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Deconstructing the dream
on 12 March 2010
In some ways, Mailer's An American Dream must have shocked far more when it came out than it does now. Neither the very explicit sex scenes nor the violence are that unusual anymore. Other things, though, may surprise more than they did: the social commentary, for one. What is unusual about An American Dream is that the degeneracy all happens at the top. The protagonist, Stephen Rojack, is an ex-congressman and war hero. He has married an heiress and is confronted with her father, industrial magnate and spy. For another, there is the religious language in which much of Rojack's soul-searching is wrapped: twenty-first century agony would not be signposted in such moral terms. But this is Mailer, and it is unsurprisingly about more than sex and violence.
Yet on some level, this novel could read like an ordinary thriller, a very well-paced thriller at that. Rojack kills his wife early on (no spoiler here). The rest of the novel takes place in the following two days, as we wonder whether he will be caught, whether he'll turn himself in, or fall foul of his father-in-law's underground connections. Rojack goes on a rampage among Mafiosi and female cabaret singers. Nothing is spared in what could be interpreted either as headlong flight or search for atonement: American race relations, the country's war record, among others, are put through the grinder, not to forget TV and New York academia. An American Dream is a literary roller coaster. Be prepared to be shocked in ways you had not expected.