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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.
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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!
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on 8 November 2001
Bought on a whim and the only Norman Mailer book I have read, An American Dream is a very very good book indeed. Mailer's prose is as sharp (jagged in places) as I have ever read - if you thought Bret Easton Ellis could be unforgiving, then the first chapter of this will give you something to consider! This is not to say that this book is to be thought of along the same lines as say 'American Psycho' (although there are similarities). The plot itself is rich, with many threads interweaving elegantly around eachother, a fantastic ending. Truly excellent if you are willing to put the effort in.
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on 23 December 2013
Probably doesn't work as an effective novel overall, but I found this enjoyable on the whole. Admittedly you need to be fairly broad-minded to handle much of the content and I guess it caused some controversy on publication in the Sixties.

I think you have to take Mailer as you find him - warts and all. Despite the novel's sleazy veneer, the central character's numerous reprehensible qualities, the obsession with sex etc, the quality of the writing still draws you in. Even Mailer off form is miles ahead of most novelists.

Ultimately the novel's title is apt. We are left with a trashy tale that may just be the fantastical ramblings of a protagonist who has been morally (and possibly physically) dead since World War Two.
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on 2 February 2014
This is simply an outstanding read and I think only Norman Mailer could have written such an accomplished piece of work.

I bought this after reading his Tough Guy's Don't Dance, which was very good indeed, and having the desire to read another of his works decided to tackle this one which came with mixed reviews so I thought it may provide something of a challenge.

I needn't have worried. Mailer's characters and dialogue are second to none and you'd believe he was writing about people that he had met and spent some heavy-duty time with.

Read this book with an open mind and you'll be rewarded.
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on 14 August 2009
Stephen Rojack is (in the words of the publisher's blurb) a decorated war hero, a former Congressman and a certified public intellectual with his own television show. He is also a murderer. One night, in a drunken rage, he murders his estranged wife Deborah and then, pausing only to have sex with her German maid Ruta, pitches her body out of the window of her flat to make her death look like suicide. The police have their suspicions about Rojack, but cannot actually prove his involvement in his wife's death, and he is never charged with any crime. (That doesn't say a lot for the state of forensic science in the sixties). The rest of the book is taken up with Rojack's late-night Odyssey though the New York underworld, his relationship with a singer-cum-prostitute named Cherry and his bizarre interview with his father-in-law, Deborah's immensely wealthy father Barney Kelly.

The title "An American Dream" is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand it refers- ironically- to the patriotic ideology of the "American dream", the idea that it is America, of all the countries in the world, which provides its citizens with the optimum conditions for the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, it could be that Mailer intended his title to be interpreted quite literally, to suggest that Rojack's adventures never took place outside his imagination, that they are no more than a drink-fuelled hallucination. Certainly, the writing does at times take on a weird, nightmarish quality, a quality heightened by Mailer's lengthy, intricate, swirling and frequently obscure sentences. It is certainly suggested that Rojack is on the verge of madness; early in the book, before Deborah's murder, he hears the moon urging him to kill himself. The moon, of course, is frequently associated with insanity, hence the etymological link between "lunar" and "lunatic".

There are certain similarities with Hemingway's work. The prose styles of the two writers are very different (Hemingway generally being much terser), but Mailer is clearly writing in the same tradition of literary machismo. The book is written in the first person, with the world seen through the eyes of Rojack himself. This is a very male-oriented world; women generally enter into Rojack's life either as his bitter enemies (Deborah) or as sources of sexual gratification (Ruta, Cherry).

The book was immensely controversial when it was first published in the mid sixties, not only among the sort of conservatives who disapproved of any literary treatment of sex and violence but also because of Mailer's attitude to women. He adopts a deliberately amoral position towards Rojack's crime, which is never explicitly condemned. Rojack himself never expresses any remorse or regret at his wife's death; his only concern, apart from sex with Ruta, is to try and ensure that the blame does not fall on him. In earlier decades there was an unofficial literary convention that fictitious criminals, just as much as real-life ones, had to be seen to pay for their misdeeds, but in the sixties this was breaking down.

The book clearly has its admirers- the majority of those who have reviewed it here have awarded it either four or five stars- but I, quite frankly, loathed it. The theme of violent or sexual crimes committed by males against females is a difficult one, but there are male writers who have covered the topic well. Examples that come to mind are Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and John Fowles's "The Collector". Both those works are, like "An American Dream", first-person narratives, and both Nabokov and Fowles allow their anti-heroes Humbert Humbert and Frederick Clegg to condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

"An American Dream" is not in the same class. It is a lurid celebration of violence with a nasty streak of misogyny running throughout. The repulsive Rojack's pseudo-philosophical meanderings read less like self-condemnation than self-justification. He wants to blame everyone but himself; Deborah's death is either her own fault (he paints her as an obnoxious harridan) or that of society in general, a society which both Rojack and Mailer see as sick, although there is no meaningful analysis of that sickness or of the social causes of violence. No amount of protest against the crushing banality of society can justify the taking of another person's life. It is hardly surprising that the feminist critic Kate Millett called this book "an exercise in how to kill your wife and be happy ever after."
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on 14 January 2016
Excellent book - very exciting read as it shows a time when lifes expectations and reality were very different. The American Dream was something everyone aspired to - this book brings you back down with a bump. Love Norman Mailer - he is an amazing writer with a brilliant grasp of human nature.
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on 3 July 2014
Somehow I missed this one. Loved every second of it. Absolutely could not stop reading this weird wonderful novel of a man on the verge of suicide and an almost accidental murderer.
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on 1 September 2009
A well written and entertaining story of the lives of upper-class Americans and the treachery and intrigue that go hand in hand with success and privilege.
The prose is excellent in the first two chapters but gets watered down somewhat for the remainder of the book, but this does'nt detract from the general feeling that this is a work of quality fiction,and there are enough descriptive gems and insights to make it a classic.
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on 30 November 2011
This is a searing indictment of American life at a particular point in time but also a compellingly readable novel and classic Mailer.
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