entirely complete, this was the one. But then it might have lost much of its immediacy and precision.
However, do not allow the nit-pickings of this humble reader put you off. Mailer himself once wrote it was his opinion that An American Dream was, sentence-for-sentence, one of the best books of the century. He wrote that some years ago and he may well have changed his mind since then, although I sincerely hope that he hasn't for he was right first time. As a demonstration of literary prowess - or in more Mailer-like terms, as a flexing of the author's intellectual muscles - the novel has few peers.
And if that's not sufficient to convince you to take a look, it's also a cracking good read!